Saturday, February 23, 2008

Three pioneering jazz pianists you should know: II. Art Tatum, 1909-1956.

Duke Ellington called him the "8th wonder of the world." Fats Waller announced his presence by saying, "Tonight, God is in the house." Vladimir Horowitz, George Gershwin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff were among his fans. The list of jazz musicians who have cited him as their primary influence and inspiration is long and illustrious. Descriptions of Art Tatum's playing overflow with superlatives, yet in his lifetime, he never had a large popular following, which makes the quality and number of the recordings we have of him all the more remarkable.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Tatum was blind in one eye and partially blind in the other. He first learned piano from his mother's piano roll recordings and by age six, was playing duets by himself, not realizing the pieces were meant for more than one performer. Tatum would continue to amaze throughout his career, but there was nothing gimmicky about his performance. Though he typically played very fast, there was no loss of clarity, shape, or beat. His hands may have been just a blur; his music never was.

Though Art Tatum had a tremendous influence on the future of jazz music, he was also essentially inimitable. He made some "small group" recordings, but was at his best as a solo performer. His genius was in improvisation, and, as legend has it, his greatest performances were at the after-hours cutting sessions in the nightclubs of Harlem. No one ever "cut" Art Tatum. Once he sat down at the piano, he stayed and played all night.

I suspect that it takes a very sophisticated ear to fully appreciate Tatum's playing. He might legitimately be described as a musician's musician. On the other hand, though his improvisations are complex, the melodic line is clear, and, coming as it does out of the stride piano tradition, the music swings. While serious musicians might feel a bit cowed (O.K., devastated) by what Art Tatum could do at the keyboard, the rest of us can just relax and enjoy.

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