The Greatest Soloist in the History of Jazz

TatumIn the spring of 1970, still a sophomore in college, I discovered Art Tatum via a Columbia LP, “Piano Starts Here.” Despite the fact that Tatum had only been dead for 14 years, I had never heard of him, having been weaned on such jazz pianists as Teddy Wilson, Eddie Heywood, Errol Garner, Duke Ellington, Billy Taylor Jr., Dave Brubeck and Ramsey Lewis. Not knowing what to expect, I put the record on. I was completely blown away. Yes, the speed and accuracy of Tatum’s playing was a large part of what blew me away, but it wasn’t just that. It was the wild creativity and open form of his improvising that impressed me: the fact that he could alternate between the regular tonality of the tune he was playing and what I came to know as “outside” jazz: pentatonic scales, chromatics that shifted him into remote keys, upper harmonics that suddenly became part of the melodic structure, and even more interesting, a way of fractioning the beat not only within a single bar but even within a two-beat segment. In fact, what Tatum did with music was so complex, and delivered at such a tremendous rate of speed, that (I learned later) a number of critics (such as Gunther Schuller) and rival jazz musicians (like Art Hodes and Keith Jarrett) considered Tatum nothing more than a stunt player. Jazz critic Ted Gioia compared Tatum’s playing to a “player piano on steroids,” while Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era, heavily criticized his use of full-keyboard arpeggios and glissando runs. To them, and many others, Tatum was not a player of “substance” because he was considered to be mostly flash.

Art+Tatum+Piano+Starts+Here+534369There is another reason why some jazz pianists and critics disliked Tatum, a much more sinister reason, and that was a form of racism. In the early ‘30s, when he first emerged, most jazz pianists, particularly African-American jazz pianists, were of the “funky” school of music. They played in a “dirtier,” more bluesy way than Tatum, whose sound was so refined that he was often mistaken on records for a white man. This simply would not do. Not only was jazz not supposed to be this refined and sophisticated, but African-American jazz musicians in particular weren’t supposed to be refined. Meade Lux Lewis, one of the early proponents of boogie woogie, learned this lesson when he made recordings on the celeste and harpsichord for Blue Note records, and to a certain extent this worked against Tatum. Although he could, and did, play the blues and play them very well—Jay McShann, a pianist not known for being charitable towards his peers, said that Tatum was the greatest blues pianist he ever heard—it was not a genre he played or recorded very often. Most of his solos fit into the category of Baroque in the sense that they were ornate, almost overblown structures, filled to the brim with not only a plethora of notes but also ideas, crammed together so tightly that it took an expert musician to unravel his musical thoughts and describe literally what he was doing. This did not fit the narrative of “down and dirty” jazz, thus Tatum was brushed to the side as an anomaly.

But this attitude towards Tatum was the minority, particularly among other pianists, most of whom considered him an unparalleled genius. Duke Ellington, introduced in a club where Tatum was playing in 1938 by his manager, Irving Mills, stood up to acknowledge the applause but wouldn’t play himself: “I have a clause in my contract,” he joked, “that says I don’t play piano when Art Tatum is in the same room.” Both Teddy Wilson and Oscar Peterson flatly admitted that their styles grew out of Tatum, which makes sense since both pianists also played in a fairly flashy, note-filled manner, but due to his harmonic and rhythmic innovations he also exerted some influence on Nat “King” Cole, Bill Evans, and even (to a lesser extent) Thelonious Monk (who usually cited Ellington as a principal influence). The first time James P. Johnson, inventor of stride piano and one of the seminal pianists in jazz history, first heard Tatum play, his reaction was, “When Tatum played Tea For Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.” Fats Waller, an even more polished pianist than Johnson who was said to have the “best left hand in jazz,” was even more effulgent. Spotting Tatum in a nightclub audience one night, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight God is in the house.” Earl Hines, the pianist who Tatum himself admired the most (he bought every Hines record that came out and studied it), was so frightened of him that he wouldn’t even be in his presence. Bud Powell, the king of bop piano, told Tatum in 1950, “Man, I’m going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you’re ready.” Tatum laughed and replied, “Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I’ll do with my left.” Powell never took up the challenge.

Yet there has never been a biopic on Tatum (although Toledo’s PBS station once ran a half-hour documentary on his life) and only one written biography because, aside from his playing, there wasn’t much to know. Born on October 13, 1909 to a Toledo barber, Tatum had cataracts in his eyes since birth. He had no vision in his left eye and limited vision in his Tatum sued for divorceright. A series of operations improved his sight somewhat, but an assault in 1930 reversed those gains. For the rest of his life, Tatum could only just read the values on playing cards by holding them up to the corner of his partially sighted eye. In the 1950s a surgeon offered to try a new procedure on him that could improve his sight or, if it failed, leave him totally blind. He was too frightened to go through with it. One of the few public moments of his life was when his wife Ruby filed for divorce in the 1950s; she didn’t even ask for alimony but a flat payment of $3,250 and possession of their home. The reason was desertion, but in Tatum’s case it wasn’t usually for other women. His problem was that he never stopped playing or drinking. All night, every night, he would play after hours, polishing off jugs of liquor as he played deep into the night. Tatum literally lived to play.

