Art Tatum

Arthur Tatum Jr. (/ˈteɪtəm/, October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist.

Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.[1][2] His performances were hailed for their technical proficiency and creativity, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries."[3]

Art Tatum
Art Tatum, ca. May 1946 (William P. Gottlieb 08311)
Tatum c. May 1946
Background information
Birth nameArthur Tatum Jr.
BornOctober 13, 1909
Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
DiedNovember 5, 1956 (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California
GenresJazz, stride
Years active1927–1956
LabelsBrunswick, Decca, Capitol, Clef, Verve

Early life

Tatum's mother, Mildred Hoskins, was born in Martinsville, Virginia,[4] around 1890, and in Toledo was a domestic worker.[5] His father, Arthur Tatum Sr., was born in Statesville, North Carolina,[4] and had steady employment as "a mechanic of some sort".[6] In 1909, they made their way from North Carolina to begin a new life in Toledo, Ohio.[7] The couple had four children; Art was the oldest to live, and was born in Toledo on October 13, 1909.[8] He was followed by Arline nine years later and by Karl after another two years.[9] Karl went to college and became a social worker.[5] The Tatum family was regarded as conventional and church-going.[10]

Fats Waller edit
Fats Waller was a major influence on Tatum.

From infancy, Tatum had impaired vision.[11] Several explanations for this have been posited, most involving cataracts.[11][note 1] He had eye operations, which meant that at the age of eleven he could see things that were close to him, and perhaps could distinguish colors.[13] Any benefits from these procedures were reversed, however, when he was assaulted, probably in his early twenties.[14] As a result, he was completely blind in his left eye and had very limited vision in his right.[15] Despite this, there are multiple accounts of him enjoying playing cards and pool.[16]

Accounts vary on whether Tatum's parents played any musical instruments, but it is likely that he was exposed at an early age to church music, including through the Grace Presbyterian Church that his parents attended.[17] He also began playing the piano from a young age, playing by ear and aided by an excellent memory and sense of pitch.[18] Other musicians reported that he had perfect pitch.[19][20] He learned tunes from the radio, records, and by copying piano roll recordings.[21] In an interview as an adult, Tatum rejected the story that his playing style had developed because he had found ways to reproduce piano roll recordings made by two pianists.[22] As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often. Although piano was the most obvious application of his mental and physical skills, he also had an encyclopedic memory for Major League Baseball statistics.

Tatum first attended Jefferson School in Toledo, then moved to the School for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio late in 1924.[23] He was probably there for less than a year before transferring to the Toledo School of Music.[24] He had formal piano lessons with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music.[25] Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught the classical tradition, as he did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz.[26] Based on this history, it is reasonable to assume that Tatum was largely self-taught as a pianist.[27] By the time he was a teenager, Tatum was asked to play at various social events.[28]

Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more modern Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. Tatum identified Waller as his biggest influence, while pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield suggested that one of his favorite jazz pianists was Hines.[29] Another likely influence was pianist Lee Sims, who did not play jazz, but did use chord voicings and an orchestral approach (i.e. encompassing a full sound instead of highlighting one or more timbres[30]) that appeared in Tatum's playing.[31]

Later life and career


In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist', during interludes in Ellen Kay's shopping chat program and soon had his own program.[32][33] During 1928–29, his radio program was re-broadcast nationwide.[34]

After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians; he enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last, after all the others had played.[35] He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn.[36] From near the start of the pianist's career, "his accomplishment [...] was of a different order from what most people, from what even musicians, had ever heard. It made musicians reconsider their definitions of excellence, of what was possible."[37] As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, and Fletcher Henderson dropped in to hear him play.

Art Tatum, Vogue Room, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb 08321)
Tatum at the Vogue Room in New York City between 1946 and 1948

In 1932, vocalist Adelaide Hall was touring the United States with two pianists.[38] After arriving in Toledo, she heard Tatum play, and recruited him.[39] This provided him with the opportunity to go to New York, which many other musicians had encouraged him to do, as it was the centre of the jazz world at that time.[40] On August 5 that year, Hall and her band recorded two sides ("I'll Never Be the Same" and "Strange as It Seems"); these were Tatum's first recordings.[41] Two more sides with Hall followed five days later, as did a solo piano test-pressing of "Tea for Two" that was not released for several decades.[42]

Tatum's only known child, Orlando, was born when Tatum was twenty-four.[43] The mother was Marnette Jackson, a waitress in Toledo.[44] It is likely that neither had a major role in raising their son, who pursued a military career and died in the 1980s.[44] Tatum and Jackson were not married.[45]

After his arrival in New York, Tatum participated in a cutting contest at Morgan's bar in Harlem, with the established stride piano masters – Johnson, Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith.[46] Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Waller's "Handful of Keys".[47] Tatum played his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag".[48] Reminiscing about Tatum's debut, Johnson said, "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played."[49][50]

Tatum's first solo piano job in New York was at the Onyx Club.[51] He played a mix of ragtime, one-step, and standard pieces, plus stride and snatches of classical music.[51] He recorded his first four released solo sides, for Brunswick Records, in March 1933: "St. Louis Blues", "Sophisticated Lady", "Tea for Two", and "Tiger Rag".[52] The last of these was a minor hit, impressing the public with its startling tempo of approximately 376 (quarter note) beats per minute, and with right-hand eighth notes adding to the technical feat.[53] In August of the following year, he had his first solo recording session for Decca Records.[54]

