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Art Tatum - Record Repertoire

Arthur Tatum Jr., born October 13, 1909, was an American jazz pianist who is widely regarded as one of the greatest in his field. From early in his career, Tatum's technical ability was regarded by fellow musicians as extraordinary. Many pianists attempted to copy him; others questioned their own skills after encountering him, and some even switched instruments in response. In addition to being acclaimed for his virtuoso technique, Tatum extended the vocabulary and boundaries of jazz piano far beyond his initial stride influences, and established new ground in jazz through innovative use of reharmonisation, voicing, and bitonality.

Tatum grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he began playing piano professionally and had his own radio program, rebroadcast nationwide, while still in his teens. Growing up, Tatum drew inspiration principally from Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, who exemplified the stride piano style, and to some extent from the more modern Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. Tatum identified Waller as his biggest influence, while pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield suggested that Hines was one of his favorite jazz pianists. Another influence was pianist Lee Sims, who did not play jazz, but did use chord voicings and an orchestral approach (i.e. encompassing a full sound instead of highlighting one or more timbres that appeared in Tatum's playing.) Tatum talks about the influences of Fats Waller and Lee Sims in an interview Leigh Kamman below.

Tatum left Toledo in 1932 and had residencies as a solo pianist at clubs in major urban centers including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In that decade, he settled into a pattern that he followed for most of his career – paid performances followed by long after-hours playing, all accompanied by prodigious consumption of alcohol. He was said to be more spontaneous and creative in such venues, and although the drinking did not negatively affect his playing, it did damage his health.

Tatum had a calm physical demeanor at the keyboard, not attempting crowd-pleasing theatrical gestures. This accentuated the impact of his playing on observers, as did his seemingly effortless technique, as pianist Hank Jones observed – the apparently horizontal gliding of his hands across the keys stunned his contemporaries.Tatum's relatively straight-fingered technique, compared to the curvature taught in classical training, contributed to this visual impression: a critic wrote in 1935 that, when playing, "Tatum's hand is almost perfectly horizontal, and his fingers seem to actuate around a horizontal line drawn from wrist to finger tip."

Tatum was independent-minded and generous with his time and money. Not wanting to be restricted by Musicians' Union rules, he avoided joining for as long as he could. He also disliked anything that drew attention to his blindness: he did not want to be physically led and so planned his independent walk to the piano in clubs if possible. In his own words, he described his eyesight as "not too good, but I can see enough to read and write and get around." People who met Tatum consistently "describe him as totally lacking in arrogance or ostentation" and as being gentlemanly in behaviour. He avoided discussing his personal life and history in interviews and in conversation with acquaintances.

Saxophonist Benny Green wrote that Tatum was the only jazz musician to "attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal". Tatum was able to transform the styles of preceding jazz piano through virtuosity: where other pianists had employed repetitive rhythmic patterns and relatively simple decoration, he created "harmonic sweeps of colour [...and] unpredictable and ever-changing shifts of rhythm".

Below is a film of three clips of Art Tatum playing, the first is Tiny's Exercise at the Three Deuces New-York 1943, the second is an appearance he made in the film The Fabulous Dorseys, 1946, and the third is a performance on Yesterdays Spike Jones Show New-York 17 April 1954.

Tatum had a different way of improvising from what is typical in modern jazz. He did not try to create new melodic lines over a harmonic progression; instead, he implied or played the original melody or fragments of it, while superimposing countermelodies and new phrases to create new structures based around variation. "The harmonic lines may be altered, reworked or rhythmically rephrased for moments at a time, but they are still the base underneath Tatum's superstructures. The melodic lines may be transformed into fresh shapes with only a note or a beat or a phrase particle retained to associate the new with the original, yet the melody remains, if only in the listener's imagination."

This flexibility extended to his use of rhythm: regardless of the tempo, he could frequently alter the number of notes per beat and use other techniques at the same time to alter the rhythmic intensity and shape of his phrasing. His rhythmic sense also allowed him to move away from the established tempo of a piece for extended periods without losing the beat.

Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances. Whereas in a professional setting he would often give audiences what they wanted – performances of songs that were similar to his recorded versions – but decline to play encores, in after-hours sessions with friends he would play the blues, improvise for long periods on the same sequence of chords, and move even more away from the melody of a composition. Tatum also sometimes sang the blues in such settings, accompanying himself on piano. Composer and historian Gunther Schuller describes "a night-weary, sleepy, slurry voice, of lost love and sexual innuendos which would have shocked (and repelled) those 'fans' who admired Tatum for his musical discipline and 'classical' [piano] propriety".

In the 1940s, Tatum led a commercially successful trio for a short time and began playing in more formal jazz concert settings, including at Norman Granz produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events. In 1945 Tatum featured in the comic book True Sport Picture Stories in their Gallery of Champions.

His popularity diminished towards the end of the decade, as he continued to play in his own style, ignoring the rise of bebop. Granz recorded Tatum extensively in solo and small group formats in the mid-1950s, with the last session occurring only two months before the pianist's death from uremia at the age of 47 on November 5, 1956 in Los Angeles, California.

Tatum's improvisational style extended what was possible on jazz piano. The virtuoso solo aspects of Tatum's style were taken on by pianists such as Adam Makowicz, Simon Nabatov, Oscar Peterson, and Martial Solal. Even musicians who played in very different styles, such as Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano, and Herbie Hancock, memorised and recreated some of his recordings to learn from them. Although Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum's influence. Mary Lou Williams said, "Tatum taught me how to hit my notes, how to control them without using pedals. And he showed me how to keep my fingers flat on the keys to get that clean tone."

Tatum's influence went beyond the piano, however: his innovations in harmony and rhythm established new ground in jazz more broadly. He made jazz musicians more aware of harmonic possibilities by changing the chords that he used with great frequency; this helped lay the foundations for the emergence of bebop in the 1940s. His modern chord voicing and chord substitutions were also pioneering in jazz. Below is an interview with Oscar Peterson and Count Basie on Art Tatum, 1980.



Reading Recommendations & Content Considerations

The Life & Genius of Art Tatum

James Lester



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