Lee Sims

Although Tatum usually told interviewers that his principal influence was Fats Waller, neither I nor one of his biographers, James Lester, agrees with this. Tatum had only minimal exposure to Waller through a few records – Fats didn’t really start to record prolifically until after 1929 – and there aren’t that many “Waller-isms” in his playing, but he used to listen to Earl Hines broadcast from Chicago when he lived in Toledo, and was also greatly enamored of a white “piano stylist,” Lee Sims. Sims (1898-1966) was not a jazz musician; he didn’t improvise – all of his effects were worked out ahead of time – and he didn’t swing, but he had three qualities that Tatum appreciated. The first was his touch, soft and velvety like Tatum’s own; the second was his rhapsodic arrangements of his own and others’ tunes, which included tempo changes, glittering keyboard runs, and harmonies borrowed from French classical composers like Debussy and Ravel; and the third was his ability to conceive a song “orchestrally.” You can hear three excellent examples of Sims’ abilities, including one original piece of his own, at the Internet Archive by clicking HEREBut Tatum kept these influences a closely guarded secret: not even Hines or Sims themselves ever knew that he admired them, and neither pianist was really that well known in New York prior to Tatum’s arrival in 1932, thus he seemed to his peers as if his style sprang up out of nowhere.

One of the few things that bothered Tatum was the fact that he was relegated to the jazz world because of his race and physical disability. He always felt that he could be one of the world’s great concert pianists if given the chance, a verdict verified by his friend, concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz was so impressed by Tatum that he had him over to his New York apartment several times. Once, Horowitz wanted to impress Tatum in return, so he practiced one whole chorus of a pop number in which he played some worked-out improvisations. Tatum liked what he heard, and said, “That was fine, Vlad…don’t stop there, play another chorus!” But one chorus was all that Horowitz could play because it was all he had practiced. Years later, after Tatum’s death, Horowitz said that he wouldn’t have been considered the world’s greatest pianist if Art Tatum had been white.

Shortly after I discovered Tatum, I saw in one of the New York papers that a local jazz radio show host, Ed Beach, was going to start a month-long series of shows featuring Tatum (on WRVR-FM). I listened, enthralled, to Beach night after night (his show ran five nights a week) while he played the remarkable series of recordings that producer Norman Granz made of Tatum in the last years of his life. Beach introduced each show in the series the same way: he was “the greatest soloist in the history of jazz, regardless of instrument.”

There were other reasons, besides the complexity of his improvisations, why Tatum never quite broke into a level of popularity accorded other jazz pianists: he was heavy-set, homely, dumpy, and—believe it or not—uninteresting to watch because there wasn’t anything to see. Tatum sat very erect at the keyboard, his hands appearing to float motionless above the keys while the most amazing music emerged from the keyboard. His self-taught fingering included amazing two-fingered runs and he held his hands in a flat manner just above the keys. This gave viewers the impression that his hands scarcely moved at all while his fingers flew like hummingbirds, which added to the puzzle and mystique of how on earth he did what he did. Tatum was ambidextrous, able to play anything with either hand, cross voices and sometimes give the effect of two pianists playing four hands. When pianist Hank Jones got the chance to watch him, he was astonished at how little physical motion was involved: “When I finally met him and got a chance to hear him play in person, it seemed as if he wasn’t really exerting much effort, he had an effortless way of playing. It was deceptive. You’d watch him and you couldn’t believe what was coming out, what was reaching your ears. He didn’t have that much motion at the piano. He didn’t make a big show of moving around and waving his hands and going through all sorts of physical gyrations to produce the music that he produced, so that in itself is amazing.” Compared to such ebullient pianists as Waller, Nat Cole, Peterson and Erroll Garner, Tatum was nothing much to see.

As for those full-keyboard glissando runs, some writers have opined that Tatum did this to help him negotiate the keyboard from one end to the other since he was mostly blind, but most others (including myself) think it was one of his few “flashy” techniques designed to impress musically naïve listeners. After all, this was a trick used by society and cocktail pianists ranging from Eddy Duchin to Liberace, and there is no question that he did not use this trick in his earlier recordings, in the few after-hours recordings that exist, or in his mid-1940s trio performances with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. Tatum’s first studio recordings were made accompanying singer Adelaide Hall in 1932, but in recent years some Ampico-QRS piano rolls have been discovered from 1930, when he was only 20 years old, and his mature style is already evident. These include performances of Sweet Lorraine, Get Happy and Tea for Two, each of them different in several respects even from his very first solo recordings of these songs.