During the hard economic times of 1934 and 1935, Tatum mostly played in clubs in Cleveland, but also recorded in New York four times in 1934 and once in the following year.[55] He also appeared on national radio, including for the Fleischman Hour broadcast hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935.[55] In August of the same year, he married Ruby Arnold, who was from Cleveland.[56] He began a residence at the Three Deuces in Chicago the following month, initially as a soloist and then in a quartet of alto saxophone, guitar and drums.[57] At some point that year, Tatum also accompanied a teenaged Jon Hendricks at the Waiters' and Bellmens' Club in Toledo.[58]

At the end of his first Three Deuces stint, Tatum travelled by train to California.[59] He soon adopted the same pattern that he had followed from early in his career: paid performances followed by after-hours playing with and in competition with other musicians.[60] He also played for Hollywood parties and appeared on Bing Crosby's radio program.[61] Tatum's lifestyle probably contributed to his diabetes.[62] His biographer highlighted the conflict that the pianist would have faced if he wanted to address the diabetes problem: "making those concessions – drastically less beer, a controlled diet, more rest – would have taken away exactly the things that mattered most to him, and would have removed him from the night-life that he seemed to love more than almost anything (afternoon baseball or football games would probably come next)."[63]

He recorded in Los Angeles for the first time early in 1937 – four tracks as the sextet named Art Tatum and His Swingsters,[64] for Decca Records.[65] Continuing to travel by long-distance train, Tatum settled into a pattern of performances at major jazz clubs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, interspersed with appearances at minor clubs where someone of his musical standing did not normally play.[66] Thus, in 1937 he left Los Angeles for another residence at the Three Deuces in Chicago, and then went on to the Famous Door club in New York,[66] where he opened for Louis Prima.[67] Tatum recorded for Brunswick again near the end of that year.[68]


In March 1938, Tatum and his wife embarked on the Queen Mary for England.[69] He performed there for three months, and enjoyed the quiet listeners who, unlike some American audiences, did not talk over his playing.[69] While there, he twice appeared on the BBC television program Starlight.[70][71][72] Four of his very limited number of compositions were also published in England.[73] He then returned to the Three Deuces.[73] The overseas trip appeared to have boosted his reputation, particularly with the white public, and he was able to have club residences in New York over the following five years, sometimes with stipulations that no food or drink would be served while he was playing.[74]

Art Tatum and Phil Moore, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948 (William P. Gottlieb)
Tatum (right) at Downbeat Club, New York City, c. 1947

Tatum recorded 16 tracks in August 1938, but they were not released for at least a decade.[75] A similar thing happened the following year: of the 18 sides he recorded, only two were issued as 78s.[76] A possible explanation is that big band music and vocalists were popular, so very few jazz pianists made solo recordings, and there was a very limited market for them.[77] One of the releases, a version of "Tea for Two", was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.[78] One recording from early in 1941, however, was commercially successful, with sales of perhaps 500,000.[77] This was "Wee Baby Blues", performed by a sextet and with the addition of Big Joe Turner on vocals.[77] Informal performances of his playing in 1940 and 1941 were released after his death on the album God Is in the House,[79] for which he was awarded the 1973 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist.[80]

He was, though, able to make an adequate living from his club performances.[77] Most of 1941 was spent in the eastern United States; in contrast, he was back in California for much of 1942.[81] His forming the Art Tatum Trio in 1943 was attributable to a mix of fortune and being unable to get sufficient work as a solo pianist.[82] The other musicians were guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart.[82] The Trio was a commercial success on 52nd Street, attracting more customers than any other musician, with the possible exception of vocalist Billie Holiday.[83] They appeared briefly on film, in an episode of The March of Time.[83] As a solo pianist up to that point, critics had praised Tatum, but the paying public had given him little attention; with the trio, he enjoyed more success with the public, but critics expressed disappointment.[84] However, in 1944, Tatum was awarded Esquire magazine's prize for pianists in its critics' poll.[85] He never won a DownBeat readers' poll.[85]

All of Tatum's studio recordings in 1944 were with the trio, and radio appearances continued.[86] He recorded with the Barney Bigard Sextet and cut nine solo tracks the following year.[87] He abandoned the trio, and did not record with one again until 1952.[87] "In fact, from 1945 until 1952 he made very few studio recordings at all."[87] Although Tatum remained an admired figure, his popularity faded in the mid- to late 1940s with the advent of bebop[88] – a movement that Tatum did not embrace.[89] Indeed, his style of playing was not one that could be adapted to the new music: "the orchestral approach to the keyboard [...] was too thick, too textured to work in the context of a bebop rhythm section."[90]

Early in 1945, Billboard magazine reported that Tatum was being paid $1,150 a week as a soloist by the Downbeat club on 52nd Street to play four sets of twenty minutes each per night.[91][92] This was described much later as an "unheard-of figure" for the time.[93] The Billboard reviewer commented that "Tatum is given a broken-down instrument, some bad lights and nothing else", and observed that he was almost inaudible beyond the front seating because of the audience noise.[92] He continued to appear in radio broadcasts; and in 1947 he again appeared on film, this time in The Fabulous Dorseys.[94]

