The Greatest Pianist Ever

by Mark Scaramella, January 5, 2011

It’s almost impossible to evoke good music in print, especially the dazzling and extraordinary sound of the world’s greatest pianist, Art Tatum. But, that’s not for lack of trying. Here’s a sampling of what fellow musi­cians and critics have said about him.

• “…wondrous technique” … “ridiculously rapid and extended lines with both hands.”

• “Harmonically 30 years ahead of his time” … “Always scared the competition.”

• “…criticized for having ‘too much technique’ (is such a thing possible?)”

• “Made even old warhorses sound like new composi­tions.”

• “What God himself would play for solo jazz piano”

• “The greatest jazz pianist that has ever lived. Period.”

• “A style and technique never equaled in its sophisti­cation and brilliance.”

• “One of the few musicians that people will still be listening to 100 years from now.”

• “He could identify the dominant note in a flushing toilet.”

• “The greatest virtuoso performer in the history of jazz.”

• “A whole band, complete in himself.”

• “The apotheosis of jazz instrumentalists.”

• “Tapping to his uptempo performances is like try­ing to match a hummingbird’s wings.”

People who saw him play were heard to exclaim, “My God! His hands are a blur!”

When Vladimir Horowitz, the famed classical pianist, was asked who the best pianist was, he responded with Art Tatum's name.

Even Fats Waller, a very accomplished pianist in his own right and one of Tatum's favorites, was reported to have said, “I’m just a piano player. But God is in the house tonight,” when he spotted Art Tatum in the audi­ence.

Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops, once said, “There’s a demonic, almost diabolical quality to his playing. The Furies must have gathered around his crib at birth, something infernal slipped into his mother’s milk.”

Top musicians in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would trek to Harlem clubs to hear him play — Gershwin, Horowitz, Godowski, Rachmaninoff, Geseking, Pad­erewski… Rachmaninoff told the press, “If this man ever decides to play serious music we’re all in trouble.”

Tatum did play serious music, it happened to be jazz. But Tatum was black in an era when the top concert draws were white.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini would always seek out Tatum whenever he came to New York to conduct. Toscanini was one of the fiercest and most strict con­ductors to have ever lived. He held his musicians to the highest of standards. (One time when he tapped his baton on his music stand for a rehearsal he noticed that the first-chair clarinetist’s chair was empty. “Where’s the first clarinetist?” he immediately demanded of the clari­netist in the next chair. The second clarinetist meekly replied, “Um, he died yesterday, sir.” Toscanini immedi­ately shot back, “That’s no excuse!”)

But even the stickler Toscanini explained to a black tie audience when he arrived an hour late to a Carnegie Hall concert performance, “I’m sorry. I was down in Harlem listening to Art Tatum and I was fascinated by his music.”

Perhaps the greatest classical pianist of the 20th cen­tury, Artur Rubenstein, famous for his incomparably deft and lyrical interpretations of Chopin, frequented Har­lem’s Onyx Club where Tatum regularly hung out. A music professor who had arrived earlier to listen saw Rubenstein come in and walked up to Rubenstein and said, “Maestro, this is not your usual habitat.”

Rubenstein placed a finger to his lips. “Shhh. I am lis­tening to the world’s greatest piano player.”

* * *

The World’s Greatest Pianist was nearly blind. Sur­gery was attempted, but wasn’t very successful. Neither was a reported mugging which injured Tatum’s eyesight further when he was a teenager.

Although he had some early childhood training, Art Tatum was largely self-taught. He thrived on “cutting contests,” musical duels that pit the skills of two com­peting musicians before enthusiastic and often biased audiences. Word-of-mouth reputation spurred these face-to-face confrontations between established players and upstart rookies in jam-packed, smoke-filled Harlem nightclubs. Many of these encounters took place in after-hours clubs. The music played was what the musicians themselves chose. New frontiers were explored. And Art Tatum took the jazz world by storm when he started competing. His mastery of every known keyboard style, from stride to boogie-woogie, ballad to classical inter­pretations, devastated other pianists; eventually most refused to play whenever he was in the house.

Tatum fan, jazz pianist and author Don Escher has come closest to describing Tatum’s playing: “Tatum was connected to a volcanic font of energy and invention from which he painted endlessly vivid canvases. His hands chased each other up and down the keyboard on breakneck uphill-downdale runs. If you close your eyes it sounds like four hands, nimbly frolicking on the same keyboard.

“Tatum had a driving left hand which played its own breakaway arpeggios conjuring up a train walloping across prairie tracks, hellbent, lickety-split.

“If he was interrupted he’d stop and let his hands hang by his sides waiting for the interruption to stop, then it was off again, the antic engineer, throttle out, a mother superior of wheels, booting it home, running with the wind.

“Passages of whomping way back whorehouse stride merged into jaunty lambent measures; a well-bred, slightly sassy girl promenading in a new satin dress… a locomotive giving way to a unicycle. The sly passage work and raffish embroidery suggests Debussy playing barrelhouse.

