Granz’ Art Tatum Recordings: A Piano Method for Jazz

This was intended to be a thorough review of all 199 recordings that Art Tatum made for Norman Granz’s Clef and Verve Labels, but due to health problems I must stop the review at this time. I was only able to analyze his first 36 piano solos, but I think that what I was able to finish has some value to readers, thus I am publishing it. UPDATE 2/12/2023: I am continuing to add to this article as time and my health permits. Writing about three or four Tatum performances at a time only takes me about 45 minutes, less time than if I am reviewing a complete CD, so I will continue to work on it as long as I can.

I did, however, manage to upload all of my remastered versions of his solo recordings on the Internet Archive before my health problems worsen, thus I am happy to pass these page links on to you:

December 28, 1953 solos

December 29, 1953 solos

April 22, 1954 solos

January 19, 1955 solos

And now, the aborted article.

Recorded December 28, 1953: 1. Can’t We Be Friends? (Swift-James). 2. This Can’t Be Love (Rodgers-Hart). 3. Elegie (Massenet). 4. Memories of You (Blake-Razaf). 5. Over the Rainbow (Arlen-Harburg). 6. If You Hadn’t Gone Away (Brown-Rose-Henderson). 7. Body and Soul (Green-Heyman-Sour-Eyton). 8. The Man I Love (G. & I. Gershwin). 9. Makin’ Whoopee (Donaldson-Kahn). 10. September Song (Weill-Anderson). 11. Begin the Beguine (Cole Porter). 12. Humoresque (Dvořák). 13. Louise (Whiting-Robin). 14. Love for Sale (Cole Porter). 15. Judy (Hoagy Carmichael). 16. I’m Comin’, Virginia (Heywood-Cook). 17. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (Barris-Koehler-Moll). 18. Dixieland Band (Hanighen-Mercer). 19. Embraceable You (G. & I. Gershwin). 20. Come Rain or Come Shine (Arlen-Mercer). 21. Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ (Ellington-Strayhorn-Gaines). 22. There Will Never Be Another You (Gordon-Warren). 23. Tenderly (Lawrence-Gross). 24. What Does It Take? (Burke-Van Heusen). 25. You Took Advantage of Me (Rodgers-Hart). 26. I’ve Got the World on a String (Arlen-Koehler). 27. Yesterdays (Kern-Harbach). 28. I Hadn’t Anyone But You (Ray Noble). 29. Night and Day (Cole Porter). 30. Jitterbug Waltz (Thomas Waller). 31. Someone to Watch Over Me (G. & I. Gershwin). 32. The Very Thought of You (Ray Noble). 33. You’re Driving Me Crazy (Walter Donaldson). 34. (I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (Young-Washington-Crosby) / Art Tatum, piano / available for free streaming at Internet Archive

Recorded December 29, 1953: 35. Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael). 36. I Cover the Waterfront (Green-Heyman). 37. Where or When (Rodgers-Hart). 38. Stay as Sweet as You Are (Gordon-Revel). 39. Fine and Dandy (Swift-James). 40. All the Things You Are (Kern-Hammerstein). 41. Have You Met Miss Jones? (Rodgers-Hart). 42. In a Sentimental Mood (Ellington-Kurtz-Mills). 43. I’ll See You Again (Jones-Kahn). 44. I’ll See You in My Dreams (Jones-Kahn). 45. Ill Wind (Arlen-Koehler). 46. Isn’t This a Lovely Day? (Irving Berlin). 47. Blue Skies (Berlin). 48. Without a Song (Youmans-Rose-Eliscu). 49. Stompin’ at the Savoy (Sampson-Webb-Goodman-Razaf). 50. My Last Affair (Haven Johnson). 51. I’m in the Mood for Love (McHugh-Fields). 52. Taboo (Ernesto Lecuona). 53. Would You Like to Take a Walk? (Dixon-Warren-Rose). 54. I’ve Got a Crush on You (G. & I. Gershwin). 55. Japanese Sandman (Whiting-Egan). 56. Too Marvelous for Words (Whiting-Mercer). 57. Aunt Hagar’s Blues (Handy-Brymn). 58. Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain (Woods-Dixon). 59. Gone With the Wind (Wrubel-Magidson). 60. Danny Boy (Weatherly). 61. They Can’t Take That Away from Me (G. & I. Gershwin). 62. Tea for Two (Youmans-Caesar). 63. It’s the Talk of the Town (Livingston-Symes-Neiburg). 64. Blue Lou (Sampson-Mills). 65. When a Woman Loves a Man (Jenkins-Mercer-Hanighen). 66. Willow Weep for Me (Ann Ronell). 67. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Waller-Razaf)-Brooks). 68. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Kern-Harbach). 69. Mighty Lak’ a Rose (Nevin-Stanton) / Art Tatum, piano / available for free streaming at Internet Archive

Recorded April 22, 1954: 70. Stars Fell on Alabama (Parish-Perkins). 71. Blue Moon (Rodgers-Hart). 72. There’s a Small Hotel (Rodgers-Hart). 73. Caravan (Tizol-Ellington-Mills). 74. The Way You Look Tonight (Kern-Fields). 75. You Go to My Head (Gillespie-Coots). 76. Lover, Come Back to Me (Romberg-Hammerstein). 77. Sophisticated Lady (Ellington-Parish-Mills). 78. Dancing in the Dark (Schwartz-Dietz). 79. Love Me Or Leave Me (Donaldson-Kahn). 80. Cherokee (Ray Noble). 81. These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) (Strachey-Marvell-Link). 82. Deep Purple (DeRose-Parish). 83. After You’ve Gone (Creamer-Layton). 84. I Didn’t Know What Time it Was (Rodgers-Hart). 85. Somebody Loves Me (Gershwin-McDonald-Sylva). 86. What’s New? (Haggart-Burke). 87. Sweet Lorraine (Burwell-Parish). 88. Crazy Rhythm (Kahn-Meyer-Caesar). 89. Isn’t It Romantic? (Rodgers-Hart). 90. You’re Blasé (Sievier-Hamilton). 91. You’re Mine, You (Green-Heyman). 92. (Back Home Again in) Indiana (Hanley-MacDonald). 93. That Old Feeling (Fain-Brown). 94. Heat Wave (Irving Berlin). 95. She’s Funny That Way (Whiting-Moret) / Art Tatum, piano / available for free streaming at Internet Archive

Recorded June 25, 1954: 96. Blues in C (Tatum-Carter-Bellson). 97. Undecided (Shavers-Robins). 98. Under a Blanket of Blue (Neiburg-Symes-Livingston). 99. Blues in B-Flat (Carter-Bellson). 100. A Foggy Day (G. & I. Gershwin). 101. Street of Dreams (Young-Lewis). 102. ‘Swonderful (G. &. I. Gershwin). 103. Makin’ Whoopee (Donaldson-Kahn). 104. Old-Fashioned Love (Johnson-Mack). 105. (I’m Left With the) Blues in My Heart (Benny Carter). 106. My Blue Heaven (Whiting-Donaldson). 107. Hands Across the Table (Delettre-Parish). 108. You’re Mine, You (Green-Heyman). 109. Idaho (Jesse Stone) / Benny Carter, alto sax; Art Tatum, piano; Louis Bellson, drums.

Recorded January 19, 1955: 110. I Surrender, Dear (Barris-Clifford). 111. Happy Feet (Yellen-Ager). 112. Mean to Me (Turk-Ahlert). 113. Boulevard of Broken Dreams (Dubin-Warren). 114. Moonlight on the Ganges (Myers-Wallace). 115. Moon Song (Johnston-Coslow). 116. When Your Lover Has Gone (Einar Swan). 117. The Moon is Low (Brown-Freed). 118. If I Had You (Shapiro-Campbell-Connelly). 119. S’Posin’ (Denniken-Razaf). 120. Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me (Bloom-Koehler). 121. Prisoner of Love (Columbo-Robin-Gaskill). 122. Moonglow (Hudson-DeLange-Mills). 123. I Won’t Dance (Kern-McHugh-Hammerstein-Harbach-Fields). 124. I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (McHugh-Fields). 125. Lullaby of Rhythm (Sampson-Profit-Hersch-Goodman). 126. Out of Nowhere (Green-Heyman). 127. I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues (Arlen-Koehler) 128. It’s Only a Paper Moon (Arlen-Rose-Harburg). 129. Everything I Have is Yours (Adamson-Lane). 130. I Only Have Eyes for You (Dubin-Warren). 131. On the Sunny Side of the Street (McHugh-Fields). 132. Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me (Ellington-Russell). 133. So Beats My Heart for You (Ballard-Henderson-Waring). 134. If You Hadn’t Gone Away (Brown-Rose-Henderson). 135. Please Be Kind (Cahn-Chaplin) / Art Tatum, piano / available for free streaming at Internet Archive

Recorded March 1955: 136. Night and Day (Cole Porter). 137. & 138. I Won’t Dance (Kern-McHugh-Hammerstein-Harbach) 2 tks. 139. & 140. In a Sentimental Mood (Ellington-Mills-Kurtz) 2 tks. 141. The Moon is Low (Brown-Freed). 142. Moon Song (Johnson-Coslow). 143. You Took Advantage of Me (Rodgers-Hart). 144. This Can’t Be Love (Rodgers-Hart). 145. I Surrender, Dear (Barris-Clifford) / Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Art Tatum, piano; John Simmons, bass; Alvin Stoller, drums.

Recorded August 1, 1955: 146. What Is This Thing Called Love? (Cole Porter). 147. I’ll Never Be the Same (Signorelli-Malneck-Kahn). 148. Makin’ Whoopee (Donaldson-Kahn). 149. Hallelujah (Youmans-Robin-Grey). 150. Perdido (Tizol-Landsfelder-Drake). 151. More Than You Know (Youmans-Rose-Eliscu). 152. How High the Moon (Hamilton-Lewis). 153. & 154. This Can’t Be Love (Rodgers-Hart) 2 tks. 155. Stars Fell on Alabama (Perkins-Parish). 156. Lover Man (Davis-Sherman-Ramirez). 157. Prisoner of Love (Robin-Columbo-Gaskill). 158. & 159. Love for Sale (Cole Porter) 2 tks. 160. Body and Soul (Green-Heyman-Sour-Eyton). 161. Please Be Kind (Cahn-Chaplin) / Art Tatum, piano; Lionel Hampton, vibes; Buddy Rich, drums (2 albums).

Recorded September 7, 1955: 162. Verve Blues (Edison-Hampton-Tatum). 163. Plaid (Edison-Tatum-Hampton). 164. Somebody Loves Me (Gershwin-DeSylva-MacDonald). 165. & 166. September Song (Weill-Anderson) 2 tks. 167. Deep Purple (DeRose-Parish). 168. & 169. What is This Thing Called Love? (Porter) 2 tks / Harry Edison, trumpet; Lionel Hampton, vibes/vocal; Art Tatum, piano; Barney Kessel, guitar; Red Callender, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

Recorded January 27, 1956: 170. Just One of Those Things (Cole Porter). 171. More Than You Know (Youmans-Eliscu-Rose). 172. Some Other Spring (Wilson-Herzog). 173. If (Hargreaves-Evans-Damerell). 174. Blue Lou (Sampson-Mills). 175. Love for Sale (Cole Porter). 176. Isn’t It Romantic? (Rodgers-Hart). 177. I’ll Never Be the Same (Malneck-Signorelli-Kahn). 178. I Guess I’ll Have to change My Plans (Schwartz-Dietz). 179. Trio Blues (Tatum) / Art Tatum, piano; Red Callender, bass; Jo Jones, drums.

Recorded February 6, 1956: 180. & 181. Deep Night (Vallee-Henderson) 2 tks. 182. This Can’t Be Love (Rodgers-Hart). 183. Memories of You (Blake-Razaf). 184. Once in a While (Edwards-Green). 185. A Foggy Day (G. & I. Gershwin). 186. Lover Man (Davis-Sherman-Ramirez). 187. You’re Mine, You (Green-Heyman). 188. Makin’ Whoopee (Donaldson-Kahn) / Buddy DeFranco, clarinet; Art Tatum, piano; Red Callender, bass; Bill Douglass, drums.

Recorded August 15, 1956 live at the Hollywood Bowl: 189. Someone to Watch Over Me (G. & I. Gershwin). 190. Begin the Beguine (Cole Porter). 191. Willow Weep for Me (Ann Ronell). 192. Humoresque (Dvořák) / Art Tatum, piano

Recorded September 11, 1956: 193. Gone With the Wind (Magidson-Wrubel). 194. All the Things You Are (Kern-Hammerstein). 195. Have You Met Miss Jones? (Rodgers-Hart). 196. My One and Only Love (Wood-Mellin). 197. Night and Day (Cole Porter). 198. My Ideal (Chase-Whiting-Robin). 199. Where or When (Rodgers-Hart) / Ben Webster, tenor sax; Art Tatum, piano; Red Callender, bass; Bill Douglass, drums.


