So why exactly am I writing about Art Tatum on a blog devoted to comic books? It's because of what I found recently. In my research into the earliest history of artist Joe Maneely's career, the research took me to the books published by Street & Smith, where Maneey toiled immediately after he left the Hussian School of Art in November of 1947. During the course of tracking down all this early work I acquired a run of the Street & Smith title True Sport Picture Stories from the mid 1940's. Paging through every single issue in the lot, I was startled to find in the Vol 3, #3 October 1945 issue, a 4-page biographical story on none other than premier jazz pianist Art Tatum!!!
The link to Tatum in this book was because he was an enormous sports fan and then at the height of his popularity. The editors at Street & Smith figured it would be a great human interest story to showcase one of the period's most popular musicians and his sports passion. I couldn't believe my eyes! Here was a biographical 4-page comic book story about one of my musical idols! But my elation was pretty short-lived. The story was horribly drawn by Charles Wessell, a bottom tier artist whose only known credits were for Street & Smith from 1942 to 1947. The story was also wincingly steeped in stereotypical depictions of African Americans, depictions mostly rendered in the form of speech patterns typical of the time period as exhibited in film, music and even animated cartoons. But even with such renderings, it's obvious the story was done with earnest admiration for Tatum.
The link to myself is the fact that as the son of a jazz piano player, the music of Art Tatum was the background soundtrack of my childhood. My father Michael Vassallo was jazz piano player of minor note in the world of live playing back in the late 1950's and early 1960's in New York City. He never recorded in the studio and left that world to raise a family, teaching and writing music from then on, but for a while he was immersed in the scene on 52nd Street, even playing at the famed Hickory House for a short tenure in 1962, at the same time as Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland. My two (or is that three?) degrees of separation to Tatum is that Tatum's bass player Slam Stewart once sat in with my father's trio!
Tatum, Oscar Peterson, the Nat Cole Trio and Bill Evans (and the entire range of classical music from the baroque to the modern) was pretty much all that was heard in our household. If you went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, as soon as you turned on the light, a cassette player with Tatum or Peterson (or Frederic Chopin or Bela Bartok) would immediately come on, usually accidentally left at a higher volume than you'd want to hear at 3:00 A.M.!
But for today's readers who may be asking, "Who was Art Tatum?", I'll get it out of the way immediately.... Art Tatum was the greatest jazz piano player this world has ever seen. I'll even go one better and state that a case can be made that he was the single greatest instrumentalist in any musical genre that the world has ever seen. Tatum possessed total command and mastery over his instrument in a manner that transcended instruments and genres. He played with the precision and grace of a concert pianist wrapped up with the improvisational genius of a jazz stride and swing pianist, coupled with the harmonic sense of a musical scholar and the ability to instantaneously translate his thoughts to flawless performance on the keyboard. And this was usually accomplished at tempos that made one's head spin.
Tatum was the most articulate representative of the tradition formed from the merging of Ragtime, Dixieland and blues piano into stride and from there into and through the piano developments of the swing era. [Felicity A. Howlett, introduction to Art Tatum - A Guide to His Recorded Music]
The best biography of Tatum was written by James Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words - The Life and Genius of Art Tatum" (Oxford University Press, 1994).
In the book, Lester quotes musical scholars in their educated attempt to describe Art Tatum's playing:
"...almost every one of Tatum's performances is from a pianistic-technical point of view a marvel of perfection ... his playing must be heard to be believed, and in its technical perfection it is something beyond verbal description, at least this author's verbal capacities. The note-perfect clarity of Tatum's runs, the hardly believable leaps to the outer registers of the piano (he is not known ever to have missed one), his deep-in-the-keys full piano sonority, the tone and touch control in pyrotechnical passages clearly beyond the abilities of the vast majority of pianists to merely render the notes in some nominal way - these are miracles of performance which must be appreciated aurally."
[Schuller, Swing Era, 482]
"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 be an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be 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." [Balliett, Ectasy, 113]
Said pianist Teddy Wilson, a close friend of Tatum's:
"Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur. Pianists with regular styles will sound like beginners. Art Tatum played with such superiority that he was above style. It is almost like a golfer who can hit q hole in one every time he picks up the iron. It was a special kind of ability he had. If I had to choose an all-'round instrumentalist, in a classical vein, or in a more modern vein, I'd choose Art Tatum."
Fats Waller, an early contemporary of Tatum, was a showman and songwriter who gained enormous popularity and fame as a stride piano jazz player and personality, even frequently being caricatured in the theatrical animated cartoons of the time, specifically in several Warner Bros. animated shorts. But Waller was the first to admit, he was no Art Tatum. In Ken Burns' epic documentary Jazz, Burns ignored any real coverage of several of the finest and most influential piano players, epic musicians including Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, preferring to focus on jazz history's early roots, major eras and each era's seminal figures. One person he does not skip is Art Tatum. Tatum gets a few minutes of coverage and Burns relates the oft heard comment by Waller, who stated one evening at a club after Tatum walked in, "Ladies and gentlemen, I only play the piano, but God is in the house." YouTube had that Ken Burns clip up at one time but I no longer can find it, unfortunately.