Tatum began to play in more formal jazz concert settings in the mid-1940s – appearing at concert halls in towns and universities all around the United States.[95] These included appearances at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events.[96] A 1949 concert recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was released by Columbia Records.[97] In the same year, he signed to Capitol Records and recorded 26 pieces for them.[98] He also played for the first time at Club Alamo in Detroit, but stopped when a black friend was not served.[99] The owner subsequently advertised that black customers were welcome, and Tatum went on to play there frequently in the following few years.[99]


Tatum's trio – this time with Stewart and Everett Barksdale – recorded in 1952; this was the pianist's only studio recordings between the Capitol session and late in 1953.[100] Tatum toured the United States in 1952, with Erroll Garner, Pete Johnson, and Meade "Lux" Lewis, for concerts billed as "Piano Parade".[101]

Norman Granz, ca. Nov. 1947
Jazz impresario Norman Granz, who recorded Tatum extensively in 1953–1956

Granz, who owned a record label, decided to record Tatum's solo playing in a way that was "unprecedented in the recording industry: invite him into the studio, start the tape, and let him play whatever he felt like playing. [...] At the time this was an astonishing enterprise, the most extensive recording that had been done of any jazz figure."[102] Over several sessions starting late in 1953, Tatum recorded 124 solo tracks, all but three of which were released, spread over a total of 14 LPs.[102] Granz reported that the recording tape ran out during one piece, but Tatum, instead of starting again from the beginning, asked to listen to a playback of just the final eight bars, then continued the performance from there on the new tape, keeping to the same tempo as on the first attempt.[103] The solo pieces were released by Clef Records as The Genius of Art Tatum,[103] and added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.[78]

Granz also recorded Tatum with a selection of other stars in 7 more recording sessions, which led to 59 tracks being released.[102] The critical reception was mixed and partly contradictory.[104] He was, variously, criticized for not playing real jazz, the choice of material, and that he was past his best, and praised for the enthralling intricacy and detail of his playing, and his technical perfection. [105]

Nevertheless, the releases renewed attention on the pianist, including for a newer generation; he won the DownBeat critics' poll for pianists three years in a row, from 1954.[106] In 1954, he appeared on television in The Spike Jones Show; his solo performance of "Yesterdays" is one of the rare surviving video recordings of his playing.[107] There are few visual recordings of Tatum: black American musicians were not often filmed during his lifetime.[108]

In 1955 and 1956, Tatum also played at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.[99] Earlier, Tatum had selected and purchased for Clarence Baker the Steinway piano at Baker's, finding it in a New York showroom and shipping it to Detroit.[109]

Tatum and Ruby divorced early in 1955.[110] They probably did not travel much together and she had become an alcoholic; the divorce was acrimonious.[111] He married again later that year – Geraldine Williamson, with whom he had probably already been living.[110] She had little interest in music, and did not normally attend his performances.[112]

Following a health warning, he stopped drinking in 1954 and lost weight.[113] He again toured for several weeks as a trio with Stewart and Barksdale, and still travelled the long distances between venues by train or bus, refusing to fly.[106] In mid-1956 his trio performed at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Canada.[114] By that year, his health had deteriorated: he had advanced uremia.[115] Nevertheless, in August of that year he played to the biggest audience of his career: 19,000 gathered at the Hollywood Bowl for another Granz-led event.[115] The promoter had plans for Tatum to have a solo concert tour.[115] The following month, he had the last of the Granz group recording sessions, with saxophonist Ben Webster, and then had at least two concerts in October.[116] He was too unwell to continue touring, so returned to his home in Los Angeles.[117] Musicians visited him on November 4, and the pianists played for him as he lay in bed.[118]

Tatum died the following day, at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from complications of uremia. His was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles[119] but was moved by his wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of the Glendale Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991[120] so she could be buried next to him. His headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest.[121] She died on May 4, 2010, in Los Angeles, and was interred beside him at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Tatum was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964[122] and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.[123]

Personality and habits

Tatum was independent-minded and generous with his time and money.[124] People who met Tatum consistently "describe him as totally lacking in arrogance or ostentation".[125] He typically gave very little information about himself in interviews.[126] While playing in clubs, Tatum often drank enormous quantities of alcohol, mostly beer, but this did not negatively affect his playing.[127] One friend from the years after World War II estimated that Tatum routinely drank two quarts (1.9 l) of whiskey and a case of beer over the course of 24 hours.[128] Although marijuana use was common among musicians during his lifetime, Tatum was not linked to drug use.[129]


Tatum's repertoire mainly consisted of music from the Great American Songbook, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He played his arrangements of a few classical piano pieces, including Dvorak's Humoresque and Massenet's "Élégie".[130]

He added pieces to his repertoire over time.[131] By the late 1940s, most of the new pieces were medium-tempo ballads but also included compositions that presented him with harmonic challenges, such as the simplicity of "Caravan" and complexity of "Have You Met Miss Jones?"[131] He did not add to classical piano pieces he had used earlier.[131]

Tatum also recorded around a dozen blues during his career.[132]

He wrote a small number of compositions.[note 2]


"Tatum integrated the practices and characteristic gestures of the stride and swing keyboard traditions, at the same time transforming them through his virtuosity...Simple decorative techniques became complex harmonic sweeps of colour; traditional repetitive patterns became areas of unpredictable and ever-changing shifts of rhythm."[133][134] Tatum's "rhythmic-melodic ideas were introduced with unpredictable and ever-changing combinations of notes per beat even in the most rapid passages...He could apply different variation techniques simultaneously, and used subtle rhythmic intensification and relaxation to give clear identity and shape to his phrases."[135][134]