Art Tatum was born in October of 1909. For nearly a century, however, a birth year of 1910 was generally accepted until proven false. He was born with cataracts in his eyes, which his family had surgically removed; his sight was limited but not extremely so until he was beaten up as a young teenager, a victim of racial violence. This set him back. For most of his life, he had limited vision in one eye, just enough, as he put it, to be able to read the value of playing cards and see his way to the piano when performing. His prodigious musical talent was discovered fairly early. His parents sent him for piano lessons, which started him on the road to his profession. A later teacher he had marveled at his extraordinary coordination: Tatum was able to play both hands independently of each other, and both had the same high level of virtuosity. His earliest influences were the famous stride pianists of his day who made records, James P. Johnson and Thomas “Fats” Waller, as well as a white society pianist named Lee Sims. Although Sims was not a jazz musician, he had similar two-handed dexterity, could negotiate the keyboard at lightning speed, and specialized in semi-classical “fantasias” on either popular tunes of the day or themes he created himself. Some critics view Sims as a small influence, but if one listens to some of Sims’ recordings of the late 1920s and early ‘30s, the similarity to Tatum is striking. Perhaps the main reason why Sims is often marginalized as an influence is that most jazz pianists didn’t even know he existed, thus he was outside their frame of reference.

Unlike some gifted jazz geniuses such as Bix Beiderbecke, Donald Lambert and Charlie Parker, who either had personality disorders which made it difficult for them to operate in society or serious addictions which interfered with their careers, Tatum was outgoing and friendly, although he hid his influences from both the public and fellow jazz musicians. In the 1930s, for instance, he added Earl Hines to his list of major influences, buying every Hines recording as it came out, yet he never told any but his closest friends about this. Hines himself, who like every other jazz pianist was intimidated by Tatum’s prodigious talent, never knew this until after Tatum’s death. Legendary bop pianist Bud Powell, who also had a somewhat reclusive personality in addition to mental illness brought on by another racially motivated physical attack, was extremely jealous of Tatum’s abilities and kept trying to compete with him. Tatum finally put this would-be rivalry to rest by telling Powell, “Anything you can play with your right hand, I’ll play with my left.” Powell never challenged Tatum again.

By the mid-1930s, Tatum was so famous—or, one might say, terrifying—to the musical community that he was noticed and praised by crossover and classical artists. George Gershwin considered him the single greatest musician, period, he had ever encountered in his life. Famed pianist and pedagogue Leopold Godowsky once said that “Art Tatum has the greatest technique of any pianist I’ve ever heard in my life.” Spanish virtuoso José Iturbi said, “The sad thing is that he can play anything that I play, but I can’t play what he plays.” Russian-American virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz went even further. He dragged his father-in-law, the famous conductor Arturo Toscanini, to hear Tatum. If anything, Toscanini was even more shocked than Horowitz by Tatum’s abilities. Horowitz befriended Tatum and invited him over to his penthouse apartment on many a Sunday afternoon to exchange ideas at the keyboard; there even exists a snippet of Horowitz playing Tatum’s arrangement of Tea for Two. Horowitz often said publicly that “If Art Tatum had been born white, I wouldn’t be considered America’s greatest pianist.”

What made Tatum’s virtuosity so extraordinary was that, probably due to his sight limitations, he played nearly all of his runs in either hand (or sometimes, both hands) with just two fingers, the index and middle, but he was able to do this so rapidly and with what pianists refer to as “quiet hands,” hovering just a half-inch above the keys, that those who watched him play close-up couldn’t figure out what he was doing. “His hands moved so fast, they looked like two hummingbirds,” one commented. Some pianists completely gave up the instrument, such as Les Paul, who switched from piano to guitar as a result of hearing Tatum. Fats Waller, who could play right-hand runs just as deftly as Tatum but not the incredible two-hand coordination, once saw him sitting in the audience of the club in which he was playing and told the audience, “I play piano, but tonight God is in the house.” In another instance, at a club where Tatum was holding sway, Duke Ellington was spotted in the audience and asked to come up to the piano. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” Duke said, “but there’s a clause in my contract that says I’m not to play the piano in the presence of Art Tatum.”

The irony of the situation was that Tatum was clearly a great enough pianist to make records but so complex in his approach to improvisation that he baffled many audiences. He really only achieved a modicum of fame in the mid-1940s, when he worked with a drummerless trio based on the one led by Nat “King” Cole. As a result, he tried to maintain this trio format to the end of his playing days, and although he never had a hit record he and his trio were often in demand at posh supper clubs where, if you an believe it, his hyper-busy style was often relegated to the status of background music to diners.

Tatum’s earliest recordings, found only in recent decades, were three piano rolls from 1930. His first studio recordings were made sporadically for both Brunswick and its offshoot, Decca, between 1932 and 1944. He then moved over to the independent Asch, Comet and Stinson labels, where he had his greatest success. The reason his trio was so popular is that Tatum now left some of the left-hand work to his guitarists, first Tiny Grimes and then Everett Barksdale, as well as his bassists, first of which was the formidable Slam Stewart. Audiences appreciated this less congested and “busy”-sounding Tatum; indeed, in this format he was popular enough to be signed by Capitol Records to record for them during the 1949-52 period. Yet, again, he had no hit records. His art was geared towards and fairly strictly appreciated by the jazz community—except for a few jealous pianists who weren’t worthy to shine his shoes, let alone compete with him at the keyboard.

But Tatum’s reputation among both jazz musicians and aware jazz fans was enough to keep him going. In the early 1950s, he gave a rare interview with the Voice of America’s jazz announcer, Willis Conover, who asked him why he played so many songs in public exactly the same way he had played them on recordings. Tatum’s reply was that he wanted to play them differently, but the paying customers paid to see if he could actually duplicate in person what they heard on the records, thus he didn’t want to disappoint them. This speaks volumes for both his photographic memory and his willingness to satisfy what public he had.

At the tail end of December 1953 Norman Granz, long an admirer of Tatum although he rarely used him in his massive “Jazz at the Philharmonic” jam sessions (mostly because other jazz musicians balked at playing with him), chose to embark on a unique project: have Art Tatum record as much of his repertoire as he wished to in state-of-the-art high fidelity sound for his Clef label. After three massive sessions of solo recordings, Granz then decided to embark on something even more ambitious, recording Tatum in group sessions with musicians who were not too terrified of him to do so. These included such famous names as Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Buddy DeFranco and Ben Webster along with the rhythm accompaniment of bassists Red Callender and John Simmons and drummers Louis Bellson and Buddy Rich. As we shall see, a few of these studio-created encounters turned out rather congested as the star musician in residence that day chose to compete with Art rather than, as he often told other musicians, “Just play your own thing; I’ll fill in as I want to and try not to disturb you.”

Tatum covers 1

In 1954-55, these recordings were released on Granz’s Clef label. These LPs had great sound but, by our standards today, highly stylized, cartoon-like cover art (see above) This sort of thing was considered very “hip” in the early-to-mid 1950s—even RCA Victor indulged in it for some of their jazz LPs—but for my taste they were cheap-looking and degraded the product therein. Granz did much better in 1956, when he initiated the Verve label, primarily to showcase singer Ella Fitzgerald but also for all his other jazz releases going forward. Here, he used good photographic cover art, not on a high a level as Francis Wolf’s famous photos for Blue Note but clearly better than the Clef days, as you can see from the following examples.

Tatum covers 2

For whatever reason, Granz became tired of running Verve records by 1961 even though he had just recently turned out some extraordinary live and studio recordings by Gerry Mulligan’s Jazz Concert Band (as well as some fine recordings by the Dizzy Gillespie quintet with Lalo Schifrin on piano), so he sold it lock, stock and barrel to M-G-M. One of his few stipulations was that, no matter who they chose to record, they would always keep the Tatum recordings in print, but this they did not do because, following Tatum’s death in November 1956, sales were very sluggish. Between this misfortune and the fact that neither Decca nor Capitol were reissuing his records with them, by the late 1960s Tatum was virtually forgotten by the public. Then, in 1968, none other than Columbia Records, which owned the rights to Tatum’s old Brunswick recordings, put out an album in artificially created stereo titled Piano Starts Here. In addition to four early Brunswick recordings, it also included a generous portion of a 1949 concert he gave at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, among which was his absolutely stunning version of Yesterdays. This arrangement, with its slow, out-of-tempo introduction, then a sudden boogie bass which propelled his right hand into whirling fantasias of sound, was, I learned later, one of his favorite arrangements. He played it the same way—not quite exactly in terms of accents and pacing, but otherwise the same—in his Clef recordings for Granz, and indeed he even played it on one of his only two TV appearances, this one on the Spike Jones Show.

Eventually, Norman Granz became so upset about his Tatum recordings not being available that he started another label, Pablo Records, in 1973, and once again, in addition to bring back the entire Tatum catalog, it was a label designed to promote Ella Fitzgerald, who had been somewhat neglected by the major labels in recent years.

Both the “Solo Masterpieces” and “Group Masterpieces” were thus reissued by Granz, who had bought all of the Tatum master tapes back from M-G-M. First they came out on individual LPs as they originally had, but eventually the solo recordings came out, as they should have done much earlier, as a complete boxed set.

Pablo set cover

But something had happened to the solo recordings between 1961 and 1973. Apparently, the new MGM-Verve company no longer had the original master tapes, only dubs of their inferior-sounding LP reissues. Gone was the striking clarity of sound which was the reason Granz made these sessions in the first place, using a bright-sounding Steinway D piano and miking it just right. The recordings now sounded as muffled as some of Tatum’s Asch, Comet and Decca sides. I have restored the original sound by making comparisons with the sound of his piano on the Group Masterpieces, which oddly enough remained just as Granz had recorded them. What puzzles me, however, is why Granz didn’t restore the sound himself; graphic equalizers were in their infancy then, but they did exist, and one would think that someone with as many connections as Norman Granz would have been able to accomplish this. Nonetheless, the work has been done, by me, and thus I give them to the world.

What no one has ever done, however, and which I will attempt to do here, is to go through each track individually and analyze exactly what Tatum has done with each piece. I don’t claim to have as perfect ears as those of Jed Distler, who 30 years ago transcribed several Tatum solos including each note in each chord that he played. How on earth he could hear this so clearly as to transcribe it is beyond my understanding, but I can clearly hear what type of chord he’s using at any given point, and I can also hear how exactly he constructed his solos.

In his liner notes for the 1975 release of the complete “Solo Masterpieces,” then-young American jazz pianist Benny Green (b. 1963) refuted Godowsky’s claim that 20 minutes was long enough for any human being to listen to Art Tatum. But if you are listening really closely, carefully and critically—as you should when experiencing a genius like Tatum—20 minutes at a stretch really is enough. You need at least a one-hour break between each 20-minute listening session. And this is what I recommend.

One final anecdote before dissecting the recordings. At one point in the solo sessions, the tape ran out while Tatum was in the middle of a number. Frustrated and aghast, Granz came rushing down out of the control room to tell Tatum what had happened, apologize, and assure him that he could re-record that song from the beginning.

“Oh, no, there’s no reason for that,” Tatum said. “I know where I left off. Just start a new tape and I’ll pick up from that point.”

And so he did. The two halves were spliced together, and from that day to this most people don’t even know which track it occurred in because they can’t hear the splice.

Session 1: 34 solos, December 28, 1953

  1. Can’t We Be Friends? (Swift-James). From the very first chord of this performance, which has A as the top note but also includes a C# underneath (it should be C because it’s being played in F major), we can already hear how Tatum changed and challenged listeners’ perceptions of these old songs—despite the fact that he almost immediately resolves it before getting into the melody. Over the course of two seconds, however, during an extremely brief transition passage, he suddenly uses downward chromatic chords underneath. Then, at the 14-15-second mark, he suddenly tosses in another and quite foreign extended chord just for laughs. Between the 28 amd 31-second mark, he suddenly fractures the time in such a way that the tempo sounds as if it is running backwards. And note, this is just the first half-minute of the performance. But, as we will hear in many other of his performances, the use of these devices are a core element of his style. The difference between Tatum and many other pianists who attempt the same thing is that, somehow or other, he always manages to make them sound as if they were a natural part of the chord progression—IF one is unfamiliar with the song as it was originally written—except that, in the back of one’s mind, there is always a slight suspicion that this is not so because we know how regularly tonal the harmonies of most songs from the period in question that he drew from really were. Interestingly, however, Tatum always avoided such harmonic deviance from the norm when playing his pearl-like keyboard runs. These are almost always within the tonality of the original piece, and as I’ve already said, they were a way for him to please an audience which might otherwise be alienated by all the other things he was doing.

In the first improvised chorus, which begins around the one-minute mark, Tatum actually moves at a slow pace to start with. Only in the turnaround at the end of the first eight bars does he suddenly toss in a bit of rhythmic and harmonic legerdemain. The second half of this chorus, surprisingly, reverts to the original melody, but with his trademark runs thrown in and a few unusual luftpausen where they might not be expected, except at the break (1:38 to 1:42) where he is suddenly all over the map harmonically, moving through five keys in the space of a few seconds. The latter half of this chorus either sticks to or includes snippets of the original melody, so it’s not that far out, but it again includes several frills. The bridge is also played “straight” at first, but then between 2:14 and 2:25 he moves chromatics around like pieces on a chess board. Then it’s back to playing the melody fairly straight, albeit with a few little wrinkles. From 2:34 to 2:38 he again reshuffles chromatic changes, and around the three-minute mark he simply alters the harmony completely for a few seconds. In the last half-chorus his mutations are fewer and played slower, yet he ends on an F chord that includes an E natural.

Is there any wonder that Godowsky thought that 20 minutes of listening to Tatum at a time was enough for anyone? And this, be it noted, is primarily a ballad performance played at a medium slow tempo, not one of his 90-mile-a-minute pieces.