The great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, heir to Tatum's throne as master jazz pianist, often told the story about how when he was a young, hot-headed piano student, and thinking he was something special, his father played him an Art Tatum recording.
"One afternoon Pop walked in, called me as he wound up his gramophone and said, "Tell me what you think of this piano player." I later found out it was Art Tatum playing the Tiger Rag. My first reaction was to laugh, because here was my dad trying to fool me with a recording of two piano players. He asked me what I was laughing at and I replied that I was on to his joke and that I knew it was two pianists. He seemed to take a lot of pleasure informing me that this was one man - and blind at that! A total sense of frustration came over me. First, it was unbelievable to me that this man could play that way. Second, it was obvious that, though blind, he had accomplished pianistically worlds more than I had been able to do with my sight. I sank into a morass of dejection and would not go near a piano for a month, so incredible was this music that I heard and so impressed was I at its performance. I can recall being encouraged to play by various members of my family, but I could not respond." [Oscar Peterson - A Jazz Odyssey, Continuum, 2002]
Here are two wonderful photos of Oscar Peterson and his mentor, Art Tatum. The first one looks like the early 1950's, the second several years later.
I recently came across a concert originally broadcast in 1980 on the BBC of an Oscar Peterson concert (Words and Music) that also featured guitarist Joe Pass and bandleader/pianist Count Basie. During the show Peterson played with his trio consisting of bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and drummer Martin Drew, as well as a backing big band. At one point Peterson and Basie were at 2 different pianos set up for duets and conversing back and forth about music. Peterson then brought up the subject of Art Tatum. The wonderful exchange occurs at the 30 minute, 40 second mark and goes on for 7 1/2 minutes, highlighted by Basie prodding Peterson to play 8 bars of "something" in Tatum's style! It ended up being 8 bars of George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me".
The entire 47 minute concert is below. The Tatum discussion comes in at the 30:40 mark and can be scrolled to by dragging the bar.
Here's a clean version of Tiger Rag, possibly from the early 1940's (he recorded it several times, starting in 1932):
Born in Toledo, Ohio on October 13, 1909, and nearly blind from birth, Tatum commanded piano jazz from the time he burst onto the scene in 1932. He played live on the radio, toured the world, recorded extensively both solo and in groups, held court at jazz clubs (and more importantly, "after hours" clubs) and was held in enormous esteem by the concert pianists of the day.
"Tatum's astonishing technique not only stunned jazz musicians (and paralyzed a few) but also won the admiration of some of the prominent concert artists, conductors, and composers of the day - such artists as George Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky, Paderewski, and Rachmaninoff. Most important to Tatum, Vladimir Horowitz admired and praised him, often extravagantly. Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, said in a television interview that from the moment he first heard Tatum on a record he "absolutely fell in love with him." When the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh arrived in America, one of the first things he wanted to do was shop the record stores for Tatum recordings." [Lester, Oxford University Press, 1994]
Pianist/personality Oscar Levant (a friend of George Gershwin) once related:
"Gershwin listened with rapture to Tatum, especially when the songs were Gershwin's own, such as "Liza" and "I Got Rythym." He once gave a party especially for Tatum at his 72nd Street apartment in New York. One of the guests was the famous concert pianist Leopold Godowsky (from whom Fats Waller is alleged to have taken some lessons), and one who was there reported that "Godowsky listened with amazement for twenty minutes to Tatum's remarkable runs, embroideries, counter-figures and passage playing."
Levant further writes:
"Some time after he arrived in California, Gershwin discovered that Tatum was playing at a local night-club, and we went together to hear him. It was a small, dingy, badly lighted room - an intimate version of the too-intimate Onyx Club. We joined the group of enthusiasts clustered around the piano where the blind virtuoso was in full swing. To George's great joy Tatum played virtually the equivalent of Beethoven's thirty-two variations on his theme 'Liza.' Then George asked for more. [Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance", Doubleday, 1940]
While I cannot even begin to put enough examples here to even dent the surface of Tatum's oeuvre, I will cherry-pick samples as a start for anyone to follow-up on their own. Here's a version of George Gershwin's Liza from 1934 that is an endless variety of variations around the Liza theme:
Tatum left an extensive recorded legacy in both solo and group settings, from the early scratchy "live radio" recordings, through the V Discs and eventually recording for several different labels (Brunswick, Columbia, Capital, Pablo). Even recordings of Tatum playing at private parties have surfaced and been released. Tatum also toured and spent time in Great Britain in the 1930's:
From MELODY MAKER, March 12, 1938:
This out of print book lists his entire output: Art Tatum - A Guide to his Recorded Music (The Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1982).