Tatum had a different way of improvising from what is typical in modern jazz.[89] He did not try to create new melodic lines over a harmonic progression; instead, he implied or played the original melody or fragments of it, while superimposing countermelodies and new phrases to create new structures based around variation.[89][131]

"Tatum's harmonic imagination was so challenging that a performance could include fluid altered voicings, unexpected passing chords and substitutions, [and] left-hand counter-melodies".[131] He also used "fluid voicings, substitute chords, and sometimes whole substitute progressions beneath it."[89]

"Jazz harmonic vocabulary in the early 1930s was basically triadic with flat-sevenths and an occasional ninth for effect"; Tatum went beyond this, influenced by the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel.[136] He made jazz musicians more aware of harmonic possibilities by changing the chords that he used with great frequency; this helped lay the foundations for the emergence of bebop in the 1940s.[136] Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the Jazz Age), and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of "modern jazz".

Prior to the 1940s, Tatum's "style was directly related to the form of the typical popular song, which was usually two bars of active melody followed by two relatively stationary bars, and it was those second two-bar phrases that Tatum used for his stunning runs. In the '40s, however, Tatum began to expand the runs beyond those open two bars, to lengths of eight or more bars, and sometimes crossing over the natural eight-bar segments of the song."[137] He also began to use a harder, more aggressive attack.[138] Schuller argues that Tatum was still developing towards the end of his life – he had greater rhythmic flexibility when playing at a given tempo, more behind the beat swing, more diverse forms of expression, and he employed far fewer quotations than earlier in his career.[139]

Musicologist Lewis Porter identifies three aspects of Tatum's playing that a casual listener might miss: the dissonance in his chords; his advanced use of substitute chord progressions; and his occasional use of bitonality (playing in two keys at the same time).[140] There are examples on record of the last of these going back to 1934, making Tatum the farthest harmonically out of jazz musicians until Lennie Tristano.[140] Tatum frequently used dissonant major and minor seconds.

His protean style combined stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie, and classical elements. Saxophonist Benny Green wrote that Tatum was the only jazz musician to "attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal.[141] He was playful, spontaneous, and often inserted quotes from other songs (typically, not from jazz compositions) into his improvisations.[142]

He was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. He seldom played in a simplified way, preferring interpretations that displayed his great technique and clever harmonizations. Keith Jarrett criticized Tatum for playing too many notes,[143] was too ornamental and "unjazzlike". Critic Gary Giddins opined, "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.[144] Tatum often did not modify his playing when in a band:[30] a general criticism of him in a group setting was that he "was too assertive to be a good accompanist; he seemed to compete with the soloist he allegedly was accompanying."[145] Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train."[146] Tatum said of himself, "A band hampers me."[147]

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. Among the musicians who said that Tatum could make a bad piano sound good were Billy Taylor[144] and Gerald Wiggins.[148] Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, Tatum employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated, chords were cleanly sounded and the melodic line would not be blurred.[149]

For critic Martin Williams, there was also the matter "of Tatum's sly, redeeming, pianistic humor. Time and again, when we fear he is reaching the limits of romantic bombast, a quirky phrase, an exaggerated ornament will remind us that Tatum may be having us on. He is also inviting us to share the joke and heartily kidding himself as well as the concert hall traditions to which he alludes."[131]

Balliett commented: "Tatum's style was notable for its touch, its speed and accuracy, and its harmonic and rhythmic imagination. No pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one — no matter how fast the tempo — was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page. Vast lower-register chords were unblurred, and his highest notes were polished silver. . . . His speed and precision were almost shocking. Flawless sixteenth-note runs poured up and down the keyboard, each note perfectly accented, and the chords and figures in the left hand sometimes sounded two-handed. Such virtuosity can he an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be in his up-tempo flag-wavers, when he spectacularly became a high-wire artist, a scaler of Everests. Tatum's bedrock sense of rhythm enabled him to play out-of-tempo interludes or whole choruses that doubled the impact of the implied beat, and his harmonic sense — his strange, multiplied chords, still largely unmatched by his followers, his laying on of two and three and four melodic levels at once — was orchestral and even symphonic."[150]


Tatum's technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency.[151] He did not indulge in theatrical physical or facial expression. The apparently effortless gliding of his hands, even during virtuosic passages, stunned his contemporaries.[135] Fellow pianist Hank Jones said he had a style that seemed effortless.[152] Pianist Chick Corea commented on his touch: "Art Tatum is the only pianist I know of before Bill [Evans] that also had that feather-light touch – even though he probably spent his early years playing on really bad instruments."[153] Tatum could maintain these qualities of touch and tone even at the most rapid tempos, when almost all other pianists would be incapable of playing the notes at all.[30]

Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed the pyrotechnics with meticulous accuracy and timing. Tatum also displayed phenomenal independence of the hands and ambidexterity, which was particularly evident while improvising counterpoint. He also used his thumbs and little fingers to add melody lines while playing something else with his other fingers.[154]

Art tatum
A screen capture from the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys, showing Tatum's straight-fingered technique.

