May 24, 2024

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Art Tatum – One of the greatest jazz pianists of all time: Video

13.10. – Happy Birthday !!! Art Tatum, an African American pianist, and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, was born on this date in 1909, in Toledo, OH.

Tatum was blind in one eye and visually impaired in the other. A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio, and copying piano-roll recordings his mother owned. He developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing accuracy.

Tatum drew inspiration from his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more “modern” Earl Hines.

During a 1932-33 tour with Adelaide Hall, Tatum made his first solo recordings, then went on to work as a soloist in various clubs throughout the United States, as well as in Europe. A major event in Tatum’s meteoric rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 in New York City that included Waller, Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson’s “Harlem Strut” and “Carolina Shout” and Fats Waller’s “Handful of Keys.” Tatum triumphed with his arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag,” in a performance which was considered to be the last word in stride piano. Tatum’s debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era.

He eventually formed a trio with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart in 1943. In 1953, he began working with Norman Granz, which led to collaborations with the likes of Benny Carter, Ben Webster, and Roy Eldridge.

Tatum’s technique was distinctive, and his hands seemed to glide effortlessly over difficult passages. Tatum played at astounding speed, with superb accuracy and timing, scintillating runs in which his fingers seemed to hardly move. His technique was all the more remarkable considering that he drank prodigious amounts of alcohol when performing,yet his recordings are never sloppy.

Tatum was an innovator in reharmonizing melodies, and many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the jazz age) and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians 20 years later.

Tatum’s fans included such classical musicians as pianist Vladimir Horowitz and conductor Leopold Stokowski. Horowitz was amazed at Tatum’s technical command. Recordings that reveal his gifts include “The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces,” Vols. 1-8 and “The Tatum Group Masterpieces,” Vols. 1-8.

Tatum was respected by fellow musicians and often thought of as super-human. His intricate and technically dazzling improvisational flourishes helped to define the very core of the bebop lexicon, with fleet-fingered runs and adventurous improvisations. He worked steadily in solo and trio settings, with occasional forays using larger groups, until his death on November 5, 1956.

Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Fifty years ago Sunday, the jazz musician Art Tatum died. He’s been called one of the piano geniuses of all time, in any genre. Yet his legacy is often overlooked.

It’s hard to summon enough superlatives for Tatum’s piano playing: his harmonic invention, his technical virtuosity, his rhythmic daring. The great stride pianist Fats Waller famously announced one night when Tatum walked into the club where Waller was playing, “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.”

The musical prodigy was born in Toledo, Ohio, to a mechanic and a domestic who worked in white homes. Legally blind and largely self-taught, Tatum memorized entire piano rolls, and absorbed music from the radio and the Victrola. He emerged in the 1930s as a fully formed musician whose improvisational skill quickly became legend.

There had never before been anyone like Art Tatum.

“Tatum’s playing was unworldly, unreal, because his standard was so high,” says Dick Hyman, a Florida-based pianist and composer who is considered a great performer of early piano jazz.

“Tatum’s harmonies to begin with were beyond what anybody was doing at the time… really beyond what anybody’s done since,” Hyman says.

The highly regarded jazz critic and author Gary Giddins listens to lots and lots of jazz. But he says he plays certain artists more often than others.

“Tatum is one of them,” Giddins says. “He’s endlessly fascinating. You know, people used to criticize Tatum and they would say things like, ‘Well, it’s too ornamental… there’s too much decorative stuff.’ That is the essence of Tatum. If you don’t like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That’s where his genius is.”

People who heard Tatum on a record for the first time often thought they were listening to two piano players.

He became a phenomenon in New York. It wasn’t unusual to look up and see the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz or the composer George Gershwin sitting in the audience in awe.

He usually played solo, because it was so hard for accompanists to follow his dazzling, volcanic musical ideas. He tried to play everything he heard in his head.

Whitney Balliett, longtime New Yorker jazz critic, once observed: “Tatum’s mind abhorred a vacuum.”

The jazz pianist and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor — a protege of Tatum’s — says his mentor could even make a bad piano sound good.

“He really heard so many things,” Taylor says. “The piano was out of tune, he’d make it work so that even the note was out of tune, he’d use that.”

Over the past year, Storyville Records, a Danish label, released nine CDs full of rare Tatum material. They’re what one collector calls “the equivalent of discovering unpublished Shakespeare plays.”

Many of these previously unreleased recordings came from the vault of a retired real estate executive named Arnold Laubich. He says he first heard Tatum as a teenager — more than 60 years ago — and never got over it. He is the world’s preeminent collector of Art Tatum recordings.

The Storyville CDs are remarkable because they offer an audio glimpse into the invisible world of jazz — the after-hours parties where musicians unwound and tried out new songs and new ideas, or just had fun.

“He played all night and into the day, and often ’til noon or later, from the night before,” Laubich says. “And this is what he would do. He would go to these places. And sometimes he’d go from place to place and crowds would follow him. But the crowds were friends.”

Art Tatum died on Nov. 5, 1956 at 47. Death came from complications associated with his prodigious drinking.

Laubich says a couple years ago he gave a lecture on Tatum to a class at City College in New York. No one in the class had heard of Tatum.

He has never joined the pantheon of jazz greats — Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis. There’s no Tatum songbook, because he rarely composed. In fact, it’s said he was so original that he re-composed every song he ever played.

His piano playing was so advanced almost nobody can copy him.

And yet, his genius is remembered, in small, but significant ways.

A few years ago, a young MIT grad student invented a term that’s now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: The tatum.

It means “the smallest perceptual time unit in music.”

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