Thursday, 16 June 2011

Great Jazz Pianists - Art Tatum

Arguably, the 10 most influential Jazz pianists of all time are;
  1. Art Tatum: 1909 - 1956
  2. Herbie Hancock: 1940
  3. Duke Ellington: 1899 - 1974
  4. Thelonious Monk: 1917 - 1982
  5. McCoy Tyner: 1938
  6. Willie Smith: 1893 - 1973
  7. Fats Waller: 1904 - 1943
  8. Oscar Peterson: 1925 - 2007
  9. Ahmad Jamal: 1930
  10. Chick Corea: 1941
I absolutely love jazz piano, and there is a long list of pianists that take my breath away. One of the all time greats is undoubtedly Art Tatum.

Art Tatum
He was born 1909 in Toledo, Ohio and despite being blind in one eye, and partially sighted in the other, he became one of the greatest jazz piano players who ever lived.

He came from a musical family, and did receive some formal training at the Toledo School of Music, where his teacher tried to steer him towards being a classical concert pianist, however, it is generally believed that he was largely self taught.

Art Tatum was more interested in the music of Fats Waller, which strongly influenced his style of playing. He once said, "Fats, that's where I come out of, and, man, that's quite a place to come from". At 18 he was playing interludes at a local radio station, and before long had his own show. In 1932 he was heard by the singer Adelaide Hall who brought him to New York as her accompanist. While in New York he established his reputation in 'cutting contests' with other top pianists, which he never lost. Over the coming years he played in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and travelled to England in 1938.

In the early 1940's he formed a very popular trio with Slam Stewart on bass, and Tiny Grimes on guitar. In 1953 he was signed by record producer Norman Granz, and recorded many pieces as a soloist and in small groups with the likes of Benny Carter, Buddy De Franco, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Ben Webster and others. He was hugely productive during this period, and Roy Spencer in his biography says that Art Tatum was constantly "refining and honing down after each performance until an ideal version remained needing no further adjustments". His work rate was unbelievable; for example, his solo sessions for Norman Granz were mostly completed in two days. That is a total of 69 tracks and all but three of them needed only one take. Art Tatum died on the 4th November 1956.

Though heavily influenced by Fats Waller in his early career, he went on to create an original style of playing piano. To quote from one biography, "His left-handed figures were similar to stride, but he was really known for the way that he explored harmonic complexities and unusual chord progressions. When improvising, Tatum would often insert totally new chord sequences (occasionally with a chord on each beat) into one or two measures. He also developed the habit of quoting from other melodies, something that became a standard practice among modern jazz musicians". Such was his grasp of musical notes that it was claimed that "he could identify the dominant note in a flushing toilet".

As with many disciplines, perhaps the greatest tribute to Art Tatum lies in the opinions of his peers. He influenced many musicians such as Bud Powell, and Herbie Hancock, as well as non-pianists such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. His influence led the way for a new style of playing called bebop.When Oscar Peterson first heard him play he thought it was two people, and he considered Art Tatum to be the best jazz instrumentalist of all time. It was also said that the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz was so awed by Tatum's wizardry that it brought him to tears. Perhaps the greatest accolade of all came from his early influence, Fats Waller. In 1938, Art Tatum dropped in to hear Fats Waller play at a club. By way of introduction Waller told the audience, "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight".

I hope that this brief introduction to Art Tatum fires your imagination, and if you haven't heard too much of him in the past, that you will rectify that, and listen to one of the greatest jazz piano players of all time. Take a moment to play one last clip from the great man. This is his rendition of Humoresque by Dvorak, and is rare footage of him playing.

Happy listening.

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