Art Tatum is one of the undisputed jazz greats, often said to be one of the greatest jazz piano players that the world has ever known. Beginning from the time he was young and continuing throughout his life, Tatum played the piano like no one ever could. He drew his inspiration from talented pianists like Fats Waller and James Price Johnson. However, his virtuoso style was heavily influenced by his favorite jazz pianist, Earl Hines, and is assimilated into many of his solo recordings. It was through this influence that Tatum was able to improvise tunes and invent harmonic melodies.
Like many jazz artists, most of Tatums performances took place in small clubs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. However, it was in New York where he made his first solo recordings. Over time, Tatum created a name for himself as the preeminent bop pianist, and his musical career grew tremendously. He made numerous recordings for Decca and Capital labels including countless solo and group recordings under record producer Norman Granz.
Tatum continued to deliver remarkable performances and some of his masterpieces included Tea for Two and Tiger Rag. His speedy delivery and astounding piano techniques remain a mystery to this day. Art Tatum was a genius and a musical prodigy that was admired by many jazz pianists like Fats Waller and classical pianists like Leopold Godowski and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Tatum was a force to reckon with and many did.
His most sought after performances were those that were recorded a year before his death during a private party at the home of the Warner Brothers musical director, Ray Heindorf. Over the years Tatum had become a master pianist and remarkable performer. Like every other musician, Tatum had his critics; however, they failed to understand his amazing improvisational style and his purely creative imagination that led to the delivery of awe-inspiring performances.
The legendary Art Tatum was a renowned jazz pianist, and his recordings remain eminent today. Born on October the 13th, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, he is among the most celebrated Jazz pianists for his brilliant recordings and his influence in Jazz music. Both his parents were musically inclined, seeing that his father played the guitar and his mother played both the piano and the violin. It was easy to tell where he got his inspiration and love for music as well as his exceptional playing abilities at a young age. Despite being partially blind, this never stopped him from achieving a musical dream that only a few would be able to realize.
He was considered a musical prodigy for his unique ability to listen to tunes and play them aurally. At a young age, he would listen to church hymns and music playing from the radio and then he would play the tunes on his familys home piano. Interestingly enough, he received formal training while in his teen years after attending the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. He also trained on the guitar and the violin.
Tatum took every opportunity that came his way to perform. His agility to catch tunes and play them on the piano wowed many. Driven and inspired by pianists like Fats Waller and James Price Johnson, Tatum finally made his first public performance at the age of 16 during an amateur contest program held at the Toledo radio station. His musical abilities stood out and this got him a deal with the radio station that allowed him to have his own program that aired in the morning.
It was the beginning of a successful musical career in jazz. Adelaide Hall, a famous jazz singer, was impressed with Tatums performance, and recruited him to work with her in New York as her accompanist. Tatum then recorded his first solo album in 1933. His style of playing was heavily influenced by his much-loved jazz pianist, Earl Hines. He would improvise tunes based on Earls recordings, and ultimately he became a guru at harmonizing melodies by altering chord progressions. This was an amazing technique for which Tatum was one of the early pioneers. Although he did not attract large crowds of people, nevertheless, his musical style propelled him to stardom within the jazz world. Notably, his unique style was also influenced by classical piano.
Tatum went on to perform and record in the coming years. He performed in various restaurants, radio stations and clubs like the Onyx Club in New York. He also frequented Los Angeles where he made numerous performances. However, some of his most notable performances were his solo piano recordings, which were recorded by an executive producer known as Norman Granz, who also arranged group performances with talents like Ben Webster, Lionel Hampton, Buddy de Franco, Roy Elridge, Louis Bellson, and Buddy Rich.
Sadly, like many musicians, Art Tatums success led him to become a heavy drinker. He died on the 5th of November, 1956, from uremia at the Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, an illness attributed to Kidney failure.
Some of Tatums well-known pieces include; Willow weep for me, Tea for two, Begin the beguine, Yesterdays, Night and Day, Deep purple, Tiga Rug and hundreds more. In 1989, Art Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Art Tatum was a man with extraordinary talent. Many consider him a jazz master because of his exceptionally unique and unusual ability to improvise tunes and harmonize melodies. He made numerous performances in New York clubs and recorded his first solo in 1932.
Influenced by the well-known pianists, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and Lee Sims, Tatum was a virtuoso at jazz piano. Lee Sims was an influential pop-pianist but it was Fats Wallers swing style that greatly inspired Tatums style. Tatums swinging melodic tunes illustrated his great control and authority in his pianistic technique. Some of his most famous recordings that showcased his swing jazz style include Tea for Two, Tiger Rag, Sweet Lorraine, among others. Earl Hines influence is seen in Tatums recordings such as Fine and dandy, which was a unique fusion of blues, extended harmonic patterns, classical piano nuances and the jazz swing style. Other recordings such as Sweet Lorraine had the similar gentle swing style, perfectly infused with a medium tempo and subtle melodies.
Tatum was able to set his improvisations into arrangements such as Tea for Two and his innovative creativity for harmonizing melodies by altering the supporting chord progressions is seen in his solo recordings. In some of his other recordings such as Aunt Hagars Blues, there was the extensive use of dissonance in order to accomplish a blues effect. He was the first pianist to use this kind of technique in a swing style. Notably, Tatums style combined swing, stride, classical, boogie-woogie and jazz elements.
Tatums solo recordings were some of his best work. His first set titled “Art Tatum: The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces,”, comprised 69 pieces. Numerous recordings followed after including group collaborations with the likes of the superb alto saxophonist Benny Carter, the trumpet master Roy Elridge and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. However, the best collaboration was of Tatum and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. Some of the recordings they did together include Gone with the Wind, Where or When and All the Things You Are, just to name a few.
Videos and Recordings
Art Tatum playing Tea for Two: