Art Tatum

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Art Tatum, Vogue Room, NYC, 1948.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

Arthur "Art" Tatum (born October 13, 1909 in Toledo , Ohio , † November 5, 1956 in Los Angeles , California ) was one of the most important American piano virtuosos and innovators of jazz .


Arthur Tatum was born in Toledo, where he spent his youth and began to play the piano. From birth he suffered from cataracts and was blind in one eye while the eyesight was severely impaired in the other. However, Tatum had perfect pitch and is said to have had an extraordinary acoustic memory. Coming from a musical family, he received formal classical music training at various schools, first at the Jefferson School of the Handicapped in Toledo, then at the School for the Blind in Columbus and the Toledo School of Music, where, in addition to piano, he also studied violin, guitar and possibly Braille - Blind grades learned. His private teacher Overton C. Rainey tried to push him towards concert pianist, but Tatum's preferred pianist and (in his own words) his role model was soon Fats Waller . Other influences came from James P. Johnson and Earl Hines . He constantly trained his dexterity by running a hazelnut quickly through his fingers until it became shiny and smooth.

As a young man, Tatum played a lot in clubs in Toledo, Detroit and Cleveland and from 1927 for a local radio station (WSPD in Toledo), first in commercial breaks, then regularly for 15 minutes a day for about two years. In 1932 the singer Adelaide Hall heard him , who then offered him to accompany her on tours and with whom he stayed for two years. With Hall he came to New York in the same year . Immediately after his arrival Willie The Lion Smith , Fats Waller and James P. Johnson challenged him to a "Cutting Contest", which he won with ease, as well as numerous other such competitions against challengers. In general, he was the last to start, although he liked to quote the material of his predecessors in variations.

He made his first recordings in August 1932 with Adelaide Hall, and made his first solo record in March 1933 ( Tiger Rag , Tea For Two , Sophisticated Lady , St. Louis Blues ). After his time with Hall, he initially had an engagement in the Onyx Club, went to Cleveland in early 1935 and then played for a long time in 1935 at the Three Deuces Club in Chicago , where he also met Earl Hines. In 1936 he went to Los Angeles, where he played in well-known clubs and at parties of well-known show personalities as well as on the radio show by Bing Crosby . After a year in California, he returned to New York in 1937, where he played in the Famous Door Club . After that, he moved regularly between Los Angeles, New York and Chicago for a while. In May 1937 he succeeded for the first time to land a hit on the Billboard charts; his sextet version of Body and Soul reached 19th place. In 1938 he made a successful tour of England, his only appearance abroad. In contrast to his American audience, the English listened to his game quietly as if in a concert hall, which Tatum was pleasantly impressed by. In New York, he therefore preferred a similarly intimate atmosphere in clubs like Kelly's Stables and Café Society . In August 1939, his solo piano version of "Tea for Two" reached # 18 on the charts.

During these years Art Tatum became one of the major protagonists of jazz. After his regular appearances, he often played in clubs for hours - although his heavy alcohol consumption should not have affected his game much - and impressed in numerous competitions between jazz pianists, which often resulted, not only with his outstanding musicality, but also with his stupendous dexterity and fluency. No other jazz pianist could play as fast as Art Tatum. However, he is said to have always allowed his opponents to play in front of him, because no one after him would have been able to follow Tatum's piano technical level by playing. Tatum was quite generous with advice to up-and-coming pianists such as: B. Mary Lou Williams and Billy Taylor remembered.

In 1943 he founded a trio with the bassist Slam Stewart and the drummer , pianist and guitarist Tiny Grimes (later replaced by Everett Barksdale ) , with which he was relatively successful. The trio (with a fluctuating participation of Stewart) stayed together for about two years and was one of the models for later piano trios such as those of Oscar Peterson and Lennie Tristano . Tatum remained rather unknown to the general public. That may have been due to his aversion to bigger concerts. During the years 1945 to 1952 he recorded relatively little. That only changed when it was produced from 1953 by Norman Granz , who made around 70 solo recordings in 1953 alone and another 121 in the following years. Tatum was no longer time-limited as with the old 78 records. He had already refined his pieces into an "ideal shape" so that z. For example, in the first recording session of 69 tracks, only three required a second take. In addition to solo recordings, Granz also made recordings in smaller ensembles with musicians such as Benny Carter , Roy Eldridge , Lionel Hampton , Ben Webster , Buddy DeFranco , Buddy Rich , Louie Bellson . From the mid-1940s he was at the forefront of the jazz magazines' critic polls. In 1944 he received the Esquire Gold Award and a year later the Silver Award from Esquire Magazine. In 1945 he won the Metronome Polls and from 1954 to 1956 he was a three-time winner in the Down Beat Critic Polls.

Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 in Los Angeles, at the height of his career (a second European tour was planned by Granz), of complications from kidney failure ( uremia ).

His influence

Art Tatum (right) with Phil Moore (2nd from left) in front of the New York Downbeat, around 1947.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

Today one knows of Tatum's music mainly his idiosyncratic interpretations of well-known classics of jazz; with extremely fast runs and surprising turns. His style paved the way for bebop . In contrast to many other piano virtuosos, Tatum never sacrificed music for the mere effect.

Major jazz pianists such as Duke Ellington , Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell were influenced by him. Charlie Parker is said to have applied for a dishwasher in a New York restaurant as a teenager, only to be able to hear Art Tatum, who played there regularly.

Oscar Peterson is said to have believed when he first heard Tatum play that two pianists were playing at the same time; so dense and complex was the sound that Tatum was able to play on the piano. Peterson - himself one of the masters of the jazz piano - described Art Tatum as the greatest jazz instrumentalist of all time. So the legend is spread that Wladimir Horowitz was moved to tears by Tatum's game.