  1. This Can’t Be Love (Rodgers-Hart). This starts out in the key of G, and for once the opening chords are normal, except that at the 11-second mark he thrown in an extended chord and between 12 and 14 seconds in he moves downward through four chromatic chords. The remainder of this first chorus, however, is played relatively straight albeit with a few pearl-like runs thrown in. The improvised chorus is then played in a regular, acceptable stride piano style; except for some walking bass chords, this could be Fats Waller as much as Tatum playing. At the break, however, the right-hand runs become more complex than anything Waller could have done and the speed and accuracy of the runs, allied with a couple of small but noticeable chord shifts, tells you it isn’t. But this is the performance you should play for those deaf-eared folks who tell you that Tatum couldn’t swing. He sure could when he felt like it, and he certainly feels like it here. In fact, except for a few harmonic touches that let you know it’s Tatum playing, this performance is more of a casual romp on the keyboard for him. And here’s another contradiction in Tatum’s playing: for all the incredibly harmonic and rhythmic subtlety that was literally at his fingertips, he could and sometimes (as here) did shy away from becoming too ornate or harmonically experimental when he was in a swinging mood. Yet although this performance pretty much stays in G major, Tatum suddenly decided to modulate up a half-tone at the 2:20 mark for the rideout, and here also modulated up another half-tone and threw in some quick modulations in the space of two seconds, ending the performance on a suspended chord. Again, apparently just for fun.
  2. Elegie (Massenet). This, along with Dvořák’s Humoresque, were the two classical tidbits that Tatum enjoyed playing in a jazz fashion most often (although there is a superb live performance by him of a Chopin Waltz that is simply incredible to hear despite limited, boxy sound). Played in E minor, he opens it with a fancy, somewhat bombastic flourish. The first few bars are played close to the original slow tempo with some of his unusual harmonic changes underneath. He then plays a sustained E minor chord that includes a Db in it, but after another chord he suddenly ramps up the tempo, changing Massenet’s half notes to quarter notes, playing it at quarter note=212. The melody is played with his left hand while the right plays a dizzying, almost impossible-to-conceive flurry of notes—often just in seconds, but with occasional filigrees up and down the scale, in double time. Most of this first chorus consists of these modifications, but then at the 46-second mark Tatum suddenly begins playing a variant on Massenet’s original melody—again, with the left hand—while the right plays a dazzling filigree of runs. Then, at the 48-second mark, less than a minute into the piece, he suddenly shifts to C minor, then back to E minor. Return to the melody played by the left hand with double-time filigree in the right. The improvisation, which begins at 1:31, initially gives us a variant on the theme; then a brief quote from Franz Drdla’s corny violin piece Souvenir in the major. After a break, a variation on Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (!). Following this is a sudden shift to B minor, a two-note figure played repeatedly like a ground bass with the left hand while the right plays a complex melody that sounds vaguely Russian. Then at 2:13, he jumps back into E minor and swings the melody in a hyper-stride manner with all kinds of little variants (and keyboard flourishes). At 2:48, however, he suddenly plays a gradual decelerando until he reaches the initial tempo once again, except now with little rubato touches to tease the listener, followed by an equally slow coda in which he goes through several keys until he reaches the finale. Elegie, indeed!
  3. Memories of You (Blake-Razaf). Eubie Blake’s famous song (although the majority of Americans at that time had no clue who Eubie Blake was) opens with an almost cocktail-piano-like introduction. The melody is played fairly straight with few harmonic changes, but Tatum does compress the note values in spots, shortening them up. He does, however, inject a suspended chord just before his return to the theme, now played faster, louder and even more compressed with keyboard flourishes and unusual harmonies. The rhythm, too, is even more abrupt here to the point of changing the rhythm so that it sounds more like 3 ½ /4 rather than 4/4. In the bridge he returns to a normal tempo, but keeps going in and out of neighboring keys; when he returns to the A theme, there is more compression and more flourishes. He then adds a quote from Edward MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose. The first improvised chorus eschews jazz rhythm entirely in favor of a classical bias; with his dazzling, pearl-like runs, it almost sounds like Chopin on acid. Again, rubato is used in the middle section, along with yet another reference to To a Wild Rose; then the medium-slow swing tempo chorus, replete with right-had runs. This is more of a playful piece for Tatum than a jazz one, but listen carefully to some of those runs: they are extraordinary, not just technically but musically, and fit the character of the piece. At 3:42 he begins a series of harmonic shifts, mostly chromatic but also dipping into neighboring and not-so-neighboring keys. The coda consists of out-of-tempo flourishes and yet another reference to the MacDowell piece (I think he really liked it).
  4. Over the Rainbow (Arlen-Harburg). Although Harold Arlen was one of the most jazz-oriented of pop music composers, having played and sung jazz tunes in the late 1920s with his band, The Buffalodians, Over the Rainbow is often considered his least jazz-oriented tune, certainly not as popular with musicians as It’s Only a Paper Moon, A Sleepin’ Bee, Blues in the Night, Ill Wind or Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. In fact, except for Boyd Raeburn’s highly imaginative orchestral arrangement from the late 1940s, I really can’t think of another jazz treatment of Rainbow during Tatum’s lifetime. Here again he begins in a fairly straightforward mode, playing the melody in Db, but again “abbreviates” the melody by shortening the note values, not giving them their full value. This seems to have been a trait of Tatum’s playing that was peculiar to him; I can’t recall of any other jazz pianist of his time, later, or even nowadays who does this except on very rare occasions, and then it is done consistently through the song, not just in spurts. (I should also quickly mention here that he never did this when accompanying another lead voice, e.g. trumpet, reed or vibes, but only in his piano solos.) He also throws in a few diminished chords. In the middle eight he again compresses some of the note values, but then, during a two-bar stretch, actually elongates them, thus playing cat-and-mouse with the listener. And of course, in the last couple of bars of this middle eight, he tosses in a few of his keyboard runs, but in this case the effect seems more humorous than merely flashy.

Tatum’s penchant for suddenly veering in and out of neighboring keys and extended chords were highly influential on the bebop generation which followed him. The difference was that Tatum did not “live” in these remote keys or chords as they did, but merely dipped into them to add color. Several critics have wondered why he didn’t follow suit and join them. My theory is that he liked being who he was and didn’t see a need to change. He was well aware that playing bop in the late 1940s-early ‘50s would have made him more “hip” with the advanced jazz crowd, but he was also aware that although bop was followed by a surprisingly large minority of jazz lovers, it was indeed a minority, and he wanted to continue to appeal to as many listeners as possible considering the fact that his style was already too complex as it was for many people to follow. Thus he would, as he does here at 1:23, throw in a Gb diminished chord, but just as quickly leave it. Tatum was indeed harmonically adventurous, but he used these exotic harmonies more as spice and “artificial flavoring” rather than making them the main flavor of his music.

Where he was unique and remained so was in this style of abbreviating or tightening the note values of the tune he was playing. The casual listener will, of course, notice these moments—how could he not, particularly if he was mentally “singing along” with the music?—but Tatum did it so frequently and so rapidly that it was disconcerting. And he does it frequently in Rainbow, a tune which, as I mentioned earlier, really doesn’t lend itself otherwise to jazz improvisation. In this performance, during the passage beginning at 1:32 and ending at 1:38, he does both: tightening up the note values and moving in and out of remote or neighboring keys, so rapidly that one must replay the passage a couple of time to catch all of them. But of course, someone just listening casually to him play this, either in person or on records, will know that he is “fooling around” with the music but have no concrete idea of what he is doing, while those with a trained musical ear will be able to identify (perhaps not on first listening!) everything he is doing but still be baffled as to how he could come up with such ideas at a moment’s notice—and, more impressively, execute them at a breakneck speed yet somehow make them sound organic. This is what classical pianist José Iturbi was referring to when he said that “he can play what I play, but I can’t play what he plays!” Not that, sitting and analyzing a performance such as this, Iturbi (or anyone else) couldn’t duplicate the same effects, but to play things like this as part of a spontaneous improvisation is still beyond the grasp of many jazz pianists, even modern ones.

There are more surprises in the second half of this chorus, including more keyboard runs that actually add structure to the piece rather than detract from it. The last chorus swings more and has a stride style about it, but still plenty of Tatum-isms to intrigue and perhaps baffle the listener.

  1. If You Hadn’t Gone Away (Brown-Rose-Henderson). This is one of the lesser-known songs from the era that most attracted Tatum, recorded by Jack Shilkret’s Orchestra in 1925 (the stiff, corny version) and Lanin’s Red Heads (a much jazzier version featuring Red Nichols and Vic Berton) in 1926. It’s one of those “pop” blues tunes that white composers like Buddy De Sylva, one of the three composers listed here, were wont to come up with, but Tatum miraculously transforms it into a real blues number. Except for his signature harmonic excursions into neighboring keys, he keeps it relatively simple, confirming Jay McShann’s statement that Tatum was one of the greatest blues players he’d ever heard. There are some instances, too, where he introduces his signature pearl-like runs, such as the passage between 1:05 and 1:10, but again, dear listener, heed how he makes them work musically within the framework of his improvisation. Detractors like Schuller never did seem to acknowledge that not all of Tatum’s fast keyboard runs were purely decorative. In the quick little passage between 1:26 and 1:30 he does both, doubling the tempo for his runs in addition to moving the harmony downward chromatically yet somehow, miraculously, returning to the home key of C minor. But when considering McShann’s statement you have to remember that he, like Fats Waller, was also a very accomplished pianist whose playing was (like Waller’s) sometimes quite ornate. The blues pianists who hated this kind of treatment were those like Art Hodes, who although good within his own style had a very limited technique. In short, those who could come at least close to what Tatum did acknowledged his musical superiority while those who had both a lesser technique and lesser imagination criticized him.

In the following improvised chorus, played quite softly, Tatum plays almost consistently at double time in the right hand, a steady stream of fast runs but not those spanning the full range of the keyboard. He also indulges in some of his time-shortening devices but in a more subtle way than usual; there’s a particularly nice one between 2:26 and 2:28. Surprisingly, the final chorus returns to the slower blues tempo and feeling of the opening, but he still can’t resist both doubling the tempo and shape-shifting the harmony before he finishes.

  1. Body and Soul (Green-Heyman-Sour-Eyton). Johnny Green’s popular song Body and Soul became a jazz standard shortly after it was introduced in the early 1930s due to its fairly sophisticated (for the time) harmonic sequence. Coleman Hawkins’ recording of it was the most famous of the various versions, but it certainly got around. Tatum uses one of his patented “fantasia”-like intros, not quite in a strict tempo but stating the melody clearly enough to be recognized—a device he borrowed from Lee Sims, but here modified with his harmonic daring and time-shortening. During the middle passage of the song, he indulges in some very tricky harmonies indeed, ending that passage with a cute (and quite funny) little two-finger flourish in the upper range of the keyboard. In his return to the principal melody, he reverses his usual pattern by chromatically changing the harmony upward rather than downward…and all of this within the first 1:15 of his performance!

Only at the 1:30 mark, when he begins the song anew for his improvised chorus, does Tatum finally being us to a steady 4/4 rhythm. There’s a remarkable passage between 1:38 and 1:52 in which Tatum suddenly “classicalizes” the rhythm and plays both upward and downward chromatics underneath, including a neat little passage between 1:44 and 1:48 in which he suddenly thrown in a two-voiced canon in single notes played by both hands. Nowadays, of course, there are numerous pianists who can emulate what Tatum did, but only because he recorded these pieces and they can not only be analyzed like this but, thanks to computer programs, copied and then transcribed to notation for others to play. To have initially come up with things like this in the heat of spontaneous improvisation is virtually inconceivable. I’ve yet to hear any modern jazz pianists, even such great ones as Matthew Shipp, Ake Takase or Satoko Fujii, come up with anything similar in their improvisations, even when allowing for their entirely different piano styles.

At 2:21, he suddenly throws in a quote from the spiritual Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. I should point out that using quotes from other songs, not only here but in previous and (as we shall see) later pieces by Tatum, was fairly common in the era he worked in. In fact, you were often thought to be a better jazz musician because you could make such quotes work in context during that period in jazz history. This, however, is the one aspect of Tatum’s style that has really dated. Although even the early boppers did the same thing, by the time such pianists as Tristano, Silver, Evans and Byard came along—to say nothing of a “deconstructionist” like Cecil Taylor—this trait was considered to be “old hat” and in fact somewhat trite. But at 2:46, Tatum plays an astounding three-second break using augmented fourths rising upwards in whole tones for nine beats, yet is somehow able to descend gracefully to the home key in just a few notes using more conventional but still imaginative descending chords without these devices. At 3:07 he suddenly doubles the tempo and plays in a somewhat conventional swing stride style with several fast middle-keyboard runs in which the tempo is doubled still further, using the regular chord changes. Suddenly, however, he starts his note-reduction fractioning, here using the left hand to play notes between the irregular beats his right hand is producing (is there any doubt as to why Earl Hines and Bud Powell were frightened of him?) before resuming a straightforward stride tempo and phrasing. It is only at the 4:40 mark that he suddenly reverts to a more relaxed ballad pace.