Drummer Bill Douglass, who played with Tatum, reported that the pianist could stretch to tenths and would "do runs with these two fingers up here and then the other two fingers of the same hand playing something else down there. Two fingers on the black keys, and then the other two fingers would be playing something else on the white keys. He could do that in either hand".[155] In fact, he could also reach elevenths, and could play a succession of chords such as the illustrated examples at rapid tempos.[132][note 3]

Examples of chords played by pianist Art Tatum
Examples of chords played by Tatum that "were easy for him to reach"[132]

Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right."[146] He used double-time stride playing[134] where his left hand alternated between playing bass notes (or tenth intervals) and mid-range chords at high speeds well over 300 beats-per-minute, in showcase recordings such as "I Wish I Were Twins", "The Shout", and "Elegy". He sometimes inverted the normal left-hand stride technique: playing the chord first, then the single note higher up the keyboard.[131]

Tatum used a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training; a 1935 observer wrote that, when playing, "Tatum's hand is almost perfectly horizontal, and his fingers seem to actuate around a horizontal line drawn from wrist to finger tip."[157] Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams said, "Tatum taught me how to hit my notes, how to control them without using pedals. And he showed me how to keep my fingers flat on the keys to get that clean tone."[158] He had a strong sense of time.[159]

After hours

Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances.[160][161] Whereas in a professional setting he would often give audiences what they wanted – performances of songs that were similar to his recorded versions – but decline to play encores, in after hours sessions with friends he would play the blues, improvise for long periods on the same sequence of chords, and move even more away from the melody of a composition.[135][134] Tatum also sometimes sang the blues in such settings, accompanying himself on piano.[138] Schuller describes "a night-weary, sleepy, slurry voice, of lost love and sexual innuendos which would have shocked (and repelled) those 'fans' who admired Tatum for his musical discipline and 'classical' [piano] propriety."[138]


Critical opinion differs widely when assessing Tatum's influence.[140] Readers may "learn that he was heavily influential, but you will also read the opposite – that his style was so personal and technical that he had little actual influence."[140]

His improvisational style extended what was possible on jazz piano. He influenced jazz pianists such as Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu, and Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's tone as "majestic" and devoted time to unlocking this sound.[2]

Transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously.[162] The virtuoso solo aspects of Tatum's style were taken on by pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Martial Solal, Adam Makowicz, and Simon Nabatov.[163] Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum's influence.[164] "His influence on later jazz pianists was enormous: even musicians of radically different outlook, such as Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano and Herbie Hancock, learnt key Tatum performances by rote, though few could compass his technical range or re-create his inimitable, plush tone."[133]

"Other musicians, among them Charlie Parker, were inspired by Tatum's technical accomplishments to bring a similar virtuosity to their own instruments."[133] When newly arrived in New York, Parker worked for three months as a dishwasher in a Harlem restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the pianist.[165] "Perhaps the most important idea Parker learned from Tatum was that any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved."[166] Dizzy Gillespie was also affected by Tatum's speed, harmony, and daring solos.[167] Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's "arpeggio-based style and his growing vocabulary of chords, of passing chords and the relationships of chords, were confirmed and encouraged by his response to Art Tatum."[131] Vocalist Tony Bennett also incorporated aspects of Tatum into his singing. "I'd listen to his records almost daily and try to phrase like him. [...] I just take his phrasing and sing it that way."[168]

Praise by musicians

When Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano to make way for him, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."[144]

When Oscar Peterson was a boy, his father played him a recording of Tatum performing "Tiger Rag". After the young Peterson was persuaded that it was performed by a single person, he was so intimidated that he did not touch the piano for weeks.[169] Peterson also stated that Tatum was "the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know."[170] "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."[171]

"Here's something new..." pianist Hank Jones remembers thinking when he first heard Art Tatum on 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."[172]

Jazz pianist Kenny Barron commented, "I have every record [Tatum] ever made—and I try never to listen to them ... If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up!"[173]

Among classical musicians who expressed their admiration for Tatum's playing were George Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky, Vladimir Horowitz, David Oistrakh, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.[174] In 1985, Jerry Garcia said of Tatum, "He's the guy I put on when I want to feel really small. When I want to feel really insignificant. He's a good guy to play for any musician, you know. He'll make them want to go home and burn their instruments. Art Tatum is absolutely the most incredible musician."[175]

Critical standing

There is little published information available about Tatum's life. One full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words (1994), by James Lester.[176] This may be attributable to Tatum's life and music not fitting into any established framework for jazz musicians: "jazz historiography seems to have resigned itself to a bemused ambivalence in regard to Tatum and to have postponed resolving the issue by consigning him to the special kind of marginality reserved for talented non sequiturs. As a consequence, not only is Tatum underrepresented in jazz criticism but his presence in jazz historiography seems largely to prompt no particular effort in historians beyond descriptive writing designed to summarize his pianistic approach."[27]

"In some respects, he stands out as one of the most controversial figures in the history of the music, with supporters and detractors much at odds."[177] "Some applaud Tatum as supremely inventive, while others say that he was boringly repetitive, and that he barely improvised."[140] Gary Giddins suggested that Tatum's standing has not been elevated to the very highest level of jazz stars among the public "because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand attention, [and so] becalms many listeners into hapless indifference."[178]

The adjective "Tatum-esque" has come to be used by writers who wish to compare a pianist's playing with that of Tatum.[179]


In 1993, an MIT student in the field of computational musicology coined the term "tatum", which was named in recognition of the pianist's speed.[180][181] It has been defined as "the smallest time interval between successive notes in a rhythmic phrase",[180] and "the fastest pulse present in a piece of music".[182]

In 2003, a historical marker was placed outside Tatum's childhood home at 1123 City Park Avenue in Toledo, but by 2017 the unoccupied property was in a state of disrepair.[183] At the Lucas County Arena of Toledo, a 27-feet-high sculpture, the "Art Tatum Celebration Column", was unveiled in 2009.[184]


Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. He recorded nearly 400 titles, if airchecks and informal issued recordings are included.[185] He recorded for Brunswick (1933), Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56).

