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Tatum, Art(hur, Jr.)

The Grove Dictionary of American Music
Wolfram KnauerWolfram Knauer

Tatum, Art(hur, Jr.) (b Toledo, OH, 13 Oct 1909; d Los Angeles, CA, 5 Nov 1956). Jazz pianist. 

Tatum, who was visually impaired from birth (he was blind on one side and had partial sight on the other), attended a school for the blind in Columbus, Ohio, and later the Toledo School of Music, where he also learned to read music with the aid of very strong glasses as well as the Braille method. He had perfect pitch, which helped him to learn from piano rolls, phonograph recordings, and live bands. He played professionally in local night clubs from 1926 and in 1929 had his own 15-minute radio program. Tatum was influenced by earlier stride pianists such as Fats Waller and to a lesser extent the more

Tatum, Art(hur, Jr.)

Art Tatum, c1940. (JazzSign/Lebrecht Music & Arts)

old-fashioned playing of James P. Johnson, and added a more elegant side to their exuberance. His technique so impressed his fellow musicians that he soon became known far beyond the city. He worked as piano soloist in clubs in his hometown, and in 1932 moved to New York as one part of a two-piano team accompanying the singer Adelaide Hall, with whom he also recorded.

In the mid-1930s he had longer engagements at clubs in Cleveland (1934–5), Chicago (1935) and Hollywood (1936–7), and in 1938 he made his only trip to Europe, playing a series of engagements in London. He also regularly performed in New York and Los Angeles. In 1933 he recorded “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag,” the latter a virtuoso tour-de-force that has since become a classic. Up to the early 1940s Tatum performed mostly as a soloist; his repertoire comprised jazz standards as well as jazzy interpretations of light classical music such as Massenet's “Elegie” or Dvořák's “Humoresque.” In 1941 he had his own sextet, and two years later he formed his first trio with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and the bassist Slam Stewart. In this instrumentation Tatum followed a band format inspired by the earlier piano trios of Clarence Profit and Nat “King” Cole with guitar and bass instead of bass and drums as became the fashion later on. Stewart had perfect pitch like Tatum and was able to find his own space within the fast bass lines Tatum was playing, and Tatum by now had learned how to provide space for the guitar. Tatum's trio played extended engagements on New York's 52nd Street as well as at clubs in Chicago and Los Angeles throughout the 1940s.

Tatum's harmonic experiments were a prerequisite for bebop, yet when the new style developed in the 1940s, Tatum did not change his direction. Bebop focused much more on spontaneous improvisation than Tatum did in his melody-oriented paraphrases. In 1949 Tatum signed with the Capitol label and recorded 26 titles, among them “Willow Weep for Me” and “Aunt Hagar's Blues,” both of which became standard interpretations of these tunes. In 1953 and 1954 he recorded more than 120 solo tracks for Norman Granz, and later in ensemble settings with artists such as Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, Benny Carter, Louie Bellson, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, Buddy DeFranco, and Ben Webster. These recordings increased his popularity both with audiences and critics, and he was named best pianist by Down Beat's critics’ poll for three consecutive years. Even though he suffered from diabetes, he continued to perform in clubs and at festivals with his trio. He died from kidney failure.

Tatum played in a rhythmically complex style (though not as complex as that of Earl Hines), but it was especially his harmonic interpretations that baffled and amazed audiences. Characterized by classical precision, his style features sparkling runs, accurate harmonic modulations, and a sometimes metronome-like rhythmic feel. He had a strong left hand in which he was able to play fast and swinging stride passages just as well as broken arpeggios across the whole width of the keyboard. In his right hand he played clear melody lines, and he loved to quote from jazz as well as classical compositions during his improvisations. In his trio the focus usually remained with the melody, his improvisations almost always following the basic melodic outline of the pieces played. This may be one reason why Tatum rarely played the blues, that is, pieces in which the melody was not as important as in the usual standard repertory. The arrangements for the trio usually kept a fixed sequence, and Tatum confirmed that about three-quarters of his interpretations were laid out in advance. Tatum was admired long after his death for his technique, his voicings, and harmonic modulations.


(selective list)

Under his own name

Tea for Two (1933, Brunswick); Tiger Rag (1933; Brunswick 6543); Liza (1934, Decca 1373); Elegie/Humoresque (1940; Decca); Piano Music (1949, Capitol), The Genius of Art Tatum (1953, Clef; reissued as The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces [Pablo, 1992]);

As leader

Pieces of Eight (1939–55, Smithsonian); God Is in the House (1940–1, Onyx); The Tatum Group Masterpieces (1954–5, reissued on Pablo, 1990); Dark Eyes (1944, Comet); Body and Soul (1944, Comet); Flying Home (1944, Comet); with Benny Carter and Louie Bellson: The Art Tatum/Benny Carter/Louis Bellson Trio (1954, Clef); with Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich: The Lionel Hampton/Art Tatum/Buddy Rich Trio (1955, Clef); The Art Tatum Trio (1956, Verve), incl. Trio Blues; with B. Webster: The Art Tatum–Ben Webster Quartet (1956, Verve)

As sideman

with Leonard Feather's Esquire All Stars: Esquire Bounce/Esquire Blues (1943, Commodore); with Barney Bigard: Blues for Art's Sake (1945, Black & White); Please Don’t Talk about Me When I’m Gone (1945, Black & White)


S.A. Pease: “Tatum's Genius Sparks Modern Dance Rhythm,” DB, xi/13 (1 July 1944), 12Find this resource:

O. Keepnews: “Art Tatum,” The Jazz Makers: Essays on the Greats of Jazz, ed. N. Shapiro and N. Hentoff (New York, 1957, R/1979), 151–62Find this resource:

A. Hodeir: “The Genius of Art Tatum,” The Art of Jazz. Essays on the Nature and Development of Jazz, ed. M. Williams (New York, 1959), 173–180Find this resource:

D. Katz: “Art Tatum,” Jazz Panorama: From the Pages of Jazz Review, ed. M. Williams (New York, 1964), 64–70Find this resource:

R. Spencer: “Art Tatum: an Appreciation,” Jazz Journal, xix/8 (Aug 1966), 6–10; part 2, Jazz Journal, xix/9 (Sept 1966), 11–16; part 3, Jazz Journal, xix/10 (Oct 1966), 13–16Find this resource:

R. Stewart: “Genius in Retrospect,” DB, xxxiii/21 (20 Oct 1966), 17–19, 42Find this resource:

A. Laubich & R. Spencer: Art Tatum: a Guide to His Recorded Music (Metuchen, NJ, 1982)Find this resource:

G. Schuller: The Swing Era: the Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (New York, 1989), 476–502Find this resource:

J. Lester: Too Marvelous for Words: the Life & Genius of Art Tatum (New York, 1994)Find this resource:

M. Lehmstedt: Art Tatum: Eine Biographie (Leipzig, 2009)Find this resource:

Wolfram Knauer