  1. The Man I Love (G. & I. Gershwin). Tatum brings a similar approach to the Gershwin brothers’ well-known The Man I Love although, in the opening chorus, the keyboard runs are more decorative than functional. At 0:34 he begins to up the tempo; at 0:39 he increases it even more. At the 2:00-2:01 mark, Tatum plays two extraordinary “crushed chords” which temporarily make the music atonal, very much in the manner of Schoenberg or Webern. (No kidding. I had to slow the tempo down in half to actually hear it clearly. Try it yourself and hear what I mean.) A few notes later, he is playing chords that are advanced versions of the kind of harmony one hears in late Debussy. Around the 2:46 mark, Tatum suddenly conflates Debussy-like harmony with the blues, followed by an extended quote from Summertime—some of it using extended chords. We then get an allusion to I Got Plenty of Nothin’, followed by an extraordinary passage in which he suddenly begins playing in 6/4 meter rather than 4/4. Another quote from Porgy and BessIt Ain’t Necessarily So—immediately ensues. The latter is what he develops, in his swinging-but-ornate style, for a chorus. Then, after a bar and a half of transition music, he suddenly remembers that this is supposed to be a performance of The Man I Love and so returns to it. Not too fancy despite those double-time mid-keyboard runs. Suspension of the original tempo, then a return to the way he played it way back at the beginning of this track.
  2. Makin’ Whoopee (Donaldson-Kahn). Walter Donaldson’s famous song about the doubtful benefits of wedlock over bachelorhood has, again, never been a jazz musicians’ favorite since neither the melody nor the chord changes are particularly interesting or innovative. Tatum solves this problem by taking it at a quick clip to begin with, occasionally doubling the tempo as he rolls merrily along and adding his by-now-familiar harmonic substitutions—not as outré as in some of the previous performances, but clearly foreign to the simple structure of this song. The delight here is that he keeps it just complex enough to make it interesting without moving too quickly or becoming too daring in his harmonic substitutions. You might almost call this a light-hearted romp by Tatum standards; at 2:49 long, it isn’t even a very lengthy performance. Yet it is fun and keeps you on your toes. Let’s call this the “entrance exam” for the Tatum style rather than the Master’s thesis.
  3. September Song (Weill-Anderson). Kurt Weill’s famous tune is occasionally done as a jazz piece, but almost always in ballad tempo in order to retain the flavor of the original and very rarely with really imaginative substitute chords or tempo/meter shifts. Tatum brings his fantasia style to bear on the opening chorus, and it is almost too easy for him to extend the chord changes in the opening phrase (on the words “long, long time”) which are already strongly suggested by Weill’s original harmony. By now, if you’ve been paying close attention to the preceding nine performances, many of his “usual” devices are used in the opening chorus. Between 0:34 and 0:40 he pushes the chord changes into a very exotic realm, but just as quickly abandons it as he returns to the melody proper. Just before the one-minute mark, Tatum’s left hand suddenly plays a passage in a rhythm alternating two eighths with a quarter for two bars, beginning on the last beat of the bar preceding it, then a little later a passage in which his left hand plays an ascending whole tone scale while the right plays a descending one. After having a bit more fun with substitute chord positions on Weill’s changes, he moves into his “stride” chorus though tossing in a few of his time-altering devices. At one point around 2:06, however, it sounds as if Tatum was either a split-second late in playing one of the notes in one of his runs or did so on purpose, but since one never hears anything like this in any of his previous recordings or broadcasts, my guess is that this wasn’t done this way on purpose. We will note a few similar moments in other performances in this series. Again, by comparison with some of the other, much more complex performances before and after, September Song is almost a mental vacation by Tatum standards.
  4. Begin the Beguine (Cole Porter). Begin the Beguine attracts some jazz musicians but not many, in part because it’s not an A-B-A-C structure but a continuously evolving composition, which makes it hard to deal with. Tatum sets up a sort of fast rhumba rhythm at the outset, and is surprisingly respectful of both its melody and harmony—until he hits the 40-second mark, at which point he suddenly inserts a 10-beat phrase that departs considerably from the tune and uses extended chord positions into which he pours a breathtaking one-handed run (the right) before going immediately back to the theme. After another glistening keyboard run, at about the 1:10 mark, he slightly accelerates the tempo, at one point using a rapidly alternating two-note figure (Bb and A) under his right-hand playing. Although most of the performance is in D major, at 1:36 he suddenly plunges into one of his unusual harmonic passages, of which the top line consists of the following tones: Db-F below-Bb above-Db below-F above-Bb below-D above, all played so quickly that only someone with perfect pitch could name all of them immediately. This is followed by one of his downward chromatic passages played by both hands. Yet by the 1:45 mark he is solidly back in D major as if nothing at all had happened! By the two-minute mark, he ups the tempo just a shade and begins one of his super-stride choruses, with yet another downward chromatic break. He then plays a coda with a cute ending to wrap it up.
  5. Humoresque (Dvořák). This, as mentioned earlier, was Tatum’s other favorite classical trifle that he enjoyed playing as a jazz piece. After a little keyboard flourish as an intro, he immediately engages in his “shortening of the note lengths” during his statement of the theme. The second time he does this, he uncharacteristically drops a note. Again, this either indicates a chink in his formerly invincible technical armor or the fact that he might have been overtired when this session took place. (I don’t know the exact time frame in which he made these recordings, and although he was clearly used to playing all evening for the paying customers and then all night long in his after-hours sessions, he might have been a little tired in the studio.) In the break he indulges in his doubling of tempo and tossing in keyboard runs, this time simply for effect rather than functionality. In some of these moments he extends the bar lengths to incorporate them. Near the end of the middle section (the “B” theme), he tosses in a strange chord with an Eb on top and two dissonant notes, one of them an A and the other God-knows-what, below. Then at 1:46 he begins his stride chorus, played in D-flat with a few off-tonality excursions. There’s another dropped note around the 2:12 mark. In this section, his right-handed runs assume a more functional role in the improvisation. Then, at about 3:16, a real surprise as he plays a rapidly alternating figure of Ab-C in the left hand while playing what appears to be a passage in B above it. Leave it to Tatum to suddenly veer so far off the harmonic course, following which he suddenly waxes atonal for a few beats before again landing, by some musical legerdemain, back in Db for the remainder of the melody and chorus.
  6. Louise (Whiting-Robin). Another famous song from the early 1930s that seldom lent itself to improvisation, Tatum opens it with an intro using passing tones in the left hand to somewhat blur the tonality, at the 11-second mark playing an extended chord with A as the top note. He then plays the familiar theme in his by-now-familiar out-of-tempo fantasia style, still tossing in an extended chord here and there just for fun. At the 30-second mark, a G diminished chord; at 0:38, another diminished chord using G flat as its base, even though he is ostensibly playing the song in the key of D. More diminished and otherwise unusual chords appear in the middle sect-ion of the tune. At 1:21, he somehow incorporates a B-flat-diminished chord into the proceed-ings; at 1:24, a C-diminished chord. Many of his admirers, myself included, often wondered why he didn’t write songs of his own using devices like this and others; he clearly had the mind for it; but as I said earlier, Tatum never really had as wide an audience as did less complex pianists like Teddy Wilson, and he was probably afraid of alienating a good amount of them by departing so far from the norm that no one would be able to comprehend what he was doing.

Between 1:32 and 1:38, he plays the music as if it had been written by Mozart before moving easily and naturally into a medium-slow swing tempo—albeit with tempo quadrupling in his runs and extending not merely the note lengths but the bar lengths to include these runs. Unusual harmonic devices also continue to pop up, some of them quite surprising and wholly unexpected. Tatum was an absolute master of harmony, which allowed him to make these frequent and various changes, as well as dissonance. His mind must have been the psychological equivalent of a Rube Goldberg invention, able to instantly disseminate what he was doing and rearrange the components in such a way that only another musical genius could really follow what he was doing, let alone sit down at the keyboard and duplicate it. He continues to monkey around with the harmony almost up to the very end.

  1. Love for Sale (Cole Porter). Cole Porter, like Richard Rodgers (with Larry Hart’s lyrics) and Duke Ellington, were among Tatum’s favorite composers. In Rodgers’ case it was because Hart’s lyrics brought out his most adventurous side whereas, later on, Oscar Hammerstein’s often did not. But many people forget that Porter was classically trained, and he used this experience liberally in the creation of many of his songs, which had unusual (and sometimes chromatic) chord changes, all of which fascinated Tatum. Although Love for Sale is not one of his most sophisticated songs, it was quite sophisticated for its time, and Tatum reveled in it. His introduction to the piece takes the principal melody and again makes a free fantasia of it with added runs, including a diminished chord at 0:23 that has a Bb sitting atop a Gb. Part of his improvisation in this section also sounds, curiously like Humoresque. And again, in the middle section of the song, Tatum indulges in some fancy harmony-shifting, thought not as extreme as than in Louise, although at the 1:01 mark he suddenly jumps into a very remote chord indeed. Much of his improvising in the following section is, in fact, so complex that it bears no relationship to the naked ear of Love For Sale. Were you to start the recording at this point, in fact, you wouldn’t have the slightest clue what he was playing. Even the following few bars, in which the original tune is suggested, he is so involved with creating a complex fantasy on it that it still doesn’t “really” sound like Love for Sale. Then at 1:47 the (fast) swing chorus begins, and now one can identify the song despite his extraordinarily complex way of playing it, again with his functional rather than his decorative runs—and of course, continuous little harmonic shifts that nudge the chords up and down at will. Between 2:38 and 2:42 the harmonic shifting again approaches atonality though, as usual, he reins it back in and pulls it back. Changes of note values again occur in the next section, and between 3:12 and 3:16 he shifts the meter from 4 to 3 (or probably to a 6/4). It suddenly dawned on me, as I was listening to this track, how so many of these moments could be isolated from the overall performance and played for modern pianists and they would still be in awe of what he did. No matter how you listen to it, however, this is clearly one of his great masterpieces of musical invention. Franz Liszt couldn’t have written something this good if you put a gun to his head.
  2. Judy (Hoagy Carmichael). Judy is one of Hoagy Carmichael’s lesser-known songs. Like Porter, he was a Hoosier from Indiana who originally studied law but was bitten by the music bug. The difference was that Carmichael was far more attracted to jazz than to classical music; his initial inspiration was the playing of legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, for who he wrote several tunes (including one of his first, Free Wheeling, which Bix and his band decided to rename Riverboat Shuffle). Here Tatum uses passing tones as a harmonic device more often that his normal far-out key shifts, but still makes the song attractive with these and his functional runs. He also forsakes his fantasia style in the beginning, pretty much sticking to a straight rhythm albeit with his normal ornate modifications. No matter how ornate he gets, however, he manages to make the piece swing and even sound a bit bluesy at times—an object-lesson to the many Tatum critics who say that he couldn’t and didn’t swing. No matter how ornate he gets at times in this performance, if you simply count the beats from beginning to end he is, inevitably, dead on in tempo. Some readers may feel that I’m shortchanging this performance by not breaking it down in more detail, but there’s no need to. With its fairly straight tempo and less harmonic daring than usual, it’s a beautifully-conceived improvisation from start to finish that simply needs to be heard and absorbed in toto, not broken up into little pieces for analysis.
  3. I’m Comin’, Virginia (Heywood-Cook). Tatum plays the intro to this tune in a minor key, making it reminiscent of My Man’s Gone Now at a faster tempo. The melody proper is played slowly in A in his fantasia style with a great many harmonic variants, mostly pulling the harmony down rather than up. At 0:24 he throws in an augmented fifth in his chord, followed by two other very strange chords, the second being a Db with an augmented fifth. Tatumesque note compression follows along with mid-keyboard functional runs. Between 0:44 and 0:46 he suddenly takes the harmony to more remote corners of the spectrum he just can’t help himself. Some of these changes use whole tones in the upper voice rather than chromatics. Tatum evidently felt that the almost banal chord changes of this tune cried out for harmonic dissonance. At 1:23 he begins something new for him, a single-note improvisation in the middle of the keyboard, evidently something borrowed from Lennie Tristano, although he just as quickly moves back into his own style two bars later. Yet he returns to this Tristano-like improvisation at 1:34, again using underlying augmented harmonies to move the piece into remote keys. In the next few bars he slows it down in terms of glittering, fast notes, replacing them with slower but equally dissonant harmonies. Tatum evidently felt that this song needed as much color as he could possibly lavish on it, yet by the 1:51 mark he returns to playing it in a way that makes the melody recognizable once again. The chorus he begins at 2:09 is given in blues style, albeit with glittering mid-keyboard runs and a certain amount of time compression. Although his debt to the harmonies of modern French classical music, and even a bit of Bartók and Schoenberg, are clearly evident, I sometimes wonder where he got some of his harmonic ideas from as they don’t really sound like any of them. The out-of-tempo final chorus is also typical of Tatum.
  4. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (Barris-Koehler-Moll). I don’t know of anyone else who has ever attempted to make a jazz performance out of Harry Barris’ lovely but fairly normal pop tune, written for his old musical partner Bing Crosby. If you’ve been paying attention to all of the previous song performances I’ve described, there’s not a lot in the opening chorus of this one that will surprise you. If any of these Tatum performances can be called “predictable,” this is the one, but it’s still pretty amazing that what we would consider an “average good” performance for Tatum would be extraordinary in the hands of any other pianist. Yes, a few of the substitute chords are surprising, but not as much as those in the performances already discussed.
  5. Dixieland Band (Hanighen-Mercer). This was a relatively minor pop tune written by Bernie Hanighen in 1934 and recorded twice by Benny Goodman, once for Columbia in the fall of 1934 and then again (in a slightly faster and looser performance) for Victor in the spring of 1935. Both performances were dominated by a Helen Ward vocal because there really wasn’t much to the song musically. Tatum takes it even a shade faster than Goodman’s second recording, using substitute chords right at the outset in his statement of the rather simple theme. Throwing substitute chords in as early as 0:15 and toying with the rhythm, it sounds even less like a Dixieland band in his hands than in Goodman’s. The break between choruses is played at a slower tempo and with a 3 rather than a 4 feeling. Again, a fine performance which transforms the trite melody into something quite interesting, but not really one of Tatum’s greatest creations although I do like the way he repeatedly goes back to the feeling of 3 in the middle of choruses.
  6. Embraceable You (G. & I. Gershwin). George Gershwin was one of several people who were crazy about Tatum’s playing in the mid-1930s, and had him over to his Hollywood abode as often as he could. (I would presume that Gershwin’s close friend Oscar Levant also heard Tatum there and was suitably awed as well.) Tatum does Embraceable You up pink, as they used to say, giving it his fair share of chord substitutions and embellishments. The most extraordinary part of this performance is the section between 1:58 and 2:30 which is played in a almost continuous string of mid-keyboard runs, some (of course) with substitute chording. If you just took this portion of the performance out of the rest of it and sent it around to friends, they may very well not even recognize the piece although Tatum really doesn’t stray all that far away from the original as an underlying “tune suggestion.” The next chorus includes several compressions of the rhythm and notes. Between 2:47 and 2:52 is an incredible passage in which Tatum plays in an almost stiff ostinato rhythm while at the same time “walking” the top line downwards, sometimes chromatically, while the harmony is changed underneath every few beats. This is then followed by another fascinating passage between 3:11 and 3:16 in which he almost “walks” the music upwards chromatically while playing crushed chords underneath.

