Fats Waller (who is not the subject of this posting) was once playing in a night club in Harlem, and another professional pianist dropped by. When he noticed the newcomer, Waller stopped playing, stood up and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m a pretty good piano player…but God just walked into this club.” He was talking about Art Tatum.
In the 1930s, musicians often dropped by each others’ workplaces, just to listen but sometimes to jam, often late into the night. (When two pianists competed, they called it “cuttin’ contests”.) However, in later years closing times began to be more strictly enforced by city authorities, while at the same time the musicians’ union was trying to discourage their members from playing for free anywhere…but nobody had the courage to try to stop Tatum from doing it. It was always his favorite way to play.
Honestly, if you had asked me when I was a young man who Tatum was, I would have probably answered, “Isn’t that the actress kid? Or is her name Tater?” I loved modern jazz and swing, but early jazz was kind of a blind area for me. Which – in a clumsy segue – leads back to Art Tatum, who was almost completely blind his entire life (very slight vision in one eye). He was born around 1910 in Toledo, Ohio, and was trained first on the violin but soon turned to the piano and that became his life, until his health deteriorated and he died of a kidney ailment in 1956.
During his too-short life he spent time in a number of different cities, including Cleveland, Chicago, and of course, New York. Wherever he went, he was always the one most admired by other jazz pianists. Art was most comfortable playing solo or in small groups, and that’s probably the best way to appreciate his virtuosity, which – it was said – was praised by both Horowitz and Rachmaninoff.
Our first tune is from his trio, and it’s an old standard recorded by lots of musicians but one that allows you to appreciate his artistry. It’s called
We follow with a song featured by Chick Webb and Benny Goodman, although both had full bands behind them. Try it with Art and his smaller group:
Stompin’ At The Savoy