Tra for Two 1In one of the few interviews he gave, with Voice of America jazz DJ Willis Conover, he was asked why he played some of his tunes in person the same way he played them on his records. Tatum’s answer was that he wanted to play them differently each time, but so many people came to the nightclubs to see him play exactly the same way he did on the records that he didn’t have the heart to disappoint them. This, too, is astonishing: how many musicians can remember the improvisations they played on a record 15 years later? Most can’t even remember their improvisations three days later unless they heard them. That being said, he certainly didn’t repeat his improvisations ad infiniium; on the contrary, the dozens of hours of live material that survive of his playing indicate that he constantly invented new renditions. Yet there were certain tunes in which he kept similar licks–for instance, he almost always played a little snippet from Ferde Grofe’s On the Trail at the end of the first chorus of Tenderly, and in at least one case, his justly famous improvisation on Yesterdays, he played virtually the same solo every time. Both his Clef recording from 1954 and a TV appearance on the Spike Jones Show are virtually the same as his 1949 Shrine Auditorium performance, the one issued on Piano Starts Here.

His ear and his technical facility remained astounding throughout his career. In his biography Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum  (Oxford University Press, 1994), James Lester interviewed an elderly Les Paul who still recalled a jam session (complete with a full cooler of beer) given in a mortuary! Upon arriving, Tatum heard one of the other pianists playing, and there were several there, including Teddy Wilson, Marlowe Morris and Billy Kyle. Art listened and then asked Paul, “Is that F# key stuck?” Paul admitted it was. A moment later he asked, “Is that E stuck?” Paul answered, “Yeah, it’s down too.” Tatum asked, “Any others down?” “No, those are the only two.” Tatum asked for another beer, then announced he was ready to play. All of the musicians were amazed. “Whenever he’d make a run down,” Paul remembered, “he’d have those two keys pulled up…with his other hand…And when he hit ’em and they were down, why, he’d pull ’em up again with his other hand. Which just stunned everybody, that this guy had it all worked out before he went up there.”

Dissecting his solos can be tough going since they were often so ornate and “busy.” Jazz critic Jed Distler made eight Tatum transcriptions that can be downloaded here: Book – Art_Tatum_-_Jazz_Piano_Solos_2. Seeing Tatum’s work in score form is possibly even more intimidating than just listening to him, since so many of the figures he played—including those in contrary motion between the two hands—look completely intimidating. Even today, in the 21st century, most pianists have not caught up to Tatum because they can’t. Recently an album of his solos was released in which his early recordings were transferred to a MIDI. The MIDI could play them, but not with the warmth and color that Tatum imparted to the recorded versions.

Tatum’s lack of popularity was reflected by his recording contracts. Initially a young sensation, he made his first records for Brunswick before being invited by Jack Kapp to jump over to his new Decca label. He recorded only a dozen solo titles for Decca in 1934 before being let go; his only activity for the next three years was a privately-recorded session in Hollywood in September 1935 and a rejected Decca master of Take Me Back to My Boots and Saddle in December of that year. Then he returned to Decca in 1937 for four band numbers and four more solos; 1939 saw two whole solos issued; then in 1940, Kapp became generous and allowed him to make 15 titles (one of them, Sweet Emaline, My Gal was rejected). Four more solos in 1940, then they kicked him out until he returned with a band to back blues singer Joe Turner in 1941. In 1942, for some strange reason, RCA Victor let him make but one record (two solos) and then cut him loose. In 1943 he formed the first of his trios, with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. They were popular with musicians but not the general public—Nat Cole, with a similar trio, had already established himself as a fan favorite in that format—so he ended up making his trio records for such small labels as Comet and Stinson. Moe Asch, who later founded Folkways records, also allowed him to make some solo 78s for his company.

When Tatum started his second trio in the late 1940s (the one with Everett Barksdale on guitar), he was beckoned by Capitol Records to make some solo and trio recordings. By 1952, he was cut adrift once again. No matter how you sliced it, Tatum was simply not commercial enough to appeal to a wide audience. His playing was too fast and too dense for the average ear to pick up on. Then, in December 1953, producer Norman Granz stepped in.

This was undoubtedly the high watermark of Tatum’s career, the months between December 28, 1953 and September 11, 1956 when Granz—at that time still putting out records under his Clef and Norgran labels (Verve was still in the future)—recorded marathon sessions of Tatum playing solos (125 of them!) and small group performances (another 80 or so). These recordings were made, chronologically, as follows:

Tatum Vol 3Solo recordings: 34 titles recorded December 28, 1953 and 35 more titles recorded the next day (69 titles in two days!) and 26 more titles recorded on April 22, 1954.

Trio recordings with alto saxist Benny Carter and drummer Louis Bellson recorded June 25, 1954.

