Art Tatum: No Greater Art

Talkin’ Tatum with Hank Jones, Billy Taylor, Dick Hyman, Adam Makowicz

Today, Art Tatum would have been 88. His music survives and continues to astound.

This weekend, after working my way through his Solo and Group Masterpieces on Pablo, which included such collaborators as Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton and Ben Webster, I’m listening to a Verve reissue, 20th Century Piano Genius, recorded live at several Beverly Hills parties in the ’50s. I flash on such accolades as “Tatum—no one can imitatum” and “No one can overratum.” A bit trite perhaps, but they do have the ring of truth.

Although a number of his keyboard cousins have also possessed superior technique, Tatum continues to amaze 42 years after his untimely passing. Few have been able to duplicate his dazzling right-hand runs, often executed at seemingly impossible speeds while his left hand offered his own distinctive stride beat, his boundless invention or the beauty of his harmonic tapestries. What a concept—elaborate fill-ins, dazzling arpeggios, sumptuous chording and a predilection for sudden changes of key and tempo. These uniquely distinct manifestations of Tatum’s artistry elevated standards to sovereign status.

Back in the ’30s and ’40s, when 52nd Street was at its zenith, Art Tatum, who was legally blind, was one of its most consistent drawing cards at clubs like the Downbeat and the Three Deuces. As the story goes, Fats Waller was working the Yacht Club as the featured performer one night and he spotted Tatum in the audience. “I just play the piano,” Waller announced. “But God is in the house tonight.” Even classical piano virtuosi Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff visited “The Street” to check out Tatum and left astounded and bemused by his pyrotechnical skills.

Club engagements were just the start of a night for Tatum, who thrived in after hours clubs, jam sessions and cutting contests. Many observers feel that Tatum did his best playing in these situations when, because he wasn’t being paid for his services, he was able to play for as long and late as he pleased. He also seemed to feast on competition. Another legend tells of a Harlem keyboard joust where Tatum bested an imperious Bud Powell by using his left hand to play everything Bud was playing on his right, immediately after Bud had played it.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Tatum arrived in 1932 backing singer Adelaide Hall and found New York to his liking, quickly becoming one of “The Street”’s highest paid stars. He lived as he played, prodigiously, drinking everything in one gulp yet never seeming to get drunk. Tatum would also stay awake for days on end, playing almost non-stop and maintaining his energy through catnaps, but he’d also sleep in long stretches, as well, awakening instantly when one of hands was touched.

Art Tatum died of uremic poisoning in 1956 at the age of 47 but his playing is still the subject of awe among pianists worldwide. To get more insight into Tatum, I spoke with four pianists who have been deeply touched by him: Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, Adam Makowicz and Billy Taylor. Hyman heard Tatum a number of times and, along with Billy Taylor, was cited by Tatum as one of his favorites among “young” pianists. Jones first heard Tatum on the radio in his native Detroit and was instantly hooked. Makowicz grew up in Poland and was ready to be a classical pianist until he heard Tatum on one of Willis Conover’s Voice of America broadcasts. More than 30 years later, he played at the Kennedy Center’s Tatum series and has recently released a exceptional solo piano encomium, A Tribute to Art Tatum, on VWC.” Taylor served as Tatum’s protégé and amanuensis when he came to New York in 1945.

Dick Hyman

“Every young pianist of my generation had a powerful moment when he first heard Art Tatum and wondered how it was possible for somebody to play that way. Like everyone else, I had his records early on; I must have been 10 or 11. A little later on, I got to play on the same bill with him at a club called Cafe Society. I was playing in Tony Scott’s Quartet and for a week or so, Tatum was the featured act. That was marvelous time also. Was I awestruck? I should say so.

“What was it about Tatum? It was everything, not just his technique, although that was enough to boggle the mind right there. It was his sense of harmony, his voice leading, his time, his touch, his ideas, it was his integration of his well known runs and figures with lines which were at least as complex as what Bird would do a few years later.