“Tatum’s bravura mode conveys a spectacular parade, a panorama of the music’s early history from the raunch and swagger of New Orleans levee and bagnio parlor, upriver by paddlewheel (deckside brass bands outfitted in spanking regalia) to Kansas City and Chi­cago, where gangster-run honky-tonks, purveying hot music, bootleg gin, and whores in silk dresses jumped into the sunrise. Mundane pop songs are cloaked in sym­phonic array and dazzling filigree. Playful interpolations — Stars and Stripes Forever, Short’nin’ Bread — stud­ded serious compositions.”

Tatum came to major jazz prominence in 1933 when he entered a stride piano cutting contest in Harlem at the age of 24 against Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Each played their versions of their most difficult compositions of the era including Johnson's “Harlem Strut” and “Carolina Shout” and Fats Waller's complex player-piano-style novelty piece “Handful of Keys.” Tatum triumphed with his now-famous arrangements of ‘Tea For Two’ and ‘Tiger Rag’ (versions of both can be heard on various youtube post­ings). Tatum was declared the winner even though he was substantially younger than his competitution and had not yet established a reputation.

Tatum continued the cutting session tradition at the Onyx Club in Harlem where he was regularly (and unsuccessfully) challenged. Once when a young upstart took the stage to play an amazing version of Liza, Tatum turned to his friend and protégé Marlowe Morris and whispered, “Take him, Marlowe.”

Another example of Tatum’s quiet self-confidence was reported in 1950 when jazz piano master Bud Pow­ell was opening for Tatum at Birdland, Powell reportedly said to Tatum: “Man, I'm going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you're ready.” Tatum laughed and replied: “Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I'll do with my left.” Powell never took up the challenge.

Tatum might have been too accomplished for his own good. His advanced style was hard for many ordinary listeners to handle. “Too many notes,” as the King once said about Mozart, was also heard by unschooled listen­ers in Tatum’s day. If you’re inclined to that opinion after hearing one or two Tatum productions, keep look­ing and find some of Tatum’s blues and ballads before giving up. (Tatum’s arrangement of Danny Boy can still make an Irishman weep.) The still-groundbreaking har­monies in the simpler, slower tunes are as impressive as the breakneck pyrotechnics in the uptempo tunes.

Art Tatum also had a playful and light, lyrical touch, and was a master of the pedals, an often-overlooked piano skill. (Pop quiz: What’s the middle pedal on a grand piano for?) His ability with all three pedals was one of the ways he made his two hands sound like three or four.

In addition to his use of stride-style left-hand tenths, Tatum frequently used artfully changing full chords on all four beats. This is not only a technical accomplish­ment but a musical one, since these complex chord accompaniments were improvised walking harmonic progressions, an incredibly difficult feat to sustain for as long as Tatum routinely did.

Tatum had a playful side. As a teenager growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Tatum was the passenger as his older brother Carl was driving the family car. A local cop pulled the car over for some routine traffic violation. For fun, as the cop was preparing to approach the car, the Tatum brothers switched seats putting the nearly blind young Art in the driver’s seat. The cop came up to Art’s window and asked, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Art replied, “Officer, I can’t even see the speed­ometer.” The cop wasn’t amused. But after a few moments, he scrunched up his face. “Wait a minute! Aren’t you Art Tatum?” (Tatum already had a local reputation for his piano concerts and club appearances, even as a teenager.) “Yes, I am,” replied Tatum, “and I’m on my way to play at our church.” “Oh, go ahead, then,” said the cop. “But let’s not have any more fooling around.”

Another more musical anecdote is one told by Art’s more well-known friend and jam-session accompanist, guitarist Les Paul. (Paul had originally intended to become a pianist, but quit after hearing Tatum play his famous version of St. Louis Blues.) According to Paul, their group was going to practice in a mortuary basement where another pianist was already playing. The Mortuary basement piano was, typically with such instruments at the time, not in good condition. Several notes were stuck and would not come back up after being played. As Tatum listened to the other pianist try to deal with the problem he quickly identified exactly which keys were sticking down. Soon, Tatum took his seat at the piano bench and started to play with no apparent problem. To his amazement, Paul noticed that when Tatum was doing his amazing runs on one end of the piano, Tatum was reaching back to where he’d just been and lifting the sticking keys back up so they were ready to be replayed on the return trip!

Fortunately, most of Tatum’s recorded playing is still available on all the modern formats. A lot of it can be found on Youtube, as can some very listenable, if derivative, imitators. There’s also a decent biography in print (“Too Marvelous For Words” by James Lester) and a well-done biographical documentary film, “Art Tatum: The Art of Jazz Piano,” available, which, among other things, has a great, well-photographed film clip of Tatum in concert.

A prodigious drinker who could nonetheless perform flawlessly even when seriously sloshed, Tatum died of liver failure in November of 1956 at the relatively young age of 45.

If you’ve heard Tatum’s piano playing, you don’t need me or a few critics to tell you about it. If you haven’t, it’s never too late to catch up with the best pianist who ever lived.

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