Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 13 October 1909, Toledo OH; d 5 November 1956, Los Angeles CA) Pianist, without doubt the greatest in the history of jazz, his astonishing technique admired by everyone else who played the instrument, including Horowitz, Rachmaninoff and Godowski, as well as George Gershwin. Allegedly, one of the great concert pianists, having heard his improvisation on a pop song, asked him how long it had taken him to learn it; he replied, 'Learn it? I just made it up!' Virtually blind from birth, he attended special schools in Columbus and Toledo; began gigging as a teenager, toured with Adelaide Hall '32-3, maling his first solo recording ('Tiger Rag') in '32 at his first session with Hall. (Later solo broadcast Standard Transcriptions '35-43 have benn issued on two-CD The Standard Sessions on Music and Arts.) He recorded exclusively for Decca into the '40s including with combo '37 and '41 ('Body And Soul' by Art Tatum and His Swingsters '37, solo 'Tea For Two' '39 were hits according to Pop Memories). He formed a trio '43 with Slam Stewart, Tiny Grimes on guitar (later Everett Barksdale). The only guitarist to play with him who may have been his equal in facility was Les Paul '44. Tatum was neglected in the late '40s, went two years without any commercial recordings, recorded solo for Capitol in '49, then extensively for Norman Granz until he died of uraemia.

He may have been influenced by the harmonic richness of Duke Ellington's music; he admitted the influence of Fats Waller, who announced in a club with Tatum present, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight God is in the house.' Like many of the greatest musicians since Bach, Tatum summarized everything that had gone before, in his case adding such rich invention that he immediately influenced everybody else. He did not write any music down, but embroidered pop songs; in fact as with all the great improvising musicians from Couperin through to the 19th century Romantics Liszt and Chopin, the embroidery was an integral part of the musical substance. This was often over the heads of lay listeners, who complained that he played too many notes; his trio recordings were the most popular because the format forced him to simplify his invention, making things easier for the public. But after-hours recordings made '40-1 by jazz buff Jerry Newman captured a sheer relaxed beauty (LP God Is In The House '73 on Polydor, later on a HighNote CD), showing his ability to adapt to out-of-tune pianos and quote Mozart as he did it (also a rare, amusing vocal on 'Knockin' Myself Out').

Countless compilations and reissues included The Complete Brunswick And Decca Recordings 1932-1941 on Affinity UK (three CDs including tracks with Hall etc), helpings of the same material on Solos and I Got Rhythm on MCA USA, The V-Discs (solo, quartet, trio '44-6) on Black Lion, the Gene Norman Presents concerts At The Crescendo (two vols on GNP), live Piano Starts Here on Columbia from the Shrine Auditorium, many more on ASV, Pearl, Classics etc. The Granz recordings are now on Pablo as The Solo Masterpieces and The Group Masterpieces, also on separate CDs: nine small-group sets mostly include trios with Lionel Hampton/Buddy Rich, Red Callender/Jo Jones, Benny Carter/Louie Bellson; a sextet with Hampton, Rich, Callender, Harry Edison, Barney Kessel; and quartets: with Roy Eldridge, John Simmons on bass, Alvin Stoller on drums; with Buddy DeFranco, Callender and drummer Bill Douglass; with Ben Webster, Callender and Douglass: the last, made less than two months before Tatum died, is one of the most beautiful jazz records of all time. Edison is superb in the sextet and the quartet with DeFranco is also very fine. He recorded at the Hollywood home of Ray Heindorf (music director at Warner Brothers) '50 and '55, all 39 tracks compiled on 20th Century Piano Genius on Verve '96, this latest issue prompting Clive Davis in The Times of London to ask, 'were Tatum's immense skills ever fully stretched by the demands of the Tin Pan Alley form?' Steve Mayer Plays Art Tatum on ASV in the early '90s had Mayer playing 15 transcribed performances very well, interesting for the continuing increase in technical skill among musicians in general and for the tiny differences of stress on notes and chords compared to the originals.