In the 1950's Tatum put down his most ambitious work, the massive sessions he did for Norman Granz, famed jazz impresario, the founder and producer of the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" series of concerts, and owner of his own record label, Clef. Granz always felt that Tatum was not represented well enough on recordings and in the 1953, put Tatum in the studio where over the course of 2 days put down 124 solo recording followed by 59 in 1954/55 with other giants of the times, musicians like Lionel Hampton, Buddy Rich, Benny Carter, Louis Bellson, Roy Eldridge, Harry (Sweets) Edison, Buddy DeFranco, and Ben Webster. These recordings are all available today on CD's released by Pablo in 1990 (solo album discs and complete box sets) under the name:
Art Tatum - The (Complete) Pablo Solo Masterpieces
Art Tatum - The (Complete) Pablo Group Masterpieces
The Group Masterpieces CD boxed set above also has 4 previously unreleased tracks from the Hollywood Bowl on August 15, 1956, where 19,000 fans filled the venue in a star-studded concert put on by Norman Granz. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong were also on the bill, mere months before Tatum's premature death from kidney disease that November at the age of 47.
The liner notes from the sets have extensively detailed historical background and context written by pianist Benny Green, had some wonderful candid photos from the actual sessions. If only someone had possessed the the foresight to hire a film crew for those sessions!
From the Solo sessions:
|Tatum and Norman Granz|
From the Group sessions:
|Hampton and Tatum|
|Tatum and Benny Carter|
|Tatum and Benny Carter|
Here's his famous version of Jules Massenet's Elegie from Solo Masterpieces, recorded December 28, 1953:
From the Group Masterpieces, here's one of my favorite tracks, the long, slow blues cut, Verve Blues, recorded September 7, 1955. Tatum's solo comes in at 2:59. At 7:25 somebody, probably Lionel Hampton is singing! Lionel Hampton is on vibraphone, Harry (Sweets) Edison on trumpet, Red Callender is on bass, Barney Kessel on guitar (if there's a guitar in this cut, it's hard to tell. There is in the next one below) and that's Buddy Rich on percussion using the brushes. Try to isolate and listen to Tatum in the background on your second listen.
This is a previously unreleased (until the CD release), hard-driven up-tempo alternate version of Cole Porter's What is This Thing Called Love recorded on September 7, 1955. Same musicians as Verve Blues above. You can frequently hear Buddy Rich yelling out on the track as a chorus ends and another begins. Tatum's solo comes in at about 2:07. (Flawless!) A slowed down version was the one on the original release.
There are several reasons Art Tatum is not as well known he should be in this day and age. The first and foremost is that jazz music in general, created in the United States and once this country's form of popular music, is unfortunately today, as a genre, a tiny niche in the music business. Several generations of music listeners have now been awash in youth culture for so long that I daresay jazz may forever be relegated to this niche, a strong and stubborn niche, but a niche nonetheless. And that's a sad thing.
A second reason is that his playing was so startling, so far ahead of his time (or any time, for that matter), that to the layman, he sounded like he was playing too may notes or his music was too busy. I've seen that proven in my own family as my mother and wife will often cringe when Tatum's music comes on. Not that they don't appreciate it on a level of virtuosity, they know it's good, but on a level of easy listening, it's not for them. Tatum's greatest admirers were always other musicians.
A third reason is that our culture today is an image based culture. Even cultural personalities of the past are kept in the collective consciousness by virtue of floods of filmed imagery from motion pictures, performances, et al. One of the greatest tragedies of jazz cultural history is the lack of filmed performances of Tatum. This is even more inexplicable given the fact that Tatum only died in 1956, a time when movie film cameras available for music performances were readily available and he was even playing at venues as popular as The Hollywood Bowl at the time of his death. This wasn't ancient history. Yet searching jazz references and You Tube on the web, have revealed only four entire instances of filmed performances of Art Tatum playing that I could locate.
The second of these was a filmed segment for the film The Fabulous Dorseys (1947). This is a wonderful, staged, all-too-short 3 minute segment filmed in a club where Tatum was alleged to be playing in the film. The ditty is called Art's Blues and that's Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Charley Barnet, George Van Eps, Ray Bauduc, Ziggy Ellman and Stuart Foster in the clip. Tatum gets a mini solo and a short tag at the end.
The third filmed Tatum segment was an appearance alleged to have been on the Spike Jones Show (unconfirmed) in 1954 where he plays the Jerome Kern song Yesterdays. On the website 30's Jazz, they are saying it's a clip from the early 1940's. I'm not sure that's true. It looks like an early TV show to me shot with poor quality video (or a kinescope).