I’m sure that some readers are thinking that such moments smack of gimmickry, but how else would a genius improviser play? Just play a fairly routine sort of improvisation like Teddy Wilson? And believe me when I tell you this, but dozens of jazz pianists or would-be jazz pianists were insanely jealous of Tatum’s ability to improvise in this manner, because they couldn’t do it…if they tried, it didn’t come out half as well as this. Those who know music well, which includes professional pianists (even classical ones) and composers, understand and appreciate Tatum’s abilities.

  1. Come Rain or Come Shine (Arlen-Mercer). Hyman Arluck, a.k.a. Harold Arlen, was one of the most jazz-oriented of the pop songwriters of his day, having begun his career as a jazz singer and leader of a 1920s jazz band, The Buffalodians. (They didn’t have any significant jazz musicians in the band, but they certainly played in a jazzy style.) Come Rain or Come Shine is one of his many ballads, but it has an inherent jazz feel to it in the rhythm of the song. The initial chord in this performance contains an augmented chord, which Tatum modifies upon its appearance in each succeeding bar, throwing in a G augmented chord at the 12-second mark. And of course, successive descending chromatic chords also pop in. I should point out that one of the interesting things about Tatum’s harmonic changes is that although he frequently shifts th underlying harmonies on each successive beat in the bar, which when slowed down sounds almost alien to the tune, they somehow come across as organic when you listen to the whole performance in real time without slowing any of it down, as I sometimes did, or freezing the chord to try to hear what exactly he is doing. This was a form of recomposition that was almost the opposite of what the beboppers did when they created contrafacts in the mid-to-late 1940s. Sometimes the boppers would modify the harmony as well, but not to the extent that Tatum did because at the same time they superimposed an entirely new melodic line over the chords of an older tune (for instance, turning Whispering into Groovin’ High). As usual, especially in ballads, Tatum plays the opening chorus in a somewhat free tempo as a fantasia. One of the more interesting moments in Arlen’s song comes in the last four bars of the theme statement, where he introduces a blues chord (flatted third).

At 1:24, Tatum morphs naturally into a very relaxed but regular ballad tempo using his middle-keyboard runs to embellish things. Although he plays the song in F major (with Arlen’s harmony shifts into the minor), at the 2:07 mark he plays an extraordinary series of single notes in the right hand with underlying chords which threatens to undermine the entire harmonic base of the sing, yet again he manages to land back in the right key as if nothing different had happened. At the 2:22 mark he introduces his tempo-shifting devices as well. After all of this, what he plays in the next chorus almost sounds pretty plain and ordinary except for rising chromatics between 3:18 and 3:20, followed a bit later by a stepwise descent. There’s a little bit of doubling the tempo in the next section, but aside from those occasional fast runs this performance is pretty much kept at a ballad pace, returning to a freer fantasia style for the ride-out. A great but very subtle reading.

  1. Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ (Ellington-Strayhorn-Gaines). As mentioned earlier, Duke Ellington was a favorite source of material for Tatum because he recognized that Ellington had learned proper musical form from Will Vodery, an African-American composer, conductor and orchestrator who hit the big time working for the Ziegfeld Follies, in addition to having real jazz sensibilities. The fact that Ellington was a pianist of relatively limited technical skills didn’t bother Tatum because he recognized that, even in his improvised solos, Ellington exhibited a composer’s mind. Yet Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’ was certainly a strange choice, one of Duke’s popular hit tunes and not one of his more musically interesting pieces. But Tatum really has fun with it, once again proving that he certainly could swing when he wanted to in a lively performance which clocks in at about quarter note =127, certainly a moderate tempo for Tatum in a fairly quick piece. Although he throws several of his patented chord changes and runs into it, he keeps it moderately simple and also imparts a nice blues feeling to it. By keeping most of his modifications simple, he is able to maintain this swinging pace from start to finish. For those who complain that Tatum is always overly-ornate, this is the recording they should listen to and learn from.
  2. There Will Never Be Another You (Gordon-Warren). Mack Gordon was a well-known song composer in his day who was hired by 20th Century-Fox to provide scores for many of their films of the 1940s, including both of Glenn Miller’s. He is often heavily criticized for writing songs with memorable melodies and other “hooks” in them, the most famous (or notorious) being Chattanooga Choo Choo. In his pre-movie days of the 1930s he worked with lyricist Harry Revel, but at the film studio he was paired with Harry Warren, already an employee of the film company. Tatum again takes the free-rhythmed fantasia approach to the introduction and opening chorus, which is actually the verse of the song (remember when American popular songs had verses and choruses?), adding lush substitute chords to the more familiar melody and breaking up the rhythmic pattern with extra bars of florid runs. He almost makes it sound like a classical piece, albeit one with tongue planted firmly in cheek. By the middle of the performance, the transformation becomes even more ornate, transforming Gordon’s quite simple melodic line into something of Rachmainov-like proportions. At 3:17 he seamlessly moves from his free-fantasia approach to a steady 4 with his usual mix of unusual chord positions and a few moments of note compression. Taken all in all, however, this is a masterpiece because of the play of his fertile musical mind on a piece that one would scarcely believe could yield such a complex interpretation.
  3. Tenderly (Lawrence-Gross). I was really curious to hear this one because, after all, Tenderly is a pop waltz-ballad, not a jazz piece, although of course its built-in descending chord sequence would clearly be something that would appeal to Tatum. He sets up a gentle rocking motion in the introduction, but what surprised me was that, in his fantasia section, he maintained the original 3/4 tempo rather than changing it to 4. At the 48-second mark he introduces a series of rising whole tones using open fourths—not terribly sophisticated, but dramatically effective—but at 1:05 he throws in two very exotic, out-of-tonality chords just to let you know that he has more surprises in store. Finally, at around 1:38, he moves into a gently rocking, medium-slow 4 (which didn’t surprise me) to play the rest of the tune. Modulations abound in this one, so many of them and so quickly that it would honestly be a waste of space to list them all. Just listen and you’ll hear them. Of course, there are the usual Tatum devices, but also as usual he rearranges them and sometimes plays these expected things at unexpected moments. the double-time chorus beginning at 3:52 includes what you might describe as “cascading” figures, modified mid-keyboard runs that sound like a waterfall in slow motion (chromatic at the 4:12 mark). One drawback in listening to so much Tatum is that, once you pick up on the devices he uses, you tend to think of them as set patterns that he used in his playing, and this is undoubtedly true, which makes you think that some of this was simply routine for him. But every great jazz pianist I’ve ever heard, even Hines, Tristano, Evans and Byard, had their own stylistic devices which they recycled in performance after performance. This is only natural; they played the way they did because that’s how their minds worked.
  4. What Does It Take? (Burke-Van Heusen). This is a song I’d never even heard of before. Apparently it was a record—but not a hit record—for Nat “King” Cole (another one of Tatum’s favorite pianists because he played a very clever alteration of the Earl Hines style) in 1952 with Billy May’s orchestral arrangement. Tatum was obviously attracted by its original chord changes, which already uses a descending chromatic line in the bass. But what a transformation! Tatum changes the medium ballad tempo of the original into a wild, uptempo romp, moving the metronome marking up to a blistering quarter=213—one of his favorite fast tempos. By his standards, this one is kept relatively uncluttered with runs and substitute chords. He just romps through it in his super-stride style, yet in doing so improves the song 100%. (I wonder what Nat thought…he surely must have heard it at some point.)
  5. You Took Advantage of Me (Rodgers-Hart). Another Rodgers and Hart tune, one of their most famous from the late 1920s. Tatum eases up on the tempo here, playing it quite similarly to the way it was written. Once again, the focus is on swing, although here he throws in more tempo shifts, runs, harmonic substitutions and, yes, stride swing. By and large, however, it’s to too far removed from the way Fats Waller might have played it if he could have thought of these things…in other words, he could have copied this performance and not have too much trouble with it, but probably wouldn’t have thought of these substitute chords himself.
  6. I’ve Got the World on a String (Arlen-Koehler). One of Harold Arlen’s most famous and swinging tunes, and again Tatum is rather respectful of the original (he liked Arlen’s songs). Hear the way he almost “falls onto” the chord substitutions in this performance, as if they were an original part of the score (they weren’t). Fast, doubling runs in the second chorus add interest, but as I say, by his standards this is somewhat straightforward—except for the remarkable passage running from 1:47 to 2:02 (just before a glistening run) where the harmonies rise upwards using extended chords, three times in fact and each time differently. At the 2:31 mark, he reverses this, using an extended chord sequence that moves downward. There is generally, but not always, some sort of musical balance in Tatum’s performances. He was a very “complete” recomposer of others’ songs.
  7. Yesterdays (Kern-Harbach). I first heard Tatum’s recomposition of Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays on the Columbia Piano Starts Here LP, taken from a live 1949 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Of all the pieces on that album, it was the one that grabbed me the most because it was so utterly brilliant, yet was played in a remarkably loose style with flawless timing and great energy. This interpretation became such a famous one for Tatum that he continued to play it the same way thereafter, not only here but also on his 1954 television appearance (one of only two, the other being on Steve Allen’s “Tonight” Show) on the Spike Jones Show, but each time he played it, it seemed to be just a little stiffer and less relaxed than the original 1949 performance. Yet it is so utterly brilliant that it remains, for me, one of his greatest interpretations.

But…which score of Yesterdays did Tatum base it on? The song was written in 1933 for the musical Roberta, and ostensibly published at that time, but in checking online for a score of the song, I found no less than four ENTIRELY DIFFERENT versions of the first page alone! One is incredibly basic, using single notes (quarters and halves) and whole-tone chords in the accompaniment, obviously designed for a beginner at musicnotes,com. But also at musicnotes is a different score in a “Bright Swing” tempo that opens with the verse rather than the chorus. At is yet another version, more complex, the first page of which is entirely different from the other two, and at is an even more different version which is almost as rhythmically complex as the way Tatum plays the first chorus:

Tatum Yesterdays 1

Tatum Yesterdays 2

So, what the heck. Let’s just break down what Tatum plays and analyze just how brilliant his version really is.

Like so many performances already discussed, Yesterdays opens with a slow section in free fantasia form. Here, it it played at a tempo of half note=80, which is quite moderate. Played in D minor, Tatum uses a little grace note of G# to lead into the initial note of A. The two chords he plays underneath consist of C# (top note), G below and the Bb below that, then C natural-F below-A below. In the second bar, he forsakes every note after the initial A, here played as a half note rather than a quarter. The following chords below are now C top-F below-G# below that, then a half-note chord of B natural-F below-C# below and the G natural below that. (I have a good ear for notes within chords, but freely admit that I have trouble “naming” extended chords like this. Call it whatever you like.) In the third bar, he uses one of his tempo-acceleration tricks, playing a series of open sixths, then “rushing” the melody with embellishments in bar 4. He continues this until the middle of bar 13, where he suddenly plays a series of upward-rising flourishes, indicating that something dramatic is to come.

He then repeats most of this—with slight variants—before accelerates to half=118, playing a variation on the verse. As in several of the performances already described, his fast runs here are functional rather than decorative…in fact, they become quite structural within his musical conception of the work. At the 1:32 mark he moves into his “fast stride” style, with each chorus building on the previous one with a different form of improvisation, including one that is all fluttering left-handed notes. At 2:34 he plays his shortened-time chorus, but again, it’s a variant on the original theme like the ones preceding it. At 2:38 the figures he plays sound as if the rhythm were running backwards, and here he really indulges in some unusual chord positions as well. (This later, fast section is the one that sounded much more fluid in the 1949 performance and stiffer yet in the 1954 one, where he rushed the tempo too much.) In the last chorus, which begins at 2:48, a miracle occurs: he actually sounds like a bop pianist, playing not only in the continuously extended chord positions they used but also emulating bop rhythm (something he almost never did). Then he slows down the tempo again for his slower, fantasia-like coda, which is musically apt, even perfect, ending on an unresolved chord using E as the top note. This definitely ranks among his greatest creations, in terms of its continuously developing musical structure the best of the all.