“At first, I did try to emulate him but I didn’t exactly transcribe his solos. I tried to learn his runs and incorporate what I could, but that’s a very tall order. I still haven’t done it.

“As pianists, we all do what we can to follow in Tatum’s footsteps but some people have gone entirely in a different direction because they’ve give up trying, they’ve seen how pointless it is to make that turn. In my case, I’ve tried to get as much as I could through the years and by now, I know a fair amount but I would never say that I do it perfectly.”

Hank Jones

“I saw Tatum in person many many times. I used to work at a club in Buffalo, New York, the Anchor Bar. Whenever Tatum was in town, he’d be working at another club across town called McVans. We’d go over and catch his last set and then after he finished his last set, he would usually go to an after hours spot or to somebody’s home who had invited him to come and play. He would just play for hours after he finished work. I guess that’s how he practiced. He never stopped playing. It seemed that he played all of his waking hours. I think this is probably how he perfected his technique and maintained it. He had an endless flow of ideas and an unbelievable technique with both hands. He put it all together. I believe that Tatum was the greatest pianist of this century.

“When I first heard him, it was a radio broadcast before he came to New York. I listened to what I thought was two or three pianists playing together on these unbelievable arrangements. I thought to myself, they must have rehearsed this stuff a lot because these guys couldn’t play this way unless they spend a lot of time working. I was amazed when I discovered that it was only one man playing. I couldn’t believe it. That was my first introduction.

“When finally met him and got a chance to hear him play in person, it seemed as if he wasn’t really exerting much effort, he had an effortless way of playing. It was deceptive. You’d watch him and you couldn’t believe what was coming out, what was reaching your ears. He didn’t have that much motion at the piano. He didn’t make a big show of moving around and waving his hands and going through all sorts of physical gyrations to produce the music that he produced, so that in itself is amazing. There had to be intense concentration there, but you couldn’t tell by just looking at him play.

“Tatum completely mastered the jazz idiom. His harmonic conception was far advanced. In fact, he was using harmonic concepts that bebop players adapted years later. Of course his technique was flawless and with both hands too. I believe that anything he could conceive in his mind, he could execute and his mind must have moved at lightening speed, otherwise he couldn’t have done the things that he did. What else is there? He did everything possible on the piano. I’ve heard people try to imitate Tatum. The imitators can only go so far. Maybe they can approach the technique but how can they approach the creativity and the ideas, nobody’s done that. You can sit down and transcribe one of his solos and I suppose that if somebody practiced for 20 or 25 years, they could probably play one of his solos note for note, but that’s not the same thing as creating the music. Tatum created this and that’s what made him unique.”

Adam Makowicz

“The greatest pianist who ever lived! I first heard him in the mid-’50s, back in Poland, when I was studying classical music and was able to play fast runs. I’d heard some jazz pianists, but nothing like Tatum. I was 14 or 15 and was thinking seriously about a career in classical music. Then I heard this pianist on the radio who kept me listening to trying to figure out who he was and wondering where I could get some records. At that time in Poland, it was very hard to get western recordings, particularly from the U.S. I used to listen regularly to Music USA, Willis Conover’s jazz program on the Voice of America, where I heard Tatum. Overnight, I decided to go and play jazz because it was too beautiful not to touch this music and play it. Tatum made me play jazz.

“I was impressed with the flavor and color of his runs. I’m not talking about single notes, which were so fast, but his arpeggios. These runs made particular colors in my imagination. At the time, I didn’t know much about jazz and what it was all about, but I knew of course how to follow melody lines and I knew what Tatum was improvising. Rhythmically, it was too complicated for me. Not knowing the rhythms, I couldn’t tap when he played but I knew that this was right, that this was music that would swing with vitality, something that classical music didn’t have. It was such a beautiful feeling to hear these bouncing notes and precise time in such colorful lines and the sounds of the piano so enriched and so beautiful, so tasteful. I was in heaven listening to this music and even today, when I listen to Tatum I still have the same kind of feeling.