And fourth and last, a clip of Tatum playing Anton Dvorak's Humoresque on television in what looks to be the early 1950's. What it's from I just don't know but the clip seems to have been edited in several sections for reasons unknown to me. The video quality is very poor.
And that's it! As far as I know, there are no other known filmed recorded images of Art Tatum playing. It's incomprehensible to me that no one, I mean NO ONE, filmed Tatum throughout his entire career from the early 1930's through 1956! It is just beyond belief. So yes, while we will always have the recordings, the visual permanence for our culture's collective memory is completely gone. The absurd unfortunate reality of our present culture is that if we can't see it, it didn't exist, and for this reason, except for jazz history buffs and students of piano and its greatest players, Art Tatum will forever be relegated to the mists of time. As we've lost first-person contacts with Tatum during the passage of decades - friends, colleagues and even critics - our jazz heritage will be the poorer for it. I only hope somewhere, in someone's attic (or several people's attics), is a cache of never seen Tatum footage taken at a club, concert or private party, by an admirer, to be one day discovered by a family member.
Odds and ends...
Here's a rare audio clip, apparently recorded after hours, of Tatum singing the blues!
***Note: This clip is no longer accessible online.
This seems to have been recorded in a private house party in 1956. Art plays There Will Never be Another You in a relaxed atmosphere. Wait until the end when you hear Art and his guests talking at the 3:35 segment!
And here's a rare short interview with Tatum over the radio:
Just for kicks, here's one last track, his incredible version of the standard Tea For Two:
And for those additionally interested in the life and discography of Art Tatum, I'll refer you to this link that extensively covers both from a wide variety of sources:
* [Extensive Art Tatum biographical sources from the Web] (link non-working as of 2018)
Nearly everything Tatum ever recorded from the 1930's though the 1950's, I believe, is available on CD. I personally have just about every disc released including all re-releases. YouTube is also a great source of Tatum music for the uninitiated and I recommend the Art Tatum biography by James Lester, "Too Marvelous for Words - The Life and Genius of Art Tatum" (Oxford University Press, 1994).
And finally, (and I saved it for last) here is a 51 minute documentary on Art Tatum. It's the only documentary ever produced on Tatum and one of the best ever on the stride history of jazz piano. The interviews are PRICELESS! Watching this you will understand Tatum within the context of his times and within the context of other musicians. In the opening segment Les Paul talks about meeting Tatum in the 1930's (while he, Paul, was playing the piano) and says he dropped the piano and took up the guitar after hearing him. At 35:24 Art's love of sports (the original reason this post was possible) is mentioned. And listen to what Les Paul says at the 46:00 mark. It also goes a long way in explaining Tatum's lack of popularity among the masses.
Art Tatum - The Art of Jazz Piano (2008)
*** Note: The documentary is seemingly no longer accessible online but an excerpt is available here:
Here's a well-known Tatum publicity photo, a cropped version appearing at the top of this article:
And lastly, here is an Art Tatum advertisement in the May 18, 1955 issue of Down Beat magazine, accompanying the Clef Records release of a 5 album set "The Genius of Art Tatum". This collection was released a year before Tatum's death on November 5, 1956.
- True Sport Picture Stories Vol 3, #3 October 1945, Street & Smith Publications, Charles Wessell artwork
- Art Tatum - A Guide to his Recorded Music (The Scarecrow Press and the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, 1982).
- James Lester, Too Marvelous for Words - The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, Oxford University Press, 1994
- Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance, Doubleday, 1940
- Art Tatum & Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson - A Jazz Odyssey, Continuum, 2002
- Art Tatum - Tiger Rag (1940's)
- Art Tatum - Liza (1934)
- Melody Maker, March 12, 1938
- Art Tatum - The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, 1990
- Art Tatum - The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces, 1990
- Art Tatum - Elegie, The Complete Solo Masterpieces, recorded December 28, 1953
- Art Tatum - Verve Blues, The Complete Group Masterpieces, recorded September 7, 1955.
- Art Tatum - What is This Thing Called Love The Complete Group Masterpieces, recorded on September 7, 1955
- Art Tatum - Tiny's Exercise, December 5, 1943 at the Three Deuces in New York City
- Art Tatum - Art's Blues, The Fabulous Dorseys, 1947
- Art Tatum - Yesterdays, Spike Jones Show (?), 1954 (?)
- Art Tatum - Anton Dvorak's Humoresque, 1950's (?)
- Art Tatum - radio clip, unknown date.
- Art Tatum - There Will Never be Another You, private party, 1956
- Art Tatum - Interview on the radio,
- Art Tatum - Tea For Two
- Art Tatum - The Art of Jazz Piano, documentary, 2008
- Art Taum - Publicity photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives.
- Art Tatum - Clef Records ad, Down Beat Magazine, May 18, 1955.