Fats Waller, who perhaps most shaped and inspired Tatum, was deeply impressed by Tatum's piano playing. When Waller was playing in a nightclub one evening that Tatum was also a guest. Waller said at the introduction:

"I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight."

"I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight."

On another occasion he said:

“When that man turns on the powerhouse, don't no one play him down. He sounds like a brass band. "

“When this man gets going, nobody can hold a candle to him. It sounds like a whole marching band. "

- Fats Waller

Leonard Feather called him the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of the instrument ("The greatest soloist in Jazz History - regardless of instrument").


Stride piano accompaniment in Art Tatum's title I Surrender Dear

Art Tatum is one of the most influential jazz pianists, although he did not leave a school of his own in that he completed existing styles and, coming from swing, as a pioneer of bop, prepared its renewal in postbop or modern jazz. Tatum was a connoisseur of classical and impressionist music and commanded the most modern harmonic knowledge, which is why he constantly reinterpreted and reinterpreted harmonies. Flexibility based on rhythmic security, especially in solo play, in the swinging sense of time (time) let him improvise phrase by phrase over the mere chord changes of a piece (changes), where melodies were varied beforehand in swing. The basis for this security is the structural organization that the ragtime stride gives or demands to the standard pieces (for example, how he arranges Tea For Two ), and this remains so with Tatum even if he leaves this style. His influence extends beyond the piano.

Walking Bass in tenths (Art Tatum: Is not Misbehavin ' ) in Ragtime Stride
listen ? / iAudio file / audio sample

He developed the stride style of James P. Johnson, Willie The Lion Smith and Fats Waller to a timeless style, and was able to incorporate various influences into it. He especially refined the walking decimal basses. After Kunzler, the decime is the third voice in the accompaniment to the bass and the chords brought to the offbeat , which Tatum also worked out or used as a motif. Although he played the blues less often , he moved and mixed all styles, including boogie and blues.

His technical, harmonic and rhythmic certainty allowed him to modulate extensively or to stay in the key for a long time without repeating himself. However, often only his virtuosity was observed, and above the sheer speed, Tatum usually played very quickly, the listener could quickly become musically overwhelmed and find it difficult or too complex, which led to a wrong assessment. His dexterity, like his technique, was a means of expressing musical thoughts and not mere virtuosity. Because Tatum mostly only appeared in a piano trio or solo, it takes a bit of musical fantasy to transfer his music to other instruments so that one can recognize his influence in jazz. After a style crisis in the mid-1950s, he took stock of his late works from 1953-55, the Tatum Solo Masterpieces and 1956 The Tatum Group Masterpieces .

In his inventiveness in playing standards, which he also varied rhythmically, he was less an improviser than an arranger. Its ornamentation and variations were sometimes perceived as exaggerated. He harmoniously refined the possibilities by including the major intervals ninth (9), undezime (11) and treadmill (13) in his harmonies.

Tatum demonstrates his ability to play modern jazz piano with its own sound, such as Begin the Beguine and Willow Weep for Me, especially with standard pieces that stimulate rhythmic and thematic editing .

Discographic notes



  • James Lester Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum , Oxford University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-19-509640-1
  • Arrigo Polillo Jazz , Piper, Herbig Verlag 2003 (chapter on Tatum)
  • Gunther Schuller The Swing Era , 1989
  • Arnold Laubach, Ray Spencer Art Tatum - a guide to his recorded music , Scarecrow Press 1982 (Studies in Jazz, No. 2, Rutgers University)
  • André Hodeir The Genius of Art Tatum , Jazz Hot, June 1955, reprinted in Down Beat, August 10, 1955, reprinted in Martin Williams (ed.) The Art of Jazz 1962 (a controversial early review of Tatum's solo masterpieces)
  • Felicity Howlett, J. Bradford Robinson, Article Tatum in New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 1995 (and Howlett's PhD at Cornell University: An Introduction to Art Tatums Performance Approaches: Composition, Improvisation and Melodic Variation , 1983)
  • Mark Lehmstedt , Art Tatum. A biography , Lehmstedt-Verlag, Leipzig 2009, ISBN 3-937146-80-6

Web links

Commons : Art Tatum  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Notes / individual evidence

  1. The exact cause of his blindness is unknown. Diseases such as scarlet fever, diphtheria or measles are suspected. Thanks to numerous operations, his eyesight improved from the age of ten. At the age of about twenty he was beaten up in the street and as a result went completely blind in one eye.
  2. according to statements by Teddy Wilson and Eddie Barefield
  3. after Rex Stewart , Jazz Masters , literally: "He constantly manipulated a filbert nut through his fingers, so quickly that if you tried to watch him, the vision blurred. He worked with one nut until it became sleek and shiny. "
  4. In his book Jazz, the critic André Hodeir addresses the elaborate form of Tatum's improvisations by comparing him to a professor who writes brilliant mathematical formulas on a blackboard and then continues in the same way on an entirely different subject. Hodeir even goes so far that he denies Tatum - at least in the recordings - with all his gifts the talent of continuous development of musical thoughts in improvisations ("the gift to contuinity"), in contrast to Fats Waller, for example.
  5. Hank Jones and Billy Taylor (RAM file; 0 kB) remember. Schuller, on the other hand, considers the fact that Horowitz was an outspoken admirer of Tatum to be a myth. He sees it as just a patronage attitude of many classical pianists towards jazz musicians. Schuller The Swing Era , p. 479
  6. quoted in Robert Doerschuk The Giants of Jazz Piano
  7. Martin Kunzler , Jazzlexikon , Rowohlt
  8. ^ Carr, Fairweather, Priestley, Jazz Rough Guide , Metzler