Posthumous releases

  • Piano Starts Here (Columbia, 1968)
  • Capitol Jazz Classics – Volume 3 Solo Piano (Capitol, 1972)
  • God is in the House (Onyx, 1973, reissued by High Note, 1998)
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1 (Capitol, 1989)
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2 (Capitol, 1989)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 6 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 4 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 2 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces (Pablo, 1991)
  • Standards (Black Lion, 1992)
  • The V-Discs (Black Lion, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 3 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 4 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 5 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 6 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8 (Pablo, 1992)
  • Complete Capitol Recordings (Blue Note, 1997)


  1. ^ Tatum's eyesight is discussed in detail in the book Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats.[12]
  2. ^ Tatum wrote "Shout" and co-authored "Wee Wee Baby, You Sure Look Good to Me". His recording of "Shout" was included in the soundtrack of the film The Great Debaters. He also wrote four pieces published in London; "Jade", "Sapphire", "Amethyst", and "Turquoise".
  3. ^ In an informal recording from 1952, he can be heard playing A and D, "demonstrates it, fills it out, and responds that it's 'Not too bad when you fill it out'."[156]


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  2. ^ a b Gioia, Ted. "The Dozens: Art Tatum at 100". Archived from the original on June 10, 2016. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  3. ^ Yanow, Scott (1998). Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Yanow, Scott, eds. All Music Guide to Jazz (3 ed.). San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books. p. 1074. ISBN 0-87930-530-4. Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists.
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  5. ^ a b Lester 1994, p. 18.
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  13. ^ Lester 1994, p. 22.
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Further reading

External links

Black Lion Records

Black Lion Records was a jazz record company and label based in London, England.

Black Lion was founded by Alan Bates in 1968. The label had two series of releases, one for British jazz musicians and one for international musicians. It released a large amount of reissue material, including items by Art Tatum, Jay McShann, Ben Webster, Earl Hines, Bud Freeman, Bud Powell, Don Byas, Coleman Hawkins, Mal Waldron, and Duke Ellington. It had a subsidiary called Freedom Records, which concentrated on free jazz releases; this wing was bought by Arista Records in 1975.

The label was distributed by Polydor for part of its existence. It became part of D. A. Music in the 1980s, while Bates bought Candid Records in 1989 and shifted the focus of his activities there.

Clef Records

Clef Records was an American jazz record label founded by Norman Granz in 1946. It became part of Verve Records, which Granz created in 1956. Clef recordings were, in the mid 1950s, licensed to Columbia (UK) who issued 78rpm discs with a special white label and the Clef logo.

Expressions (Chick Corea album)

Expressions is an album by Chick Corea, released in 1994 through the record label GRP. The album peaked at number ten on Billboard's Top Jazz Albums chart.The Album is dedicated to Art Tatum.

Frankie Newton

Frankie Newton (William Frank Newton, January 4, 1906 – March 11, 1954) was a jazz trumpeter from Emory, Virginia. He played in several New York City bands in the 1920s and 1930s, including those led by Sam Wooding, Chick Webb, Charlie Barnet, Andy Kirk and Charlie "Fess" Johnson. In the 1940s he played with bands led by Lucky Millinder and Pete Brown. He played in clubs in New York and Boston, with musicians such as pianist Art Tatum, pianist James P. Johnson, drummer Sid Catlett and clarinetist Edmond Hall.

He accompanied Bessie Smith on her final recordings (November 24, 1933), Maxine Sullivan on 'Loch Lomond', and Billie Holiday on her original "Strange Fruit" session in 1939.

Between March 1937 and August 1939, eight recording sessions issued under Newton's name were produced. Three sessions in 1937 were made for Irving Mills's Variety label. In 1939, Newton recorded a six-song session with Victor, a four-song session for Vocalion, two individual one-song sessions for Blue Note, and finally one two-song session for Vocalion—14 records in all.

He also played with Art Tatum on extended versions of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Oh, Lady Be Good!", recorded in Harlem after hours. These finally came out in the 1970s as part of Tatum's album God is in the House, first on LP and later on CD.

Jazz royalty

Jazz royalty is a term encompassing the many jazz musicians who have been termed as exceptionally musically gifted and informally granted honorific, "aristocratic" or "royal" titles as nicknames. The practice of affixing honorific titles to the names of jazz musicians goes back to New Orleans at the start of the 20th century, before the genre was commonly known as "jazz".

Jitterbug Waltz

"Jitterbug Waltz" is a 1942 jazz composition by Fats Waller and initially recorded the same year by Fats Waller and His Rhythm. It was also recorded by Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Chet Atkins, Vince Guaraldi, Butch Thompson, Al Hirt, Eric Dolphy, and David Murray.

