Thoughts on Art Tatum
My Dad was jazz pianist Art Tatum’s biggest fan in the fifties. He followed Art around the jazz clubs in Los Angeles, sitting next to the large, blind man as he played solo versions of standards that, in many cases, remain the definitive jazz interpretation the material (for example, check out Art’s still jaw-dropping arrangement of Yesterdays). Dad was a boxer growing up in Chicago, and a big jazz lover from a young age. When he moved out west with his family and started frequenting the vibrant West Coast jazz scene, he had little patience for people talking while the musicians played. While sitting near Art listening to the genius at work, he would not think twice before turning to some rude patron and saying, “Hey, can you please shut up? Do you know who this is playing here?” Art, of course, appreciated the support, and got along well with Dad. They would have little conversations in between songs, or at the end of a set.
Dad knew that he was in the presence of something very special—an artist with a rare, incomparable gift. He passed on his love of Tatum to me, sharing various albums of Tatum’s work with me when I started to learn to play the piano myself. It was clear to me that Art Tatum possessed an other-worldly level of virtuosity, so much so that great classical pianists of the time, such as Horowitz and Rubenstein, would show up to hear Art, leaving with mouths agape at the astonishing pianistic ability of the man.
According to Dad, Art was a nice guy to talk to, but he was well aware of his ability. He once said to Dad in a one-on-one conversation, “You know, man, I’d like to get all the best jazz pianists together for a concert somewhere, a summit…”
“That sounds great, Art,” Dad offered.
“… and once they’ve all played, then I’ll cut ‘em all to shreds.”
Bud Powell, who was a bit younger than Tatum, worshipped the older player along with all the pianists of his generation. There are a couple famous stories involving the two men, which I won’t repeat here. Within the jazz orthodoxy, Powell’s legacy is mentioned more often than Tatum, and Powell is considered the Charlie Parker of jazz piano; but Tatum was an innovator as well, far ahead of his time in a harmonic sense, and arguably the greatest stride pianist who ever lived. Without Tatum, there could have been no Oscar Peterson, although Peterson was ultimately recognized more as a group player, Tatum a soloist.
(to be continued)…