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Old 06-20-2013, 05:16 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Art Tatum

Art Tatum (1909-1956) was born in Toledo and showed musical promise at an early age despite being born nearly blind. At 3, he was already playing piano by ear via listening to his mother's church choir and then repeating what they sang. Later, he listened to the radio and to player-pianos which were still popular at that time reproducing what he heard. He was sent to the Toledo School of Music where he was deeply trained in classical music in which he excelled but Art wanted to play jazz (fortunately, there are a lot of recordings of Art playing extraordinary classical renditions). By the late 20s, the jazz world was abuzz about the incredible technique of this kid from Toledo. When Art went to New York in 1932, he was set upon by the best stride pianists in the business—James P. Johnson (author of "Charleston"), Fats Waller and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Art blew past them with a blazing rendition of "Tea for Two." The crowd was speechless, no one had ever heard piano played this way before. Johnson was determined to bring the kid to his knees and played powerfully and masterfully everything from ragtime to stride to boogie-woogie to magnificent classical pieces by Chopin. Waller said he had never heard Johnson play so perfectly and masterfully before or since that night in Harlem. Then Art played "Tiger Rag" with such speed and dexterity that it brought the house down. Johnson bowed out and admitted defeat. Waller recalled, "That Tatum, he was just too good!" Johnson recalled, "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night, I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played."

Every piece that Art Tatum plays is a lesson in jazz technique and theory. He made use of stride piano techniques invented by powerhouses like Johnson, Waller and Smith and added dense blocks of beautiful chords that he learned from studying Liszt whom he idolized that he used to erect towering edifices of musical structure like no one else has done before or since. His use of passing notes were densely packed together into every bar he played with rapid-fire precision in a way no one else had ever conceived. He incorporated concert hall piano techniques so that his pieces could be played in small clubs or in concert halls and it would still have the same awesome power. By the time, he was done, he had incorporated into a single system everything that was offered in the African-American and European piano traditions. True jazz piano was born. Art Tatum is in himself an entire school of jazz. Whether he played solo or with a band, Art was a master of jazz improvisation and technique. No one fortunate enough to play with him ever walked away without having just learned incredible things about music he had never even dreamed about before. Some complain that Art didn't focus enough on composition and played the Songbook too much but his renditions were SO original that they actually ARE original compositions, new ways of hearing an old standard so that it sounded as though you were hearing it for the first time. His rendition of "I Know That You Know" is played at an astonishing 400 beats per minute! His hands must have been huge because he can cover an octave and a third and even an octave and a fifth with one hand judging from what I hear him playing on his recordings.

Art had so thoroughly exhausted everything in jazz piano at that time that later piano powerhouses as Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Monk, Brubeck, Lennie Tristano, Bud Powell had to chart new territory, get out from under Tatum's immense shadow, otherwise risk being labeled as an Art Tatum copycat which is doubly bad because he can't be copied. No one else can match him. He single-handedly propelled piano to heights it could not have today had he not existed. So ahead of his time was Art that most of the mind-bogglingly vast musical vocabulary that he invented and evolved all by himself remains uncharted, unexplored. Only tiny bits of it are used today by pianists who admit that even the oldest recordings of Art's playing both thrill and scare them and reduce many of them to tears partly out of awe and partly out of frustration.

“I’m just a piano player. But God is in the house tonight." --Fats Waller upon seeing Art Tatum sitting in the audience.

"If Art Tatum took up a serious study of classical piano today, I would retire tomorrow." --Vladimir Horowitz

"“If this man ever decides to play serious music we’re all in trouble.” --Rachmaninoff

“There’s a demonic, almost diabolical quality to his playing. The Furies must have gathered around his crib at birth, something infernal slipped into his mother’s milk.” --Arthur Fiedler

The vast majority of what Art has left behind for us, his massive legacy, just sits there on the books waiting to be picked up and used by someone bold and dexterous enough to know what to do with it. That has not happened yet.

Here in Detroit, we have the oldest continuously operating jazz club in the world--Baker's Keyboard Lounge. The bar is built in the shape of a huge piano--the only like it in the world. The Keyboard in question is the beautiful Steinway piano that has been occupying that floor since 1956. How did it get there? Art Tatum had it shipped in from New York when Baker's hired him as the house pianist. Thousands of the greatest jazz pianists have since played on it. I go there frequently just to see it and hear a master play on it and smile to myself that Art's spirit inhabits it. His last live concert was in Baker's on that piano then he flew off to LA to do some studio work for jazz impresario Norman Granz. Art died there that weekend at the age of 47.

Art is a joy to listen to. I can just listen to number after number after number. I can't wait to hear what he's going to do on the next song:


Art Tatum plays I Got Rhythm (solo,1940) - YouTube


Art Tatum plays Dvorak - YouTube


Over the Rainbow (1953) by Art Tatum - YouTube
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Old 06-20-2013, 08:05 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Art Tatum, greatest piano player ever born.
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Old 07-27-2013, 11:32 AM   #3 (permalink)
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I saw a documentary on Tatum a few months back that was hosted by Andre Previn and Oscar Peterson. The awe which these two very talented musicians held for Art Tatum was quite obvious.
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Old 07-29-2013, 07:00 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Art Tatum played some stride piano pieces that have remained technically impossible for any other player to faithfully duplicate to this day. His blazing speed on The Shout (embedded below) blows me away. He sounded like he was playing with three right hands.

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Last edited by Gavin B.; 07-30-2013 at 08:28 AM.
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