Johnny Costa

Johnny Costa (born John Costanza; January 18, 1922 – October 11, 1996) was an American jazz pianist. Given the title "The White Art Tatum" by jazz legend Art Tatum, Costa is best known for his work as musical director of the children's television program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

My One and Only Love

"My One and Only Love" is a popular song with music written by Guy Wood and lyrics by Robert Mellin. Published in 1952, it is a conventional 32-bar song with four 8-bar sections, including a bridge ("Type A" or "AABA" song structure). (Almost) invariably performed as a ballad, it has an aria-like melody that is a challenge to many vocalists; in the key of C, the song's melody extends from G below middle C to the second D above middle C.

The song originated in 1947 as “Music from Beyond the Moon” with music by Guy B. Wood and lyrics by Jack Lawrence. Vocalist Vic Damone recorded this version in 1948, but it was unsuccessful.

In 1952, Robert Mellin wrote a new title and lyrics for the song, and it was republished that year as “My One and Only Love”. When Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1953 with Nelson Riddle, first released as B-side to his hit single "I've Got the World on a String" (Capitol 2505), it became known. Then popular saxophonist Charlie Ventura saw the song's "jazz potential" and recorded the first instrumental version in the very same year.As an instrumental jazz standard, it remained predominantly a song for tenor saxophonists. Ben Webster recorded the tune with Art Tatum in autumn 1956. John Coltrane recorded his version with vocalist Johnny Hartman ten years after Ventura in 1963 (John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman). This was followed by Sonny Rollins in 1964. He re-recorded it in 1977, this time on soprano saxophone. Later interpretations came from Chico Freeman, Michael Brecker, and Joshua Redman.

Vocal renditions of "My One and Only Love" were recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Mark Murphy, Chet Baker and Kurt Elling. Cassandra Wilson turned the song into an up-tempo swing number.

Nice Work If You Can Get It (song)

"Nice Work If You Can Get It" is a popular song and jazz standard composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

It began life in 1930 as a nine-bar phrase with the working title "There's No Stopping Me Now". Its title phrase "Nice work if you can get it" came from an English magazine. It was one of nine songs George Gershwin wrote for the movie A Damsel in Distress in which it was performed by Fred Astaire with backing vocals by The Stafford Sisters. The song was published in 1937.

The first jazz recording of the work was by Tommy Dorsey three weeks after the release of the film. Early chart versions were by Shep Fields, Teddy Wilson with Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Maxine Sullivan, and The Andrews Sisters. The song was recorded by many jazz singers and adopted by bebop instrumentalists; Jerry Newman recorded pianist Thelonious Monk performing the tune in 1941 at Minton's Playhouse, a nightclub closely connected with early bebop, and he subsequently recorded it several times. Other jazz pianists who have recorded the tune include Art Tatum in 1949, Erroll Garner in 1968, and Jessica Williams in 1992.In the 1951 film An American in Paris, the song is performed by Georges Guétary.

A version of this song was used during the opening credits of the 1995 to 1998 CBS sitcom Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd, who performed the song.The song was included in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Crazy for You and lent its name to the musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Pablo Records

Pablo Records was a jazz record company and label founded by Norman Granz in 1973, more than a decade after he had sold his labels (including Verve Records) to MGM Records.Pablo initially featured recordings by acts that Granz managed: Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Pass. Later, the label issued recordings by Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, and Paulinho da Costa. The label also re-released 1950s recordings by Art Tatum, which Granz reacquired, and released unissued European live recordings of John Coltrane and his groups.

In January 1987, it was announced that the label had been acquired by Fantasy Records for an undisclosed amount. Eric Miller, who had worked with Norman Granz since the early 1970s, continued with Pablo as head of A&R, until the early-2000s. Fantasy continued to release previously unissued recordings using the Pablo name.

Perdido (song)

"Perdido" is a jazz standard composed by Juan Tizol that was recorded on December 3, 1941 by Duke Ellington. However, it is the January 21, 1942, recording of the song on the Victor label by the Ellington orchestra, of which Tizol was a member, that is regarded as the original recording. In 1944, Ervin Drake and Hans Lengsfelder were hired to write lyrics for the song.

"Perdido" was not usually sung with the Ellington band, the exception being Ella Fitzgerald on her 1957 album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook. Many others recorded the song, including Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Art Tatum, Quincy Jones, the Charlie Parker Quintet, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Randy Weston, Erroll Garner, Bill Doggett, and Harry James.

"Perdido" is Spanish and means lost, but also sloppy or indecent. The song refers to Perdido Street in New Orleans.

Skippy Williams

Elmer, or Elbert, "Skippy" Williams (July 27, 1916 – February 28, 1994) was a jazz tenor saxophonist, and musical arranger.

First credited as the arranger for some July 12, 1939 recordings for Earl Hines and His Orchestra, Skippy Williams is best known as the substitute for Ben Webster in Duke Ellington's orchestra. Replacing Webster in August 1943, Williams appears on Ellinton's Carnegie Hall recordings in December 1943. He left Ellington in May 1944, to start his own band and was replaced by Big Al Sears.In the mid-1940s he gave tenor sax classes to Pepper Adams in Rochester, NY, and was working with Thelonious Monk in 1946, credited as bandleader for Monk.Williams also worked with Art Tatum, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, Lucky Millinder, Bob Chester, and, according to some sources, played tenor sax on the original recording of Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock", and "Shake, Rattle and Roll",. This claim is, however, false.


"Tenderly" is a popular song published in 1946 with music by Walter Gross and lyrics by Jack Lawrence. Written in the key of Eb as a waltz in 3/4 time, it has since been performed in 4/4 and has become a popular jazz standard.

