100 Jazz Profiles
1909 - 1956
Pianist. The most prodigiously gifted pianist in the history of jazz, Art Tatum also lived the jazz life - crammed with after hours jam sessions, cutting contests, and plenty of nights spent drinking and playing until dawn. Despite a robust constitution (although he was partially blind) Tatum's lifestyle caught up with him in the end, and he died prematurely from kidney failure, although he was still playing at a formidably high level until shortly before his death.
His basic style was developed from that of Fats Waller, but his brilliant rapid runs from one extreme of the keyboard to another, and his ability to vary tempo, key, passing harmonies, and the underlying beat, made him the complete solo pianist. His skill was such that at times it sounded almost as if two pianists were playing on his recordings.
He grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and by his late teens was playing all around town, as well as broadcasting on a local network. In the early 1930s he worked as part of an accompanying piano duet for singer Adelaide Hall, but by 1933 had launched his solo career both in live performance and on disc. Thereafter he mainly split his time between the East and West coasts of the United States, often working on 52nd Street in New York at the Three Deuces, the Downbeat or the Famous Door, or at various clubs in the Central Avenue or Hollywood areas of Los Angeles.
From time to time he toured or recorded with a trio, using guitar and bass as the other instruments. Tatum never fully embraced bebop himself, but his use of passing harmonies and the speed of his playing were major influences on the development of modern jazz. His remarkable body of final recordings, both as a soloist and in group settings, were the result of his association with the producer Norman Granz, who released the results on his Verve label, and did much to preserve Tatum's legacy for posterity.
James Lester: Too Marvelous For Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum. (New York, Oxford University Press, 1994)
The Complete Capitol Recordings of Art Tatum (Capitol 821325-2)
Suggested track: Somebody Loves Me
With bio, audio and links to Ken Burns' film Jazz.
on radio 3
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