"I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house" -- Fats Waller, on Art Tatum
October 25, 2011 2:20 PM   Subscribe

"Art Tatum was [one of the two] dominant piano players of the 1930s, astounding everyone with his technique, most especially other piano players, who were convinced he was playing the impossible" -- Chick Corea, hosting a segment on the largely overlooked Arthur "Art" Tatum, Jr. If that display of skill and improvisation has you interested, here are a few documentaries about the mostly blind piano man who made other pianists question their instrument choice, yet often left the public at large overwhelmed (or unimpressed): Toledo Stories: The Tatum Legacy (YouTube, 28 minutes) :: Art Tatum - The Art Of Jazz Piano (YT, 52 min.) :: Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated (NPR, audio only, 11 min.) :: Art Tatum, 'The Musician's Musician' (NPR audio, 54 min.)

Hat-tip to Obscure Reference on MetaChat for sending me down this rabbit hole. The short post, for those who don't click through, says: "When Rachmaninoff heard Art Tatum play, he said he was the [greatest] pianist in any style." [more]

Rachmaninoff wasn't the only classical (or even non-jazz-associated) musician to regard Art Tatum highly. Vladimir Horowitz though highly of Tatum's skill and improvisational abilities, as seen here whith Horowitz trying to improvise a bit on Tea for Two, which Tatum first recorded in 1933 (YT), and revisited over the years (YT, year unknown). And in a 1985 interview (prev), Jerry Garcia counted Tatum amongst past inspirational musicians, specifically in the "non-guitarist" category:
Art Tatum is my all-time favorite. Yeah, he’s my all-time favorite. He’s the guy I put on when I want to feel really small [laughs]. When I want to feel really insignificant [laughs]. He’s a good guy to play for any musician, you know. He’ll make them want to go home and burn their instruments. [Laughs.] Art Tatum is absolutely the most incredible musician – what can you say?
A number of articles and write-ups mention a Time Magazine article on Art Tatum, but Time.com now requires a log-in to see beyond the first few paragraphs. Regardless, here are some references: Solo Man (Dec. 1949); Jazz Package (May 1952); Swing, with Harmonics (Dec. 1953). For an earlier period review that is available in full, here is a review of a show from 1935, from a performance at The Three Deuces in Chicago.

The one thing missing from the few documentaries on Art Tatum are videos of his playing. The audio only tells half of the story, and you could even believe it is a trick recording, made by multiple people (as was often the assumption in Tatum's day, too). Here are two short clips: Humouresque live, probably on a TV show, and a 1954 TV performance of Yesterdays, which is a rougher quality version than that seen in The Art of Piano (at 21:30, if the timecode link worked right).

If you're looking for more audio, you can find some recordings of old 78 RPM records on Archive.org, and this odd collection of tracks. Also, there is a LOT on YouTube, posted (and originating) in a variety of qualities, with a whole collection of tracks from YouTube user BluesInOrbit (note: UMG limits access to some tracks by country, but many are still accessable). Art's discography (incomplete fan-made listing at Discogs) is lengthy, and made larger by epic 10-disc + 1DVD collection of private recordings (covered previously), from the collection of Arnold Laubich, a guy who literally wrote the book on Tatum's recordings. The other book on Tatum is his his biography: Too Marvelous for Words (Google preview). It's not too inclusive regarding Tatum's life, due to the scant information Tatum shared with people while he was alive.
posted by filthy light thief (33 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I love Art Tatum, thanks for the fantastic post!
posted by supercrayon at 2:35 PM on October 25, 2011

Neat post! Teddy Wilson on Art:
"Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur."
posted by Paragon at 2:36 PM on October 25, 2011

You can also find some Tatum for download at Jazz On Line. (search page, enter "Tatum").
posted by fings at 2:41 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh hell yes. What a post
posted by moorooka at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2011


This is (another) an incredible post! Thanks.