  1. I Hadn’t Anyone Till You (Ray Noble). British songwriter and bandleader Ray Noble, nowadays remembered almost exclusively for having written Cherokee which became both a swing and a bop anthem (for Charlie Barnet and Charlie Parker, respectively), was actually one of the very finest songwriters and arrangers of his day. He was also a great lover of jazz although his only really outstanding jazz band was the one he led at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Plaza in New York from 1935 to 1937. (Its members included Sterling Bose and Pee Wee Erwin on trumpets, Will Bradley and Glenn Miller on trombones, Johnny Mince on clarinet and Bud Freeman on tenor sax.) Although he wrote other songs that jazz musicians have enjoyed playing (The Very Thought of You, Easy to Love and Baby, You’ve Got the Right Idea), I Hadn’t Anyone Till You isn’t one of them. Written in 1938, after the demise of his jazz band and before he wrote Cherokee, it’s really a nice song, quite similar to The Very Thought of You but not as memorable. (It was originally sung by Tony Martin and not the legendary Al Bowlly, who after the collapse of the ’37 band tried to make it as part of a singing duo before going back to England, where he tragically died during an air raid attack.) Tatum moves the harmonies around in the opening statement, but not too far “outside” their normal realm; he, too, obviously like the song and respected its structure, although in the second chorus he does push the envelope. In the medium-swing chorus, there are, of course, several Tatum-isms, including some nice chord clusters around the two-minute mark, followed later by his patented falling chromatic chords (and a few runs, including some downward ones that are purely decorative and not functional). It’s certainly a good performance and enriches a basically good song.
  2. Night and Day (Cole Porter). Here we return to Cole Porter, one of his most popular tunes and one with some nifty “falling” chord changes in the middle four bars of the melody. Tatum is modifying the chord changes from the outset as well as using a great deal of tempo-doubling in order to inject his glistening runs, but as in the case of Yesterdays (but not on such an exalted scale) the interest comes from the way he recomposed the entire song and yet made all of those changes and modifications sound organic structurally. Even the most glistening runs in this one sound like a necessary part of his development. At the 2:04-2:07 mark, he uses some remarkable falling triplet figures using whole tones, and between 2:13 and 2:15 throws in some unusual double tempo figures that sound entirely classical in both form and rhythm. Again, for any other pianist this would be a masterpiece, but for Tatum it just sounds like he’s in a playful mood for three minutes and 18 seconds.
  3. Jitterbug Waltz (Thomas Waller). Another Waller tune, this one famous because it was in 3/4 time, yet infamous because almost no one besides Fats could improvise on it. Using both note-value compression and occasional accelerando, Tatum manages to present its baby-simple theme in an entirely new light. Here, the fantasia-like opening even blurs the time signature. Is it or isn’t it a waltz? Well, the way Tatum plays it, it’s both or neither. Don’t’ ask me how he did it, but he did. You can hear for yourself. The second time he plays the theme, he uses a walking bass line that gradually rises note by note as if it were trying to encroach on the right hand. In the middle eight, he plays the melody in a choppy fashion, as if he were lampooning it. Rubato is used to slightly slow and elongate the four bars at the end of this section, leading back to the A theme. But even Tatum can’t make too much out of it other than injecting these devices; there just isn’t much there to work with. He uses Frankie Carle-like “trickling” runs in the right hand in the next chorus, switches over to a bit of a bluesy feel for a while, uses some substitute harmonies etc., but generally this is just a musical giant fooling around and having fun. What he does clearly enhances what was there to start with, but I can’t say that he did as much with it as Beethoven did with the rather puerile little waltz by Diabelli.
  4. Someone to Watch Over Me (G. & I. Gershwin). Back to the Gershwin brothers with one of there most famous and popular songs. The fantasia-like opening uses his patented substitute chords, descending chromatics and time-compressing devices. At 0:57 he begins swinging it in a nice, moderate tempo, adding little right-hand trills and modifying the melody in a surprisingly relaxed manner, although at 1:40 he suddenly turns it briefly into a blues. Several of the runs he throws in this performance, however, seem primarily designed to add gingerbread to its simple structure, not really develop it in the strict sense of the term. My verdict is that it’s flashy and has come cute moments, such as the one at 3:07 where he seems to be lampooning Paderewski’s Minuet in G a bit, but by Tatum standards it’s just a nice little escapade.
  5. The Very Thought of You (Ray Noble). Here Tatum tackles the real version of The Very Thought of You instead of its knock-off (#28). The approach is similar, but with a somewhat richer structure to work with (even the original harmonies are more interesting) he can recompose the piece in a more beguiling fashion. Some of the runs here are more decorative than functional, but he’s still thinking ahead to those sections of the song where he can embroider like an expert in needlework. Note the passage beginning at 2:32 where he suddenly transposes upward a half-tone for a few beats. Unusually for him, he keeps the song within the free-fantasia style, the most ornate changes occurring from 2:38 onward. In the second half of this last chorus, he completely rewrites the song in his own way. A lovely performance.
  6. You’re Driving Me Crazy (Walter Donaldson). This uptempo song was a favorite with jazz musicians in the pre-bop era, but although Tatum keeps it fast (quarter=220) it doesn’t sound too rushed. Once again, he plays with it “around the edges” so to speak, except for some nifty modulations around the 1:25-1:30 mark. His last chorus is the most changed rhythmically and harmonically, although in the rideout he again returns to some semblance of normalcy.
  7. (I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (Young-Washington-Crosby). Victor Young’s big hit song for Bing Crosby is, again, a lovely tune with some nice built-in changes, exactly the kind of song that attracted Tatum. The first chorus is another fantasia with lots of gingerbread around the edges and some substitute chords, although he also includes the original ones as well because they were so good. Then a medium-slow swing chorus using a plethora of mid-keyboard runs, time compression and other by-now-familiar Tatum devices. The interesting thing about this performance is that, again, everything sounds organic, as if it were meant to be played this way. Despite sounding just a bit too ornate to me at times, it works well. This was the end of his first session for Granz.


Session 2: 35 solos, December 29, 1953

  1. Stardust (Hoagy Carmichael). Interestingly, Tatum does not begin his performance of this oft-recorded piece with either its famous chorus or its only-occasionally-heard opening verse, but with a simple little riff introduction of his own devising. But he does give us a soft, double-time improve on the verse using substitute chords in his fantasia style. When he does begin the famous primary melody at 0:48, it is with considerable harmonic freedom, and again out of tempo, sometimes compressing the note values. Though played in Db, one of his favorite keys, he suddenly jumps up into D just before the 1:02 mark for a few beats, but via some legerdemain he simply “arrives” back in Db via an internal harmonic pivot-point shortly thereafter. In the following chorus, the familiar melody is not only compressed in note values and improvised upon, but actually doubled in tempo. Around the 1:37-38 mark, he suddenly moves down chromatically using the top notes of F-E-Eb-Db in what sounds to me like open fourths (but I could be wrong, it all goes by so quickly). The steady-tempoed swing chorus, taken at a very moderate pace, begins at 1:45, but it’s not completely taken at a steady tempo. Tatum again makes considerable changes within beats in a bar, moving both his improvised and the few written notes he plays around like dominoes. If this wasn’t Stardust he was playing, the listener would probably have very little idea of what the song was supposed to sound like. Only his occasional use of snippets from the main tune act as signposts within this wholesale rewriting of the song, although the last half of the chorus suddenly reverts back to the familiar theme. The next chorus goes back to the verse, now taken at a blistering tempo with runs, octave-doubling, and a crushed chord at about 3:33 that simply sounds like an atonal chord cluster. Tatum has led you from the prettiness of Stardust to some dark alleys in the Alpha Centauri galaxy. The next chorus, though very much in a steady swing tempo, is again so far from the original melody that itit isn’t until after some dizzying mid-keyboard runs that he suddenly realizes that he should give you a bit more of it before he rides it out. Though not as flashy, this is almost as stunning a recomposition as Yesterdays.
  2. I Cover the Waterfront (Green-Heyman) Johnny Green’s I Cover the Waterfront, although just a popular a song as Body and Soul, never quite became a jazz standard although it was performed occasionally (most notably by Louis Armstrong), but Tatum liked its interconnecting chord pattern and played it fairly often. He immediately begins the song with two extended chords that immediately disorient the listener, following these up with a statement of theme that is both fragmented and compressed in time. Unless you looked at the song title, it might take you a while to recognize it. It also doesn’t help that he immediately doubles the tempo and throws in even more distended harmonies in addition to runs that also fraction the time in addition to connecting his segmented theme fragments together—a rare instance of Tatum using runs as for of musical mucilage—and all of this just in the first 19 seconds of the performance! He then plays the theme, again out of time but more clearly, although in the last half of this chorus he throws in some chords so advanced that they’d make a bopper squirm. When he finally reaches the improvisation, we realize that he is playing it in G and, at last, in a steady 4/4 at the very moderate pace of quarter note = 110—for Tatum, almost a walking pace. Only the quadruple-time runs, some of them for show and some functional, tells you that it’s Art Tatum playing…at least, until you reach the end of the first chorus and start the second theme. This is when he shifts the underlying harmonies around using “pivot notes” which makes the whole thing sound more fluid that normal. Eventually the runs become more complex, at one point using a keyboard run to overwhelm, the melody and help him push it, and you, into similar but not like-minded harmonies. In his second improvised chorus, he uses fast triplet grace notes to push the improvisation around in such a way that it sounds hopelessly lost compared to the original chords, but it isn’t. Tatum knows exactly where he is and what he’s doing; it’s YOU who gets confused here and there, especially in the midst of this chorus where he so compresses the time that you seem certain that he’s lost his way. But he hasn’t. The final chorus, also compressed and changed quite a bit, is his way of saying “Thanks for listening, finish your drinks and please drive home safely. You’ll probably have this ending running through your head for the next two hours, trying to figure out what I just did.”
  3. Where or When (Rodgers-Hart) Another classic song, well-loved by millions but hardly ever improvised on simply because there doesn’t seem to be much you can do with it. Although Tatum again begins with a free-rhythmed fantasia on the principal theme and adds a few altered chords, it is surprisingly straightforward at first; even he doesn’t seem to be able to do much with the song except to compress it and throw in a few runs although the improvisation section, once again taken at a medium tempo, has some surprising twists and turns, even more fantasia-like than in I Cover the Waterfront. Even so, my overriding feeling is that, in this performance, flash overrides substance. What he plays is devilishly difficult from a technical standpoint, but except for the middle eight where he does indeed expand his imagination, not up to his normal high level of creativity.
  4. Stay as Sweet as You Are (Gordon-Revel) Mack Gordon’s early-‘30s ballad is a sweet piece but, like Where or When, not normally conducive to improvisation. Tatum, however, surprises us again by making not lemonade but champagne out of it via his patented harmonic shifts et al, which here works wonders. What he does in the second out-of-tempo fantasia chorus in the first half is simply extraordinary, using the baby-simple theme as a sort of rhythmic motif which he uses to push the double-time runs and complex harmonies into a new shape. It is nothing short of a complete rewriting of this sweet but banal tune; he even adds some “blue” notes in the full-chorus improvisation. To a certain extent, the flashy runs do get in the way here, but just listen to the second improvised chorus which he miraculously imbues with the blues. Blues, harmonic daring, and his trademark flash all come together here, which makes the rather weak ending of this performance (he sounds as if he couldn’t decide how to finish it off) a disappointment.
  5. Fine and Dandy (Swift-James) Fine and Dandy, simple though it is, had been a Tatum specialty since the early 1930s, due in part to its generally fast pace. He always operated the best in fast pieces where he could throw in thematic, harmonic and rhythmic changes and substitutions, partly to dazzle his listeners but mostly just for his own enjoyment. This performance is actually more relaxed in tempo than some of his earlier versions of it, but as with the previous piece he seems to be having a ball toying with it. The first full chorus after the introduction contains a plethora of runs, which he often used in quick pieces, but here they seem to have a more functional and less purely decorative role. By this time, I began to realize that the up-and-down motion of those runs were, for him. a way of making an aural roller-coaster ride out of generally banal material such as this. The last chorus is the most complex and dazzling. In just three minutes and five seconds, one of the shortest performances in this set, Tatum has said a great deal about Fine and Dandy without overdoing it. In short, he has actually left it open for another pianist to come along and build on what he has done here, though in his lifetime no one dared to do so.
  6. All the Things You Are (Kern-Hammerstein). By contrast with the previous three songs, All the Things You Are is clearly a masterpiece of construction, one of Jerome Kern’s finest works. The augmented harmony written into the piece has long fascinated musicians, but except for a horn soloist playing an improvisation over those chords, not much was ever done with it in a jazz sense. Interestingly, Tatum’s out-of-tempo introduction is taken at the original slow pace, not sped up; even more curiously, he begins with the little-heard verse before moving on to the very familiar chorus. The second half of this verse is sped up, however, and since almost no one knows this part of the song it would be virtually impossible for the average listener to tell what it is. When he does get into the chorus at the 35-second mark, it too is out of tempo and the familiar chords completely replaced by his own harmonies, in this case chunky, “rootless” chords which again transform the material—though the intelligent ear will pick it up.

    By the 1:25 mark, however, Tatum is introducing harmonies on top of harmonies, creating fantastic chords based on French classical music which almost subvert rather than just transform the original song. But if you think this is extraordinary, wait until you hear the next chorus, also out of tempo, in which Tatum pulls at least a dozen different chords out of his hat, liberally sprinkles them on the tune, plays much of it in double time and thus creates something so unique that, heard out of context with what came before, would baffle even a highly developed and experienced ear. (Even I would have trouble recognizing the song from this passage.) Nothing that Franz Liszt ever played or wrote is nearly as complex either harmonically or rhythmically as this.

