Art Tatum: The Prodigy of Jazz

Art Tatum, one of the most famous jazz pianists in history, was born on the 13th of October 1909, in Toledo, Ohio. His exceptional talent and prodigious technique were a true revelation to the jazz lovers at the time. Many would agree that Tatum was to jazz what Mozart to classical music. “When Art Tatum arrived…, the first reaction of many musicians seems to have been one of delight and despair. If that is where it’s going, they seemed to say, we can’t follow… What they heard in Tatum was, first, an exceptional musical ear, and beyond that, an unequalled capacity for speed and for musical embroidery. And those things remained for years a source of frustration to many a musician.” (Martin Williams, Art Tatum: Not for the Left Hand Alone, American Music, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1983)

Tatum was born partially blind, and throughout his life his sight deteriorated even more. Perhaps that is why he developed such an incredible ear for music. His passion and talent became evident in his early childhood. By the age of three he taught himself to play piano and could pick out several church hymns, which he had overheard on the radio. The speed, with which he effortlessly glided over the piano keys, became later his brand mark. “The speed and the embroidery were dazzling… Tatum played with an array of ascending and descending arpeggio runs, octave slides and leaps, sudden modulations, double-third glissandos – a keyboard vocabulary in which swift, interpolated triplets were a small matter.” (Williams)

Tatum developed a very individual style with strong classical influences. That is why he has been a tough nut to many jazz historians and critics, who try to fit his style within established definitions and formal classifications: “Among musicians… some solved the problem by ceasing to consider him as a jazz musician. As fellow Pianist and contemporary Teddy Wilson told an interviewer after Tatum’s death, “Back in the old days, we put Tatum in a special category and did not discuss him as a jazz pianist – he was in category by himself…”” (David Horn, The Sound World of Art Tatum, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 20, No. 2, Autumn, 2000)

Tatum’s unique style has become an inspiration to many jazz musicians, among others: Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones or Kenny Barron. Some of the masters of classical music found his music inspirational too. It is said that Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 contains many jazz-like elements in it, and some of the credit for the influence goes to Art Tatum. Among other luminaries of classical music, astounded by Tatum’s genius, were Arthur Rubinstein, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, George Gershwin or Vladimir Horowitz. The latter became eventually Tatum’s close friend. Allegedly, with every given chance, he would go to see Tatum play. There is this story that after months of mastering his jazz version of the famous classic ‘Tea for Two’, Horowitz shared the results of his work with his friend. When he finished playing his tunes, Tatum replaced him at the piano and totally effortlessly played what he had just heard. It was so good that Horowitz decided not to play ‘Tea for Two’ in public ever again.

Tatum proved that it is possible to evolve from unexceptional origins in Toledo into a world-class musician. Much credit goes of course to his unique talent, but for a man with practically no musical education to marvel some of the biggest names of classical music, that is a big achievement indeed.  

Film Credit: credman