“There’s a story about Horowitz, when he heard Tatum he wanted to play like him but when he met Tatum, he told him, I could play as fast as you or even faster but I couldn’t play the right time like you play, and I couldn’t play all your runs.”

“I try and emulate his spirit because even after years of practicing, you can’t play like him, it’s impossible. I try to emulate his taste, with every note in the right place.

“I never tried to transcribe and learn, note by note, never ever, this is not fun. I wanted to improvise music like he did. From Tatum I learned that this music has to be something that comes from your soul, your brain, your whole body. It’s something you create right now, in this moment. Tatum was my guideline and the most sophisticated and difficult guideline in piano music. That title, ‘20th Century Piano Genius,’ it fits. Every pianist who loves jazz should have that set.

“What I find disturbing, though, is that it’s so hard to find Tatum on the radio today. There are a lot of great musicians who are living, and should be played, but still, people today are not exposed to him enough.”

Billy Taylor

“He was my biggest influence, even before I got to NY. My uncle was a pianist who gave me my first Fats Waller record and when I kept bugging him and telling him that I wanted to play that style, he finally said, listen to this and figure it out. He gave me The Shout, by Art Tatum. What I wanted to know was, who were those two guys?

“When I got to New York,I was extremely lucky. I will never get over the fact that I came to New York on a Friday and by Sunday, I had a gig. I went to Minton’s, hung around all night and got to play on the last set. Another my idols, Ben Webster, came in, and by that time, there were so many guys on the bandstand taking solos, that’s all I could do was comp. But luckily for me, that’s what Ben was interested in. He came back, stood by the piano and listened to be and said, what’s your name kid? I told him and he said, what are you doing? I said I just got to town and he said, I’m looking for a piano player. Come down to the Three Deuces, I’d really like to hear you play, I can’t hear you tonight like this. Sunday night I went down to the Three Deuces on 52nd Street to play with Ben, and Art Tatum was the headliner. That was when I first met him. It was wonderful to be in my first dream job, opposite the most important influence on my playing.

“Art was also one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. He was very sensitive. And he really loved sports, especially baseball. He was very up on statistics. He knew everybody’s batting average, he had a head for stats, he would argue. We used to go to a bar up in Harlem called Hollywood. The guy who owned it was his good friend and man they’d get into some arm wrestling arguments about who did what and why. He would swear that Art was wrong and Art would say, go get the paper, go get the almanac, that’s the right statistic, he hit .217 that year.

“There’s no doubt that Art was a genius, but he was a natural musician as well. He studied European classical music when he was a kid and he was always studying for musicians and incorporating a lot of different things. The way that he studied was by listening to people whose work he liked. He played Chopin, he played Bach and he used the information that he got from the European piano masters in his own work. The thing that always excited me was the fact that he spent a lot of time in hotel rooms and would always find a classical station. The funny part about it was he would stay up all night, and listen to classical for a while, then go to sleep at ten or 11, after listening to the classical music.

“I was his protégé for three years. I got to take him to a lot of nightclubs and after hours places. He was legally blind, he couldn’t maneuver around, especially at night, as he would like, but he was very very independent. He didn’t want you to lead him but he needed someone to accompany him to wherever it was he wanted to go. And, he liked the company. Art was gregarious. He liked to have specific people around him.

“While I was working opposite with Tatum, Dizzy brought the first bebop band ever to 52nd Street that featured Don Byas, Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach. Guys like Coleman Hawkins and Tatum recognized that they were the source of a lot of this new music. Like Roy Eldridge was the source of the stuff that Dizzy was building. Hawk and Roy and Tatum recognized that bebop was something special and were anxious to incorporate it into what they were doing. They didn’t want to play bebop but they did want to use that information in their own way. And so Tatum was a big source of influence to Charlie Parker in particular because Bird loved what he did. One of the things that Bird liked about my playing was that I used some of those harmonies. I once played something and he said to me, ‘Oh man, just like Tatum.’ I told him, ‘Oh yeah, that’s where I got it from!’”

Originally published in January/February 1998

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