Art Tatum: Humouresque

5 Nov

Art Taum

Art Tatum's 1992 compilation: Piano Genius

Remembering pianist Art Tatum on the day of his death 55 years ago.

It’s hard to say which is greater — the quality of Tatum’s piano playing, the obstacles he overcame to attain it, or the many stories — even if they’re apocryphal — of the respect of his peers.

Tatum was born in 1909; by the age of four, according to npr.org, he had lost “most of his sight;” he read music as he grew up by Braille. You couldn’t tell it by Tatum’s playing or the reaction to it. Praise and adoration were as commonplace as encores, even from those more used to accepting the former than bestowing them.

It’s possible, over the years, that the anecdotes paying homage to Tatum have been exaggerated or fabulized. Which makes the appreciation of his fellow players no less credible.

Consider:

  • Fats Waller — one of Tatum’s early influences — was performing in the ’30s when he saw Tatum walk into the club, according to a Tatum biography at duke.edu. Said Waller to the audience: “I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.”
  • A young Oscar Peterson was so discouraged when his father played Tatum for him he stopped practicing; Peterson couldn’t believe there was only one piano player.
  • According to the liner notes on a Tatum compilation, pianist Hank Jones thought: “Here’s something new . . . ” when introduced to Tatum on the radio in 1935, ” . . . they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing.”
  • Charlie Parker, from pianist Teddy Wilson’s liner notes to the compilation album STILL MORE of the Greatest Piano of them All ART TATUM: “Parker whispered to me, ‘He’s like Beethoven.’ ” Parker also famously said he wished he could play like Tatum’s right hand.
  • Count Basie, according to wikipedia, called Tatum the eighth wonder of the world.

“In the past,” wrote Wilson in the aforementioned liner notes, “when piano playing discussions arose, many of us, as pianists and fans, would agree to put Tatum completely out of the conversation, in a class by himself, and then talk about the rest.”

Tatum had critics, of course. Those who can, do; those who can’t, nitpick. “You know, people used to criticize Tatum,” critic Gary Giddins told npr.org, “and they would say things like, ‘Well, it’s too ornamental . . . there’s too much decorative stuff.’ That is the essence of Tatum. If you don’t like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That’s where his genius is.”

His genius, while not part of the be-bop movement directly, was used as influence and inspiration by those who were.

Tatum was 47 when he died of kidney failure in 1956.

sources: wikipedia.org, bittersuiteband.com, duke.edu, npr.org

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