Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Art Tatum on V-Disc

During World War II, the piano virtuoso made some of his greatest recordings for a very specific audience

Art Tatum 1946
Art Tatum, Rochester, N.Y., 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

World War II shut down large parts of the entertainment industry, including the recording segment. But Uncle Sam wanted to make sure that the boys overseas didn’t lack for rockin’ tunes. Thus the V-Disc label was launched—that stalwart first letter, of course, standing for victory, baby. Leading musical lights lent their talents, cut some quickie sessions, and off the V-Discs (with a track or two on each side) went to Europe. Take on the Jerrys by day, cut a rug to Basie at night.

They were a cross between live recordings—minus an in-person audience—and epistles of sound, but addressed to a group rather than a single recipient. Unlike the troops they were meant for, the V-Discs weren’t supposed to make it back to the States. When they did, they were to be destroyed, by order of the government, lest you go to jail, which did happen to one collector who amassed 2,500. Musicians could take a creative flyer on a V-Disc—like Lester Young would with remote broadcasts—because if the guys you were playing for were brave enough to do everything humanly possible to keep your ass safe, secure, and American, then you could kick up what you did a notch or two for them.

Which brings us to pianist Art Tatum’s V-Discs. I’ve never heard anybody’s V-Disc recordings and thought, “They just mailed that in,” but Tatum is the only V-Disc musician who may have cut the finest work of his life for a very specific part of the population.

You are perhaps familiar with the old saying: There is that which is sui generis, and then there is Art Tatum. A slight jape—this saying does not exist, but the truth behind it certainly does. One may even struggle to identify just what the hell Tatum was as a player. A barrelhouse performer. A ragtime man. A courtly baroque musician. Chamber music master. Classical-level technician. Human reification of what we mean by “piano chops.” Badass mother of a virtuoso.

Tatum’s V-Discs span the mid-1940s. (Musicians kept on making the recordings as men marked their time, post-battle, overseas, taking down what needed razing and raising up that which required building: natural order, civility, the sanctity of human life.) He would sometimes speak before laying down a side, as he does on his 1946 rendition of “Body and Soul,” a title that gains that much more relevance and immediacy in this context: “I’ll be glad to see all of you back as quick as possible,” he says, and the most hard-hearted among us would be challenged not to hear the genuine emotion in his voice.

A spring spritzing of opening notes, a soft blanket of billowing, burnt-fog triplets, and then Tatum sticks the riff in a way that I’ve never heard anyone play it before. He nails it, lands upon it, as he keeps it moving, sidles that riff right on into your kitchen. The ear doesn’t expect it in that precise moment but it feels bidden all the same, a riff with a built-in understanding of “now would be the best time for a visit.”

You wonder what these GIs away from home—and in so much more than a literal sense—felt as they heard music of this sort. Tatum highlights the lullaby-like quality of the tune, but it isn’t mere distraction or respite, a point brooking no remonstrance when he quotes “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” which I always hear as Tatum using the full extent of his imaginative powers to extend empathy.

That’s the trick of empathy; it requires effort. Tatum is clearly trying to connect with these men, and it’s as if we’re hearing him, if you will, through their boots—boots on the ground, boots marching to orders of a higher purpose. Which is also what the artist does. One reason for the power of the union between Tatum and V-Discs.

“Cocktails for Two,” from summer 1945—just in time for D-Day—features guitar and bass, and hot damn, that Tatum vibrato. Can any pianist in history bend a note like this player? In other instances at this juncture of his career, he flirted with being overly busy; though he never quite got there, things could feel a trifle crowded, just south of magniloquence. But on the V-Discs, we don’t want Tatum to take any part of himself out of anything. There is an ease, but a wholeness. The quality of a balm.

An early 1944 V-Disc of “Sweet Lorraine” was recorded in front of a small NYC gathering, and the way Tatum sashays up and down the board is the closest I’ve ever heard jazz get to that feeling of missing someone very much, relishing in the thought—the dream—of times yet to come, and how much sweeter they will be after the times that were gotten through.

That relishing, of course, is a matter of faith. One finds it where one finds it: in genius, in fighting to survive another day, in family, in worlds of both shellac and shrapnel. You will likely find some in Art Tatum’s V-Discs, as did those noble bootleggers who helped make the experience possible for you.

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.