    At 2:52, Tatum finally gets into a steady rhythm, improvising on the song in alternating sections of simple and highly ornamented playing. This gets so complex at the 4:10 mark that you wonder what was going through his mind at the time. Yet he keeps on changing and shifting the three elements of the music in the ensuing chorus. It is almost a case of his building an extraordinarily complex building on a well-written but relatively basic foundation. This, too, is one of his real masterpieces.

  7. Have You Met Miss Jones? (Rodgers-Hart). Another Rodgers and Hart tune, in fact one of Tatum’s favorites as he played it often throughout his career. Again, he opens with the little-heard verse of the song, here played at a moderate rather than at a fast or compressed tempo. At the 16-second mark he begins improvising on the principal melody at a rather slow pace—right for the song, but unusual for him—and by the third bar he is inventing his own song, playing downward chromatic chords in the left hand as the melody rises in the right. He then suddenly injects a chord in the minor and, while his right hand is still following the melody in G, his left hand suddenly gets involved in a circular pattern of out-of-tonality chords. Typically, it lasts just a few beats before he continues. Tatum’s sense of harmonic shifts seems to combine inspiration with pre-planning, but it just may be that since he had th entire spectrum of harmony in his head, it’s hard to say. Another interesting aspect of this or any other Tatum performance is that he always seems to select exactly the right mood regardless of which the chords he is using at the moment often sound far-out. Some of his extraordinary abilities at voice-leading can be heard around the 1:20 mark. Following this, he seems to be using the “serrated” quality of the melody line to produce even more outré chord patterns, as if what he had done up to this point somehow bored him. Around the 1:40 mark, in fact, he is so far out that if one took this passage out of context and played it for someone, they;d never recognize what song it is in a million years—and, even when one does recognize it, his continual shape-shifting of the harmony is so inventive and unexpected that the casual listener may be forgiven for accusing him of writing it out in advance, something he never did. And he continues this stacking of complexity on top of complexity throughout the remainder of this chorus. Indeed, the constant alternation of major and minor chords, as well as the internal structures of those chords (in which he has the audacity to move the inner notes of the harmony around as he plays), is almost dizzying in its effect. One can easily suffer a sort of musical vertigo in trying to follow this performance too closely; you really do need to stap back a bit and just let what he does wash over you. At times, he even plays single bass notes within these altered chords that act as a counter-gravity device, pulling the music down in the left hand as it rises in a complementary fashion in the right. I’ve never heard this sort of thing in the playing of any other jazz pianist, not even by Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Jaki Byard, Cecil Taylor or Matthew Shipp. No matter how far out their playing became, it always kept to a harmonic pattern which, though rather advanced, seemed logical. Divorced of the right hand’s music, the evolving chord patterns of Have You Met Miss Jones? may well constitute an entirely new and different composition, one that its original creators not only couldn’t have imagined but probably couldn’t play.
  8. In a Sentimental Mood (Ellington-Kurtz-Mills). Tatum didn’t play many Ellington pieces, and when he did they were usually ballads like this one. And again, this is not a piece that attracts many jazz musicians. In the introduction, there is one small moment when Tatum’s finger on his left hand slips, creating a rare fluff. Also rare for Tatum is the fairly straightforward presentation of the theme, with no harmonic substitutions although he does play richer chord positions—until you reach the 32-second mark, at which point he suddenly unloads a brief, quick series of substitute chords. For the most part, however, this first chorus is rather tame except for some odd descending harmonies and double-time playing from the bridge onward. Indeed, it is when he not only doubles but quadruples the tempo that he is really in his element. Slowing it down later, he indulges in some very fancy harmonic shifts, then comes the in-tempo improvisation and he lets all hell break loose: tempo doubling, octave doubling, functional runs, the whole nine yards. Yet he returns to a steady four for the last chorus, which is also quite inventive despite throwing in not one but two quotes from Swanee River.
  9. I’ll See You Again (Jones-Kahn). Isham Jones’ popular tune is a waltz, which of course jazz musicians steer clear of, but Tatum does indeed play it in 3/4 time here, embellishing and changing it (even in terms of its original harmony) as he goes along. Being in 3 doesn’t stop him from throwing in his decorative runs, yet he manages to find much more in it than anyone else has ever done. Even so, I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was more of a cocktail lounge show-off piece than something one would hold up as great art, at least until the chorus that begins at 2:35. Here, Tatum pulls out all the stops and creates a breathtaking free-form fantasia based on Jones’ original tune. I defy any classical pianist to listen just to this latter section of the recording and not be impressed by the music. “Jazz” in the conventional sense it may not be, but it’s an extremely complex improvisation on a popular tune of the day, and in my mind that qualifies as jazz.
  10. I’ll See You in My Dreams (Jones-Kahn). Tatum follows up one Isham Jones song with another, although this one has occasionally been played by other jazz musicians. Being in 4, he has more fun with it, doubling its original tempo even from the outset and then occasionally doubling that within certain bars. The harmonic and rhythmic substitutions come fast and furiously here, almost overwhelming the listener. The incredible series of single-note double-time improvisation that begins at the 58-second mark is breathtaking and extraordinary. This recording also proves conclusively that Tatum could indeed swing when he wanted to; he almost replicates the drive of the Benny Goodman band in full cry the way he pushes the tempo in this one. In its own way this, too is one of Tatum’s greatest performances.
  11. Ill Wind (Arlen-Koehler). Harold Arlen’s Ill Wind is not one of his better known or most popular tunes, but again, it seemed to attract Tatum like a moth to a flame. He begins it at a relaxed tempo, once again playing the verse before he reaches the chorus. It may seem pithy to simply say that this follows his standard pattern of out-of-tempo introductory section, statement of theme and improvisation on the theme because he did so much more than other pianists within that frame, but it’s true. Again, an extraordinary performance for any other pianist but just another day at the office for Tatum. That being said, however, note how he throws in a break in 3/4 at 2:51 and follows this with an extremely satisfying final chorus.
  12. Isn’t This a Lovely Day? (Irving Berlin). Tatum liked Irving Berlin’s songs because of their clever construction and rhythmic “snap.” This one isn’t normally played that way, but Tatum lights into it at a good pace (quarter=166) and gives it a nice stride “bounce” (you can almost hear him tapping his foot as he plays). The usual, but not too radical, harmonic substitutions in the first chorus except for a neat little passage around the 37-39-seciond mark and the middle eight where he dips into his bag of tricks. The second chorus is where he throws in some fancy little runs, frills and tempo doublings in addition to a couple of blues licks. For him, it’s a fun romp through the tunem but again, a perfect example for those who claim that Tatum couldn’t swing. He sure does here, and yet still has enough fun with the piece to stretch the listener’s imagination a bit. The final chorus is played more slowly, a bit out of tempo.
  13. Blue Skies (Berlin). Blues Skies has long been a jazz musicians’ favorite, largely due to the descending chromatic chords; Thelonious Monk used it as the basis for his own In Walked Bud. Again, we get a swinging performance but one that plays around with the rhythm a bit more. Tatum comes up with some incredible substitute chords, rapid single-finger fast licks and dazzling effects in the second chorus, all the while swinging hard (he also throws in a quote from the song In and Out the Window). It may not be his most incredible performance, but I really love it because it has a little of everything in it while proving how superior he was to everyone else.
  14. Without a Song (Youmans-Rose-Eliscu). Few if any jazz musicians play this song; it has a pretty melody but, once again, does not seem conducive to improvisation except in a relatively mild way. Tatum shows us how to rewrite it in the first, out-of-tempo chorus, including a sudden, surprising shift from F# major to D major at 1:14. Immediately after he returns to F#, he plays a passage which includes single-note counterpoint to the melodic line…but is he playing both with the right hand? I’m not sure, because the left hand seems to be playing a slow, single-note accompaniment at the same time. So either his left hand or his right was doing double duty here. (This is exactly the kind of moment that drove other pianists crazy.) After a couple of bell-like notes in the upper register, he suddenly switches ti G major at the 2:03 mark, and stays there for a dazzling, forte cadenza before moving on in the same key, though he does inject further harmonic shifts as he goes along. Somewhere along the line he slips back into F# but then jumps up again to G just for the hell of it—then back to F# a few beats later. A few more twists and turns come into the picture before he’s through, yet the final half-chorus is again played slowly and with fluctuating tempo/meter. A really nice performance.
  15. Stompin’ at the Savoy (Sampson-Webb-Goodman-Razaf). As you might expect, Stompin’ at the Savoy is taken at a fast clip, in fact much faster than either Chick Webb or Benny Goodman played it (about quarter=196). Just for a laugh, he throws in quotes from Ravel’s Bolero, then improvises on that for a while before returning to the original theme, and swinging quite hard. Again, just a “fun” performance for Art, although in the last chorus he tosses in several functional runs just to remind you who’s playing.
  16. My Last Affair (Haven Johnson). This is a somewhat straightforward reading of a song that is pretty much “nothing” musically. Tatum embellishes it with his usual touches and, again, swings well in the central chorus, but aside from his filigree there’s not much to listen to since the original material is uninteresting. Nice, surprising downward runs beginning at 1:53, though.
  17. I’m in the Mood for Love (McHugh-Fields). A favorite with cocktail pianists, this tune has some nice changes that only a genius like Tatum could have done anything with. Thanks to a lot of tempo doubling (and quadrupling), in addition to the central chorus played at a nice “walking” tempo (faster than the song is normally played) plus some blues licks and keyboard runs thrown in, the end result is better than the previous tune, particularly in the last chorus (which begins around 2:32) where Tatum completely rewrites the song, in fact creating a rare (for him) contrafact, an entirely new melody based on the chord changes of “Mood for Love.” Here, he uses some sleight-of-hand to move the underlying harmony in and out of its basic tonality but only in the right hand while the left continues to play the basic chords. He only returns to the original song starting with the middle eight and beyond. If nothing else, this track proves that Tatum could have been a superb composer of new jazz tunes had he chosen to do so.
  18. Taboo (Ernesto Lecuona). A rare example of Tatum playing a Latin piece, and does he ever! From the very first notes, you are immediately enveloped by his inexorable web of notes, coming out of both hands but particularly the right. Although the experienced Tatum listener would probably recognize this as his work in a blindfold test, I think the average listener might be fooled in a “blindfold” test—at least until he switches from Latin rhythm to a straight four at 1:41. From that point on, he’s in a straight swing 4 feel (including a few bars of boogie woogie beat from the left hand), taking Lecuona’s song apart and putting it together in an entirely different way. In the last portion of this performance, he even throws in some single-note, left-hand counter-figures against the swirling mélange of notes in the right. Despite the fact that he does not entirely deconstruct Taboo the way he did Yesterdays, I also consider this to be one of his greatest pieces of musical reconstruction. Really, it has to be heard to be appreciated—and believed. There also exists a live 1951 performance of this piece, but it’s not as good: the tempo is slower, the left hand sounds tired, and he just doesn’t pull it together nearly as well.
  19. Would You Like to Take a Walk? (Dixon-Warren-Rose). Like I’m in the Mood for Love, this is a “nice” song played with Tatum-esque modifications. Most of the interest in this piece comes in the improvised chorus which begins around 2:24, although this chorus is excellent indeed.
  20. I’ve Got a Crush on You (G. & I. Gershwin). Tatum really enjoyed Gershwin’s songs, possibly because, as a composer who really did like and understand jazz, his pieces had both nice structures and possibilities for improvisation. After a gently embellished opening chorus, Tatum completely “opens up” this song in his improvised chorus: embellishments in the first and last section, with subtle harmonic substitutions, but some quite radical ones in the middle eight and near the end of the first chorus. Interestingly, his second improvised chorus actually simplifies the tune to a large degree, a few patented runs notwithstanding. Not a masterpiece, but still a good window into the way his musical mind worked.
  21. Japanese Sandman (Whiting-Egan). Richard Whiting’s early-‘20s tune was a big hit for the Paul Whiteman orchestra, which for the most part skirted jazz in more ways than one—it generally avoided real improvisation, but also put a “skirt” on it in trying to make jazz a “lady.” Still, the piece is a cute one if generally considered much too simple to improvise on. Tatum jumps right in with the familiar chorus of the song, for once avoiding the verse that preceded it (you can hear this in Whiteman’s recording of it). Harmonic substitutions come as a surprise (especially the one at the 12-second mark, but even in later spots)  simply because you never hear them in this piece. But again it’s in the improvised choruses that he really takes things apart and put them back together in his own way, at one point shifting the harmony up a half tone and then back down again. At the 1:01 mark, he plays a particularly strange, enharmonic break, changing both melody and harmony chromatically. (Tatum really loved chromatic changes, yet was smart enough to use them sparingly rather than baffle the listener too much by overdoing them.) And once again, he swings hard; in fact, this particular session could well be characterized by that word. He was clearly in good spirits that day, and it showed in his work.At 1:23 he playfully switches to 3/4 and stays there until the long run at 1:34, after which he reverts to a fairly brisk swing tempo…though he again reverts to waltz time at the beginning of the last chorus as well. He clearly got as much out of this tune as there was to get; if Whiting (or Whiteman) ever heard it, I’m sure he would have been flabbergasted.
  22. Too Marvelous for Words (Whiting-Mercer). The title of this song was used as the title for James Lester’s superb biography of the pianist. For once in this particular session, the material is not only suited to Tatum’s remarkable powers of invention, but he really develops it in a way worthy to be in his repertoire. Like so many of the songs from the first session, he is already modulating the harmonies from the very opening, again moving the home key up and down chromatically without a moment’s notice. He’s also already swinging by the first chorus…no waiting around for the second. Listening carefully to his procedure here, I think we can arrive at further insights into his genius. When the song was really good, as this one was, Tatum was able to use it as a springboard for deconstruction and reconstruction. That sounds pretty obvious, but it isn’t, really. What I mean by that is that he can not only use some of his own set patterns regarding keyboard runs and harmonic shifts, but also knows how to isolate half a bar or even one beat in a bar and turn it around or upside-down, yet still manage to make those isolated moments fit into the overall scheme of things. This is not easy to do; many are the jazz pianists, even great ones and even modern players who have a technique close to Tatum’s, have the complete grasp of musical principles that he had which made it almost easy for him to do what others would clearly find not only improbable but impossible.All of this is evident in the first full chorus on this recording. It’s not that Tatum is just trying to dazzle the listener: if he were, he’d just fill the chorus up with glittering keyboard runs and leave it at that. What he actually does, however, is infinitely more imaginative and difficult, and that is to play the entire chorus with so many subtle shifts and variants that, when he’s finished, you have to assume that he couldn’t get any more out of the piece. And yet he does, building on what he had played earlier yet taking it further in the next chorus. Once again, he has given us a true masterpiece to make up for My Last Affair or Would You Like to Take a Walk?.
  23. Aunt Hagar’s Blues (Handy-Brymn). A rare example of Tatum really playing an established blues classic. Although full of his usual pyrotechnics, he makes them work within the context of a true blues feeling. Jay McShann, a pianist known for not being particularly charitable to rivals, once said that Tatum was the greatest blues player he had ever heard, and he shows it here. Tatum holds nothing back in terms of real blues feeling (or swing), yet still manages to be true to his own style, perhaps a bit held back in its ornate effusions until the last chorus—yet even there, he stays close to the basic nature of the piece. In its own unique way, this is yet another great performance that few others could equal, let alone surpass. Just listen to the particular way he fractures the time in the last section of this recording, then pulls back to end simply and quietly. You’ll never hear this piece played better by anyone else.
  24. Just Like a Butterfly That’s Caught in the Rain (Woods-Dixon). This song is so obscure that even I had never heard of it alone heard it. I had to go to YouTube to look it up and found a 1927 recording of it by Annette Hanshaw, one of my favorite singers. It’s a maudlin “woe-is-me” song that even Hanshaw couldn’t make interesting. Tatum opens with an out-of-tempo chorus on the theme (there is no verse to this song) using his usual bag of tricks. In the first full improvised chorus he breaks up the song’s rhythm still further, fractioning it almost beyond recognition, but with such threadbare basic material there’s not much he could do. Although his playing is not precious in any way, I couldn’t escape the feeling that he just played this because it popped into his head. Certainly, his improvisation is ten times better than the basic material, but in the end I just found it a display of pyrotechnics with very little musical substance.
  25. Gone With the Wind (Wrubel-Magidson). There’s not a lot to this song, either, but compared to Butterfly it’s a Chopin etude. Tatum’s treatment is complex and baroque from the outset, with even the first chorus being pretty much in tempo but with his usual changes of note values, compression and expansion, and keyboard runs—lots of runs. Here, however, they add value to the basic material, which although not as bad as Butterfly isn’t really great. More of a display of flash than substance, however.
  26. Danny Boy (Weatherly). Unlike the previous two tracks, everyone in the world knows this Irish folk song. Tatum lavishes some of his most imaginative playing on it in spots, opening with a series of odd suspended chords, then reharmonizing the original tune as he plays it relatively straight (for him, anyway) until he reaches the middle section. This is where he throws in some clashing chords to spice things up. The next chorus is mostly left-hand trills in the middle of the keyboard while the right alternates between playing the melody straight and tossing in flourishes. Despite his superior technique and harmonic imagination, however, this is more a display of how his mind worked. The performance itself seems to be more like very high grade cocktail piano.
  27. They Can’t Take That Away from Me (G. & I. Gershwin). Back to Gershwin, Tatum opens with the little-heard verse before launching into the familiar melody in an out-of-tempo chorus filled with frills and furbelows. The middle chorus is taken at a relaxed but steady tempo with good swing in the phrasing, but for the most part Tatum merely embellishes the basic material here rather than rewriting it as in the case of Have You Met Miss Jones. I’m sure, however, that some listeners will like this better than I did.
  28. Tea for Two (Youmans-Caesar). Tea for Two was one of the songs included in Tatum’s first solo recording session in 1933; this one is slightly different, though some of the playing is almost identical. What could easily have been another predictable and possibly routine performance is miraculously transformed into a playground for his phenomenal technique. Tatum does the out-of-tempo opening chorus with lots of substituted chords and flashy runs, but the real treasures occur in the first in-tempo chorus where he uses Vincent Youmans’ familiar but somewhat threadbare tune as a basis for a series of dazzling variations. Yes, some of it is pure flash, but the further he gets into the piece the more he swings, and the more he swings it the more interesting it becomes. In the last chorus he throws in some of his rising and falling chromatic changes. Yes, a lot of this is just for show, but he’s having such a good time and is exploring everything he can think of to embellish the song.
  29. It’s the Talk of the Town (Livingston-Symes-Neiburg). A very pretty tune with some interesting changes, all of which Tatum enhances and embellishes in his performance. Again there is the suggestion of a cocktail piano performance, but on a very high level. Everything that Tatum does here, even the runs, seems to enhance what Jay Livingston originally wrote, and within the relatively relaxed tempo Tatum swings quite well. The third chorus, beginning at 2:25, is the most changed and thus the most interesting.
  30. Blue Lou (Sampson-Mills). A rare example, along with Stompin’ at the Savoy, of Tatum playing a swing era riff tune, again written by Edgar Sampson. I always liked this song, whoever, due to its opening with a diminished chord in the original melody. Tatum plays it faster that either Chick Webb or Benny Goodman did, making a true baroque fantasy out of it. Swinging hard from the very beginning, he pushes Blue Lou into harmonic changes in the first chorus and strongly-accented rhythmic corners in the second that poor Lou didn’t even know were possible. Being a riff tune, there’s not a lot to it in terms of basic material, but Tatum is having a ball and so is the listener.
  31. When a Woman Loves a Man (Jenkins-Mercer-Hanighen). It almost seems unfair to keep saying that this or that performance represents a “typical Tatum treatment,” but one must be honest. Art had his little tricks that he re-used within the context of most songs, with the end results being the same. Yet here he plays a truly remarkable chorus, beginning at 1:19, in which Tatum creates an entirely new and different tune with the left hand in single notes against a “typical” transformation of the melody with his right hand, all the while compressing the time and using substitute chords, some of them modal. Moreover, he carries some of this into the next chorus, where the left hand stays in a medium tempo while the right consistently doubles it, adding several of his runs, some decorative and some functional.  If he were a “pencil” composer who spent a week or two writing such a thing, it would not be very remarkable, but considering that he improvised this on the spot gives one tremendous respect for his musical mind. It was exactly in moments like this that Horowitz and Iturbi were in awe of his talents. They couldn’t do such a thing if their lives depended on it, and they knew it. The devices described above, I think, lift this track out of the “ordinary Tatum” category and make it one of his real (if more subtle) masterpieces. I might also add that this, too is a song that most jazz musicians ignore because they can’t get much out of it. Hardy har har.
  32. Willow Weep for Me (Ann Ronell). This song, one of the loveliest ever written, has long been a favorite of jazz musicians and it was so with Tatum, who played it often. Tatum’s version of it here is not different in overall design from his Capitol recording made a few years earlier, but there is a difference in feel. The Capitol recording was shorter, for one thing; here, Tatum stretches it out over four and a half minutes, adding all sorts of little filigrees to dazzle the listener. Although certainly an excellent version in its own right, I still feel that the Capitol version is superior because it is just a shade more relaxed, bluesier and more swinging in places. This one, though of course exceptionally well done, is more of a Baroque structure, and since the basic song is really a simple one he really doesn’t say as much with the same material.
  33. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Waller-Razaf-Brooks). Where Willow Weep for Me was a bit dragged out but basically flash, Tatum’s treatment of Ain’t Misbehavin’ is fast, blistering, and once past the first full chorus with its razzle-dazzle, a swinging performance in which he uses his runs and other devices to propel it not on roller skates but on jet skis, not forgetting to throw in some truly strange substitute chords in the last chorus. I give it a B-, though, because some of it is rather predictable.
  34. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Kern-Harbach). Another “standard” with interesting chord changes, right up Tatum’s alley. He stretches it out to almost four minutes in this recording, yet again beginning with the little-heard verse intro played out of tempo. The first chorus is a free-tempoed fantasia with his usual substitute chording, The second chorus is more in tempo and replete with his trademark runs. It’s the middle section of this chorus, beginning at about 2:16, where he becomes more imaginative, using unusual, fast-paced left hand figures against the melody in the right. The passage from 2:20 to 2:24 is so dense and complex that, taken out of context, you’d never be able to name the song. The middle eight of the last chorus is quite playful.
  35. Mighty Lak’ a Rose (Nevin-Stanton). I haven’t got a clue why Tatum included this song in his “legacy” sessions. It’s a pseudo-“black” song written by a white guy, Ethelbert Nevin, and white lyricist Frank L. Stanton. It was a concert favorite of opera singers like Geraldine Farrar, but Paul Robeson also liked and recorded it, so here it is. It’s only interesting feature comes in the chord changes used in the second bar of the score, but Tatum again plays it with even more Debussy-like and, at times, Stravinsky-like chording, as was his wont. He breaks up both the tine and its rhythmic placement of notes in the first chorus before throwing in some runs. I did, however, like his swinging the second chorus, where he lets his imagination run more freely, using more functional than decorative runs. An excellent feat of technical wizardry with some interesting moments of real invention, particularly the chorus which begins at 3:33. Here, he rewrites the tune in his own way and does a good job with it. 