I love Tatum, but I would never think of him as overlooked.
posted by OmieWise at 2:52 PM on October 25, 2011

Jesus, this is a great post!
posted by OmieWise at 2:52 PM on October 25, 2011

But, seriously, I thought we had discussed this kind of behavior.
posted by OmieWise at 2:53 PM on October 25, 2011

Oh yeah, my favorite piano player ever. One of very few musicians completely in his own league. Thanks for the post.
posted by spitbull at 2:54 PM on October 25, 2011

I've been listening to Bob Parlocha, early in the mornings on my drive to meet my gf to walk before work, and lamenting my lack of education with Jazz, especially early jazz.
This is inspiring enough to urge me to start remedying the situation.
Thanks Filthy Light Thief.
posted by el riesgo sempre vive at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2011

OmieWise: I love Tatum, but I would never think of him as overlooked.

I don't consider myself educated or informed about jazz, though I knew of everyone who was mentioned as other Greats in these documentaries, except Tatum. I loved what I heard, but I could see how his almost excessive style could overwhelm the causal, uninformed listener, or even the informed listener who tried to catch every individual note. Crikey, that man's hands flew on the keys, and he had a mind to match.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:00 PM on October 25, 2011

And if you're wondering "Why post 4 documentaries, wouldn't one suffice?" Each has their own focus, together making a more complete picture.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:01 PM on October 25, 2011

posted by mightshould at 3:04 PM on October 25, 2011

Tatum made the bestest music, but I LIKE Mr. Waller bester. 'Cause temperament matters.
posted by cookie-k at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Agreed. This is a fantastic post and I had never seen any of this video before -- but I think people who know even a little about jazz know Art Tatum.

Aside: OmieWise - aren't you dead? I just picked up the amazing new Snake Farm record, and it's pretty clear you're dead. I think you drowned or something, right there on Track 6. Everyone should buy that record.
posted by The Bellman at 3:07 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think we have a number of ghosts haunting MetaFilter
posted by filthy light thief at 3:13 PM on October 25, 2011

This is, as always, an amazing and insane post. I, too, didn't know Art was overlooked. I think once you get into reading about jazz, though, eventually every piano player makes a comment about his awesomeitude. So maybe he's like a jazz pianist's pianist? Which I guess is what you said before.
posted by winna at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2011

Aside: OmieWise - aren't you dead?

How can that be an aside!?! Nah, I'm not dead. John Lewis is a punk!

I don't know anything about Snake Farm, but that record looks right up my alley. I'll be picking it up. Thanks.
posted by OmieWise at 3:43 PM on October 25, 2011

Two things I've always felt about Art Tatum. The sheer amount of notes he plays, his floridity, his technical brilliance -- can overshadow the emotional and expressive beauty of his playing. You have to listen past the cascades and the lightening flourishes.
And his churning unstoppable creativity. Even his massive technique seems unequal to the density of ideas that gush from the man. Uncanny.
posted by Jode at 3:54 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Overlooked? Hardly. Not only was he not overlooked in the jazz world, but there was/is great awareness of him in the world of classical music - Rachmaninov, himself a great pianist and something of a freak of nature (giant hands due to Marfan, allowed him extraordinary reach) - was of the opinion that Tatum was the greatest living pianist in any genre.

Art Tatum is a very interesting musician for me. I admire his technique, and it goes without saying that he's an almost superhuman performer - anyone can hear that. I have tons and tons of his music and listen to it regularly. But... how do I put it best... to me, he's still primarily a performer. Yes, extraordinary performer, of such sublime ability that it certainly transcends mere performance and it would be unfair to call him just a performer - he was innovative and his technique allowed him to reach heights of interpretation that can justly be called truly original. However, he, by his own admission, and indeed the testimony of his vast output, was mostly interested in playing standards - playing sublimely well, of course, but that was what he prided himself on. That is not to say he was not capable of wholly original compositions, but that this was, comparatively speaking, a minor part of his focus and oeuvre.