More solo recordings, 26 titles, recorded on January 19, 1955, followed by marathon ensemble sessions: Tatum-Roy Eldridge-John Simmons-Alvin Stoller in March 1955, two albums’ worth of titles with Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich on August 1, 1955, and one of his most interesting sessions, a sextet with Tatum, trumpeter Harry Edison, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Red Callender and Buddy Rich on September 7, 1955.

And 1956, Tatum’s last year of life, was equally busy: a trio session with Callender and Jo Jones on January 27; a quartet with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco, Callender and drummer Bill Douglass on February 6; four more (last) solo performances recorded on August 15; and yet another quartet session, with tenor saxist Ben Webster, Callender and Douglass on September 11. Not all of these were able to be issued during Tatum’s lifetime, but happily, most of them were. When Granz sold the Verve label to MGM in 1963, he thought they would treat his legacy with care, but after seeing the entire Tatum series gutted from the catalog he started yet another label, Pablo, in 1973, bought all the Tatum masters from Verve, and reissued them himself (again on LP).

All through this period when he recorded his last, great legacy, Tatum continued to play at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Tatum’s Wikipedia page claims that he gave his last public performance there in April 1956, but this was just his last performance in Detroit. I have a radio broadcast of him performing in a trio with guitarist Everett Barksdale and bassist Bill Pemberton at Olivia’s Patio Lounge in Washington, DC in October 1956. He must have been very ill by that time—he died shortly thereafter, on November 5, 1956, at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure)—but you’d never know it from his playing. He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved by his last wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991 so she could ultimately be buried next to him, although his headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest.

It boggles the mind to consider that, unlike Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, Tatum never played in Carnegie Hall or its subsidiary, Carnegie Recital Hall—or in New York’s Town Hall or any other real concert venue. Except for his 1949 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles—not even a solo Tatum event, but merely part of a “Just Jazz” concert staged by Granz—Tatum never played a solo concert at any venue, not even the Newport Jazz Festival. Just bars, nightclubs and cocktail lounges, like some traveling vagabond.

Tatum 2If this paean to Art Tatum reads rather more sedately than some of my other musicians’ profiles, I assure you that it is not from lack of enthusiasm or respect. I still consider Tatum the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived, with Earl Hines coming in at No. 2, but I hereby issue a warning. Careful listening to Art Tatum for longer than 20 minutes at a stretch can give you a severe headache because there’s just too much to analyze. Tatum wasn’t an easy artist to love—his music was too rigorous in structure and intellectual in approach for that—but he was certainly an artist to admire and one whose legacy will never be forgotten.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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5 thoughts on “The Greatest Soloist in the History of Jazz

  1. Terence Smith says:

    This beautiful tribute to Art Tatum
    does something not easily done:
    It does justice to Tatum in words
    and explains pretty clearly why
    most pianists say Tatum is the
    greatest “jazz” pianist, and is
    absolute top tier of musical creation
    of any category. I guess he
    transcends category.

    I wonder how many readers smiled
    in recognition at the last paragraph.
    I did. I too, can only listen to Tatum
    for a while and then feel overwhelmed-
    I have heard several others who love
    his work say the same. It’s just too much.

    There is a part of Oscar Levant’s memoir
    in which he relates Gershwin inviting all
    the classical bigwigs to a party to unveil Tatum
    to musical ‘society.” Levant says they were
    amazed and dumbfounded by the
    obvious genius of the first hour
    of constant, relentless variations on
    ( I think it was) “LIza.” But Levant says
    after that it was ho-hum, they took the
    next hour for granted and dismissed it
    as a trick, too overwhelmed
    mentally to hear any longer how
    endlessly creative !

    I once read a transcript of Hank Jones
    listening to a Tatum record. He asked to hear it three
    times over, and then said: “Those runs. They’re not
    decorative. They are an essential part of the concept
    and the architecture. Not ornamental.”

    Another irony: I can listen to Tatum play
    simple Blues forms forever. He was maybe the best
    Blues player ever, finding endless melody and
    invention there in a way that seems to
    never tire, always replenish.

    Thank you Lyn Bayley for your so aptly titled essay.


  2. Rick says:

    I agree with the authors opinions about Art Tatum. I never really warmed up to Earl Fatha Hines, despite having one of his albums which I’ve listened to several times.


    • For what it’s worth, it took me half my life to appreciate Earl Hines BECAUSE his playing, for me, lacked warmth and sounded somewhat machine-like, but once you get “inside his head,” so to speak, you’ll understand how great he was. Tatum admired him greatly, and that’s good enough for me!


  3. Gary Maxwell says:

    I thank you most sincerely for these wonderful stories about Mr. Tatum. It would appear that what James Joyce is to literature, Art Tatum is to Music, especially Jazz.


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