Sarah Vaughan recorded the song in 1946 and had a US pop hit with it in 1947.

The Fabulous Dorseys

The Fabulous Dorseys is a 1947 fictionalized biographical film which tells the story of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, from their boyhood in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania through their rise, their breakup, and their personal reunion. The film is inevitably a musical, but has many comic overtones.

The Dorsey Brothers starred as themselves. Other actors include Janet Blair, William Lundigan, Sara Allgood and Arthur Shields. Janet Blair demonstrates that she is a highly competent singer.

The "side plot" focuses upon a romance between Jane and Bob. Bob strives to improve himself, and rather than playing support music in the cinema, strives to write a concerto.

There are also cameo appearances by other musicians of the period: Paul Whiteman, Charlie Barnet, Henry Busse, Bob Eberly, Helen O'Connell and Art Tatum. Pianist Tatum "is shown playing in a night club with the piano surrounded by the Dorsey brothers and other well-known musicians, who finally join him in an ensemble blues."The Jimmy Dorsey composition and theme song "Contrasts" is played in the movie. "Green Eyes", "Tangerine", "I'll Never Smile Again", "Marie", and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" are also featured in the movie, along with "To Me" and "Dorsey Concerto". Paul Whiteman and the Orchestra perform "At Sundown".

The film was written by Art Arthur, Richard English and Curtis Kenyon. It was directed by Alfred E. Green.

The Genius of Art Tatum

The Genius of Art Tatum is a 1953-4 series of solo albums by jazz pianist Art Tatum originally issued on LP over 11 volumes. First released on the Clef Records label, they were added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. A 7-CD box-set of these recordings, now under the title of The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, was issued on the Pablo label in July 1991.

The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio

The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio is a 1955 studio album by Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum and Buddy Rich for Norman Granz' Clef Records. The album has been re-issued on Verve as Tatum Hampton Rich and by Pablo as The Tatum Hampton Rich Trio and as Volume three of Pablo's series, The Tatum Group Masterpieces.

The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight

The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight is an album by pianist Art Tatum and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, with Red Callender on double bass and Bill Douglass on drums. The 1956 session was originally released in 1958 on a Verve Records album produced by Norman Granz, but Granz re-acquired the masters in the 1970s after the album was allowed to go out of print. He reissued the material as one of a series of eight Group Masterpieces featuring Tatum in collaboration with other artists, also issuing it as part of a boxed set, The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces. The album has been reissued on CD, including a January 31, 1992 version with bonus tracks.

The album was critically well-received, with critics singling out the combination of Webster's tone with Tatum's elaborate piano playing. The album is listed in several volumes as among the best in jazz and is recommended by the Music Library Association as an important piece for music libraries.

Tiny Grimes

Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes (July 7, 1916 – March 4, 1989) was an American jazz and R&B guitarist. He was a member of the Art Tatum Trio from 1943 to 1944, was a backing musician on recording sessions, and later led his own bands, including a recording session with Charlie Parker. He is notable for playing the tenor guitar, a four-stringed electric instrument.

Verve Records discography

This is the complete discography of the main 12-inch (8000) series of LPs issued by Verve Records, a label founded in 1956 by producer Norman Granz in Los Angeles, California. Alongside new sessions Granz re-released many of the recordings of his earlier labels Clef and Norgran on Verve.

The primal sessions issued on Verve were one of Charlie Parker with Lester Young performing "Lady Be Good" (8002, 8840), and of the Gene Krupa Trio (8031, licensed to Mercury beforehand) both at the "Philharmonic Auditorium" in Los Angeles, on January 28, 1946. In April that year a Jazz Recital with Billie Holiday was recorded, previously a Clef album, now reissued on the new label. And a former Norgram issue of a radio broadcast capturing a rare trio formation consisting of Lester Young, Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich. The incessant matching of musicians of different generations and schools is strongly associated with Norman Granz whose long-lasting Jazz at the Philharmonic concert project was also part of his work as a record producer. Although JATP concerts appear here, some are not listed here; they were issued in the MG VOL 1-11 sequence, which is not part of this discography, as much as the 78 rpm and 45 rpm LP and single series. Other JATP concerts first appeared on Granz later Pablo Records label, which also reissued the Art Tatum recordings listed below which he had reacquired. Also absent is the Down Home series dedicated to documenting surviving early jazz players and revivalists.Beside the already mentioned musicians the Verve catalog comprised a good share of prominent jazz musicians of the 1940s to '60s, featuring Count Basie, Woody Herman, and Lionel Hampton. The 4000 series was dedicated to projects involving Ella Fitzgerald is not listed here (but is partially included on her discography page), nor is the 2000 series dedicated to other singers including Anita O'Day, although some of these were later reissued in the 8000 series.

After Norman Granz sold Verve to MGM in 1961, Creed Taylor was designated as producer for the label. He followed a more commercial policy, including the successful Bossa Nova albums of Stan Getz, but Taylor left five years later. Other younger musicians such as Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Gerry Mulligan and Jimmy Smith recorded extensively for the label during this period. Verve Folkways (see Verve Forecast) established by Taylor as a subsidiary is not tabulated here either. However, Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy (8741), and an album by Alan Lorber (8711) are to be found here. The most recent recordings issued (and listed here) date from 1973, with organist Jimmy Smith accompanied by an orchestra under Thad Jones (8832), and Casting Pearls by the blues-rock formation Mill Valley Bunch (8825).

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