    Session 3: 26 solos, April 22, 1954

  36. Stars Fell on Alabama (Parish-Perkins). This was one of Jack Teagarden’s favorite songs, which he performed often during his years with Louis Armstrong. In the introductory chorus, Tatum uses several “falling” chromatics to shift the harmony in different direction but always manages to “come home.” Nonetheless, there’s a lot of cocktail-piano schtick in this chorus. The second, also in a moderately slow tempo, swings more but, again, is only moderately creative, such as the time-compression of notes at the very end. In the third chorus there is some variation on the theme, but not really a lot. For the most part, this is Tatum channeling his inner Liberace. Maybe he thought that Franz might issue this as a single and he’d have a hit record. Who knows?
  37. Blue Moon (Rodgers-Hart). Tatum always seemed to enjoy Rodgers and Hart tunes, and this is no exception. Even from the outset, he is more creative here than in the previous track, a bit playful in the first chorus, both inventive and swinging in the second, playful again in the third where he has some allusions to classical style , twisting and turning the melodic line around like taffy. The next chorus opens with a variation on Ethelbert Nevin’s Narcissus and then really takes off. Not quite as harmonically daring as some of his inventions, but a nice combination of daring and getting back to the basics. The harmony shifts at the very end are surprising, and the playful ending is very cute.
  38. There’s a Small Hotel (Rodgers-Hart). More Rodgers and Hart, and although this doesn’t rank with his greatest creations, Tatum makes far more out of this extremely simple tune than any other jazz musician of his time (and for some time after). Yet in a way, one wonders why he’d play a song with such a trite melody and relatively simple changes. All I can say is that Ferenc Liszt wrote far worse trash than this that is taken quite seriously by classical pianists, and isn’t half as much fun to listen to. At least the chorus beginning at 2:16 is full of functional runs that really do enhance the song, and some of those chord changes at the turnarounds almost sound as if he is about the transpose the entire piece, though he never does. The last chorus is particularly interesting for the way Tatum completely shifts the inner meter of each bar around the 4:28 mark to produce almost chime-like chords in a rhythm that seems to be neither 3/4 nor 4/4, but a combination of both.
  39. Caravan (Tizol-Ellington-Mills). By contrast with the previous three tracks, this is one of Tatum’s greatest transformations. Here he takes Juan Tizol’s Middle Eastern-inspired tune and brings it out of the Gobi Desert and into the barrelhouse, taking it at a frightening quarter=310 and repeating a bass note sequence of contrabass low Bb, emphasized by striking it strongly, and the B an octave above, played very lightly, almost as if the second note was merely an echo of the first. This pattern is further complicated by the way Tatum keeps subtly shifting the emphasis on the notes, which subtly shifts the beat in a curious manner, as if he were somehow tripping, accidentally, through the desert. To this he adds fast downward functional runs that sound somehow harmonically skewed. When he plays the melody, which also starts on a Bb, he purposely adds a low E at the bottom of the chord which throws the harmony off-kilter. And all of this in just the first 23 second of the performance!

    The middle eight also undergoes harmonic transformation, but by Tatum’s standards this is just par. There are much stranger harmonies at the 1:12 mark. I found it interesting that he doesn’t play the muddle 16-bar theme until the 1:18 mark. This, too, undergoes double-time decoration with a hail of mostly descending runs showering down on the tune (and a brief reference to Stephen Foster’s Old Folks at Home at the 1:28 mark). In the middle section of the last chorus, which returns to the initial theme, Tatum throws in a descending contrabass sequence of Eb-Db-C-B-Bb-Ab-Gb-Eb. This may not sound like anything truly startling, but in the context of the performance, it is. He then races through his next improvisation—which, again, includes a paraphrase of Old Folks at Home—to the breathless finish line,  And there’s your caravan, in two minutes and 41 seconds…a breathless rush to the oasis. Maybe the camels had jet skis on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s