Squarely grounded in the 'stride' piano style of James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, Art Tatum took solo jazz piano to new heights of harmonic sophistication and breathtaking execution.
Nearly blind from infancy Tatum learned to play by ear as a toddler. Irresistibly drawn to the piano Tatum would place his fingers on the keys depressed by player-piano rolls in his mother's collection. As a boy he entertained his friends by replicating the sound of a bumblebee or an airplane on the piano.
In 1932 at the age of 22 Tatum moved to New York as singer Adelaide Hall's accompanist and began recording commercially, both in solo performance and with small groups. Although few pianists dared to copy his challenging style directly, Tatum's innovative re-harmonization of standard tunes had a direct impact on the shape of the harmonic language later developed by the be-bop movement of the 1940s.
Art Tatum didn't talk much about himself, but other musicians who admired his playing made up for it. One night in 1938 after Tatum dropped by to hear his mentor Fats Waller play, Waller told the audience, "I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight."
This week on Riverwalk Jazz actor Vernel Bagneris offers a glimpse of Art Tatum through the words of jazz musicians who knew him—bandleader and pianist Count Basie, Maurice Waller—son of Fats, guitarist Les Paul, blues singer Al Hibbler and drummer Louis Bellson.
Concord recording artist Shelly Berg joins The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in new arrangements of the Tatum classics "Tea for Two," "Humoresque" and "Willow Weep for Me." And Berg tackles Tatum's famous showcase piano solos "Tiger Rag," "Sweet Lorriane" and "Fine and Dandy."
On the radio show, in response to being asked how to understand Art Tatum's contribution to jazz, Shelly Berg says, "Babe Ruth’s record has been broken, but after all these years nobody has ever eclipsed Art Tatum."
Photo credit for Home Page: Tatum in action at New York’s 52nd St. Photo courtesy Duncan Scheidt.