Is the name Art Tatum familiar to you?
Those in the know still speak of Art Tatum as “the apotheosis of classic jazz piano–an intimidating, surpassing player in virtually every area.”
The amazing thing is that this prodigy was virtually blind from birth.
He was born in Toledo, Ohio in 1909. The vision in his left eye was impaired and there was none in his right. After some initial formal musical training, he was largely self-taught, learning to read sheet music with special glasses as well as by the Braille method. Piano rolls, commercial recordings, radio broadcasts, and contact in his formative years with various musicians in the Toledo and Cleveland areas all contributed to his musical development.
He sealed his reputation as a virtuoso pianist soon after his arrival in New York in 1932, especially among Harlem stride piano players like Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Playing in one of the legendary “cutting contests,” he blew away the competition with his hyperkinetic rendition of “Tea for Two.”
Word spread fast. A few years later the young Charlie Parker, freshly arrived in the City in 1939, took a dishwashing job at $9.00 a week at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem just so he could hear his hero play nightly. It’s no accident that many of the defining characteristics of Parker’s later bebop sound owe quite a debt to to Art Tatum.
Other forward-looking saxophone players also creatively adapted many of Tatum’s piano techniques, among them Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and John Coltrane.
What Tatum’s legacy represents–aside from his absolutely phenomenal command of the instrument, light touch and astounding speed–is a synthesis of early stride piano and touches of French impressionist sound with modernist harmonic and rhythmic innovations that were essential to an emerging bebop style.
For the next thirty-something years, until his death from uremia in 1956, Tatum challenged himself to grow. He was a formidable presence as a soloist, working his magic on the popular song repertory in particular. He was heard on radio, in recordings, and in the clubs of New York, Hollywood and Chicago, and in Europe, with a sprinkling of performances at such venues as New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, not to mention a cameo appearance in the 1947 movie The Fabulous Dorseys. In addition, for a time, he was the driving force in a trio where he was joined by Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass.
Cornetist and trumpet player, Rex Stewart, distills the essence of Tatum’s legacy in these words:
“One of the most significant aspects of Tatum’s artistry stemmed from his constant self-challenge. At the piano, Art seeming
delighted in creating impossible problems from the standpoint of harmonies and chord progressions. Then he would gleefully
improvise sequence upon sequenceuntil the phrase emerged as a complete entity within the structure of whatever composition
he happened to be playing.”
We are left to ponder the mystery of a genius that triumphed over what could have been crippling obstacles. What would Tatum’s auditory cortex have looked like ? How to explain his spatial sense, the astounding command of 88 keys, the fluid runs, the effortless cascades of notes in spite of such limited eyesight?
In one sense, his vision was pathetically weak; in another, it was magnificently powerful.
If you would like to learn more about Art Tatum, check out this Documentary Portrait: The Art of Jazz Piano