Jazz stars. Art Tatum

Today, on the birthday of Arthur (Art) Tatum, American jazz pianist, one of the first swing soloists-virtuosos, owner of phenomenal performing technique, in the column "Jazz Stars" – a story about the life of the musician. Selection of the musical compositions that he performs is posted in the museum Phonotheque. His experiments are considered to have anticipated the harmonic language of bebop. A distinctive feature of Art Tatum's playing style is the frequent use of scales and arpeggios covering the entire keyboard.

Arthur Tatum was born on October 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, USA, the son of a mechanic. Ohio, USA, the son of a mechanic. The boy had congenital cataracts in both eyes. A series of operations somewhat restored the vision in one eye. He was able to distinguish colours and contours of objects. There are different versions about how and when Art began to play the piano, sometimes it is written that already at the age of three he was picking up religious hymns by ear. The boy was a prodigy with absolute threshold of hearing. As a teenager, he played at parties and small cafés. The local radio regularly broadcast his fifteen-minute performances, which became so popular that they were later transmitted on the national radio network.

Art was already then "changing the harmony of the pieces he played, often moving from one tonality to another, inserting passing chords". These innovations had a serious impact not only on pianists, but also on jazz musicians in general. In 1927, Tatum began playing on the Toledo WSPD radio station as "Arthur Tatum, the blind pianist from Toledo". Soon Art had his own programme. Rumours of Tatum's incredible playing also reached famous jazz musicians. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson all made stops on their tours to hit the club where the musician was playing and hear the young talent. The pianism of Tatum evolved from the stride (a special jazz technique in which the pianist's left hand creates a rich rhythmic and melodic pattern on a four-beat base) to his own style – sometimes eccentric, replete with passages, arpeggios, and unexpected transitions into distant tonalities.
Upon arriving in New York, Tatum immediately found himself in the clubs, where fierce jam sessions, real competitive battles of musical gladiators, were organised.

In 1933, Art recorded his first records. Contemporary critics believe that these recordings had a strong influence on musicians of those years. "Tiger Rag" was among the first recordings, which was played at a tempo of 370 metronome beats per minute. Few jazz pianists could keep up with this tempo, and Art allowed virtually no deviation from it. The reverence in which he was held is illustrated by an incident involving the famous pianist and composer Thomas Wright Waller. It is said that Waller, playing in a club, suddenly saw Tatum; he stood up from behind his piano and declared: "How can I play when the Lord God himself is sitting among us today!”.

Tatum was one of the first musicians to perform at the Onyx Club on the 52nd Street. The pianist's repertoire was dominated by the usual array for the time: ragtime, one-step, classical excerpts, and standards. He was reluctant to play in orchestras, performing mostly solo programmes, partly because few musicians could match his lightning-fast pace. He spent the next few years performing in clubs in Cleveland and Chicago, but returned to New York in 1937, where his radio appearances, performances in clubs, and disc recordings helped establish him as a leading pianist in jazz community. Tatum toured the United States and visited Great Britain.

Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff declared after hearing Tatum play that he was the greatest pianist regardless of style. Other famous musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and George Gershwin admired Tatum's genius. Charlie Parker, one of the bebop founders, was heavily influenced by Tatum at the beginning of his career. After arriving in New York, Parker took a job as a dishwasher in one of the restaurants where Tatum played, so that he could listen to the legendary pianist performance.

In 1941, Art Tatum recorded two sessions for Decca Records with singer Big Joe Turner, the first of which included "Wee Wee Baby Blues," which became nationally known. Two years later, Tatum was ranked the number one most popular jazz player in an Esquire Magazine poll. Tatum formed a jazz trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. The musicians performed together for three years before Art returned to a solo career.

The repertoire of Tatum consisted mainly of Great American Songbook music – "Tin Pan Alley" and other popular music of the 20s, 30s and 40s. He played his own arrangements of several classical piano pieces, an arrangement of "Humoresque No. 7" by Antonin Dvořák and "Elegies" by Jules Massenet. These interpretations are unrivalled in concept and inventiveness. Although Art was not known as a composer, his versions of the tunes were so original that they bore little resemblance to the original works.

Art Tatum was a rather diffident person. Even those closest to him said they knew little about him. He rarely criticised others, was hard-working, compliant, deeply devoted to music, and was loved and respected by his colleagues. Tatum had an amazing capacity for work: he could play two days in a row with few breaks. It's hard to believe, but even in the 50's he was regularly playing scales and exercises to keep up his phenomenal technique. He didn't just hit the keys incredibly fast without losing the melodic line. He framed the melody with unconventional but very interesting chords, and he did it with extraordinary ease. And all this at an incredible tempo for that time – in 1949 he played the piece "I Know That You Know" at 450 beats per minute, without practising speed.

With the establishment of bebop on the jazz scene, Art Tatum stopped performing for a while until the early 1950s. Between December 1953 and January 1955, the musician was commissioned by Norman Granz to record over one hundred solo pieces, which were then released on eleven long-playing LPs. By the time this series was released, however, Art Tatum was already seriously ill. He died on November 5, 1956 at a medical centre in Los Angeles.

  • In 1989, Toledo, Tatum's hometown, the Art Tatum African American Resource Centre was established at the Kent Branch Library. It houses print, audio, and microfiche materials and provides cultural programming including festivals, concerts, and a gallery for local artists.

  • In 1993, a MIT* student in computer musicology coined the term "tatum" in recognition of the pianist's speed of playing. It was defined as "the shortest time interval between consecutive notes in a rhythmic phrase" and "the fastest pulse present in a piece of music".

*Massachusetts Institute of Technology