And I - personal taste - look for a bit more in a musician. Think of great pianists, such as Rubinstein, whose work is impeccable, a true artist, and then think of great pianists such as Liszt, who not only was an amazing pianist as a performer, but as a composer of original works. But that's rather obvious. I'm getting at something a bit different - think of the difference between a Monk doing a standard, and Tatum doing a standard. Both interpret, but Monk, to me, while not even within the same galaxy as Tatum when it comes to raw technique, outpaces Tatum by leagues when it comes to the originality of his interpretation. Again, this is not to say Tatum didn't do very original - and unmatched - interpretations, but they always (to me) stayed within striking distance to the original in a way that was utterly transcended by someone like Monk. And that is perhaps, why, despite all of Tatum's technique and inventiveness and his immense and effortless output of musical ideas , his sound can seem somewhat dated, while that's never the case with someone like Monk.

And to stress it again: I love Tatum and listen to him regularly. But I also think of him as perhaps more of a supreme - supreme - performer than someone who changed the world musically as much as many of his technique-inferiors.
posted by VikingSword at 4:17 PM on October 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Well, now I'm going to go read/listen/watch all these links and burn any fpps I may have in progress.

And a new Snake Farm album! Yay!
posted by rtha at 5:20 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

RTHA: Right? It only took them 12 years.
posted by The Bellman at 6:13 PM on October 25, 2011

The great pianist Dick Hyman --- a rare pianist whom can play in any style (and did the music for a bunch of Woody Allen movies) said it took him over 15 years to transcribe Tatum's solo version of "Tea for Two. With the possible exception of Franz Liszt in the mid 1800s, Art Tatum was the greatest pianist who ever lived.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 6:38 PM on October 25, 2011

... but then, of course there's Bill Evans, who had just as much chops but used them sparingly.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 6:40 PM on October 25, 2011

And to stress it again: I love Tatum and listen to him regularly. But I also think of him as perhaps more of a supreme - supreme - performer than someone who changed the world musically as much as many of his technique-inferiors.--VikingSword

He influenced a lot of musicians. In The Art of Jazz we hear that his playing convinced Les Paul to give up the piano and take up guitar.
posted by eye of newt at 10:57 PM on October 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

As kind of an aside, I have to say that I'm glad to be reminded that Jazz Profiles on NPR was hosted by Nancy Wilson.
posted by OmieWise at 3:42 AM on October 26, 2011

I enjoy the fact that Art Tatum approached the piano in such a nonchalant way, like, let's have some fun here. So many other performers sit down like they are at some reverential altar. He just sat down and beat it to death.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:22 AM on October 26, 2011

Also, that anecdote about Tatum playing "Little Man You've Had a Tough Day" aimed at Oscar Peterson was hilarious.
posted by OmieWise at 8:03 AM on October 26, 2011

Huh. I have one Art Tatum album on my iPod, and I kind of got it by accident. I was searching my library catalog for Buddy Rich, and this Art Tatum album came up so I nabbed it. And it's all xylophone and marimba... and, while I like it a lot, it totally fixed into my head the idea that Tatum was a percussionist, not a pianist. I'll be damned.
posted by COBRA! at 8:07 AM on October 26, 2011

Piano is percussion. (But I know what you mean.)
posted by OmieWise at 8:15 AM on October 26, 2011

Is it really considered percussion? I don't doubt you, but man, that seems weird to me.
posted by COBRA! at 9:23 AM on October 26, 2011

Is it really considered percussion?

It is weird, but yeah, technically it is (say, in an orchestration manual, you'll see it listed in that section). It's because you make sounds with it by hitting things.
posted by dfan at 9:48 AM on October 26, 2011

Tatum's lightning-fast technique also has a legacy in the budding field of music information retrieval -- the shortest perceivable time interval in music is called a "tatum"!

I tried to transcribe one of his solos once. It was... challenging.
posted by speicus at 11:41 AM on October 26, 2011

It's seriously hard to underestimate AT's contribution to popular music - start by imagining no Thelonius Monk and Oscar Peterson for starters.

Art would sound great sweeping a floor. Check out the Art Tatum Group Masterpieces recorded by Rudy Van Gelder on Pablo. If you have any doubt about the man's uber-genius, check it out and you can almost hear him thinking while listening to the other players. He could showboat and outshine anyone, but you can hear subtlety and modesty in his dynamics.

Shout outs to other KBEM fans....
posted by onesidys at 6:55 PM on October 26, 2011

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