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Art Tatum - The Exceptional African American Jazz Pianist

Arthur Tatum Jr. was an exceptional jazz pianist who was also regarded as the greatest ever technical virtuoso in the history of jazz. His extraordinary technical ability was much lauded, to the point where several musicians tried to emulate him, some even switching instruments after encountering him. Tatum took jazz piano to new heights, extending its vocabulary beyond the rudimentary stride influences. He revolutionized the use of bitonality, voicing, and reharmonization to a whole new level.

Art Tatum at a piano

Early Life

Art was born to Arthur Tatum Sr. and Mildred Hoskins on the 13th of October, 1909, in Toledo, Ohio. The Tatums had three other children and were considered a conventional family who frequented the local church. Art was visually impaired from infancy. He was also assaulted in his early twenties, which completely destroyed the vision in his left eye, while his right eye could garner limited vision.

He was introduced to church music at an early age and also learned the piano, mainly aided by an elevated sense of pitch and memory. He was also sensitive to intonation and often requested his piano to be tuned. He first went to the local Jefferson School and later shifted to School for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio. Art further moved to the Toledo School of Music after a year. He undertook piano lessons under Overton G. Rainey, who took fancy of him and taught him the classical traditions. While growing up, Tatum’s inspiration was the legendary stride pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.

Musical Journey 

In 1927, Tatum started playing at the WSPD radio station in Toledo and soon bagged a daily program. He started frequenting night hours for practice, sometimes playing until dawn. The program was later re-broadcasted across the nation in 1928. He also started touring other Midwestern cities like Detroit, Columbus, and Cleveland. In 1932, he was recruited by Adelaide Hall, another entertainer and jazz singer, to perform for her band in New York City. Tatum recorded two tracks with the band, “Strange as It Seems, and “I’ll Never Be the Same,” - his first studio recordings. He also recorded a solo piano track titled “Tea for Two.”

In New York, Tatum took part in a cutting competition at Harlem, competing with stride masters like “Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith” and Fats Waller. Tatum played “Tiger Rag” and “Tea for Two,” earning rave reviews. In 1933, Tatum had his only child with Marnette Jackson, his live-in partner. During this period, he mostly performed at clubs in Cleveland but also did four recordings in New York City. Soon, he was on the national radio, playing on the famous “The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour.” In 1935, he married Ruby Arnold. He then started playing at the “Three Deuces” in Chicago, a contract that lasted for a year. He started off as a soloist but soon started playing with a quartet. His next stint took him to California, where he frequented posh Hollywood parties and became quite famous. In 1936, he appeared on “The Bing Crosby Show.” He further recorded four tracks for Decca Records as part of a sextet called “Art Tatum and His Swingsters.”

In 1938, Tatum traveled across the Atlantic to Europe, performing in England for three months. He also appeared multiple times on the famous BBC program, “Starlight.” During this time, he recorded 16 sides that were not released, at least for another decade. One of the sides, a rendition of “Tea for Two,” was later included in the Grammy Hall of Fame. Another recording, “Wee Baby Blues,” gained high commercial value, with sales upward of 500,000. His 1940s album “God Is in the House” was also posthumously awarded a Grammy in the category “Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist.” In 1943, he teamed up with Slam Stewart (bass) and Tiny Grimes (guitar) to form a Trio. Until that point, Tatum was mainly a critically acclaimed solo pianist who enjoyed infrequent commercial success. The Trio changed that altogether, generating high revenues, albeit to the disappointment of some critics. In 1944, Tatum won the critics poll in the Esquire magazine and was awarded the pianists prize. The catch - a performance at New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera House along with other winners.

Art Tatum at a club in New York in 1947

From 1953, Art Tatum recorded almost 125 solo tracks, which were later recorded through 14 long-playing albums. The solo pieces were incorporated in the album “The Genius of Art Tatum,” which was also posthumously included in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1954, he joined Stan Kenton for the “Festival of Modern American Jazz,” a 10-week-long tour. He subsequently appeared in the “The Spike Jones Show” on television to promote his solo album. In 1955, he and Ruby separated. Next, he married Geraldine Williamson.

An avid drinker, Art’s health deteriorated towards the second half of 1950. His last performance was at the Hollywood Bowl, which recorded probably his largest audience - 19000. He soon returned to Los Angeles as he was diagnosed with the advanced stage of uremia. Musicians and pianists gathered at his deathbed and performed as he passed away on the 5th of November, 1956. He was subsequently buried at the Rosedale Cemetery. In 1989, Art Tatum was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and also inducted into the Hall of Fame of DownBeat Jazz.


Art Tatum was the only jazz pianist who attempted to develop a style that was a culmination of all styles. He wanted to master all aspects of the diverse schools of jazz, incorporated with his own personal touch. His exceptional technical ability allowed him to transform the existing styles into colorful rhythms, ever-changing and highly unpredictable. He conceived several unique aspects to his playing style - intermittent usage of bitonality, an avant-garde technique of chord substitution, along with evident lack of harmony in his chords.

Before Tatum, jazz harmony was mostly triadic. Art went beyond the infrequent ninths and flattened sevenths into a completely new sphere. Influenced by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, he ventured into the upper echelons like elevenths and thirteenths. He further introduced tenths, in addition to greater intervals, into the stride vocabulary. Tatum’s improvisations were distinct - he never tried to generate new melodic lines over an existing progression but utilized fragments of the original melody. He then incorporated new phrases or counter-melodies into the variation to develop new melodic structures. His flexibility was also apparent in his usage of rhythm. He had the extraordinary ability to constantly alter the notes in a beat, regardless of the musical tempo. Simultaneously, he could adjust the intensity of phrasing and rhythm. His musical sense allowed him to improvise away from a traditional tempo for prolonged periods, albeit without hampering the beat.

Tatum’s ingenuity also stretched beyond his musical prowess. He never cared for theatrics, and his calm demeanor had a positive effect on the crowd. He elevated those around him with his apparent horizontal glide across the keys. His technique was rather straight-fingered compared to the traditional training methods. His hands remained perfectly horizontal, which was also rare. Additionally, he had remarkably large hands, albeit completed with yet slender fingers. He could easily reach for notes that most pianists couldn’t and probably never will. They don’t make them like him anymore.

This offered him the advantage of utilizing his little fingers and thumbs for melody lines while simultaneously using his other fingers for playing something else. He would regularly practice using two fingers higher up while using two other fingers of the same hand to play down. Basically, two fingers for the white keys, while two work their magic on the black keys. Also, he was literally ambidextrous in this regard. He could use his forefinger and thumb of his left hand to trill, simultaneously using his little finger for a lower octave note. Incredibly, he could also reach the twelfth intervals with either hand and play chords at breakneck speed. To be honest, he was capable of playing all materials in any key.

Jazz Magic

Art Tatum often utilized rich chords so full of dissonances that they sounded completely different than traditional chords - something like a “bundle” of notes. He was the master of substitution in jazz, constantly incorporating diverse chord sequences behind his melodies. He was often termed “a radical,” but significantly, his razor-sharp genius was mostly reserved for his live performances - a setting where his creative juices were left untamed to wreck their magic.

Tatum’s music literally summed up the history of jazz piano - a tidal wave of blues, neo-classical adaptations, surreal ballads, ragtime impressionism, all culminating with stride-piano at its very pomp. Tatum stood alone at the top, a place where his creative boundaries were unblemished. He was a jazz god, one whose influence is almost unassailable. His drive towards constant virtuosity reverberated throughout jazz history. Art Tatum was magic.


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