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A Jazz Genius With
Lightning Hands: Art Tatum

Blog
A Jazz Genius With Lightning Hands: Art Tatum

05.12.2017

Text: Haluk Damar
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

 "One day my dad came home and he said "listen I want you to hear a record" He put on the record. I never forget it's Art Tatum's "Tiger Rag". Truthfully I gave up the piano for two solid months. And had crying fits at night. I went to bed at night and it haunted me. It actually hunted me that someone could play the piano this well. You know technique is technique right? You fine it to a certain degree and you became a great technician. To me, Tatum's harmonic thought, his rythmic thought is unique." - Oscar Peterson

For some he is the best pianist of jazz history, for others he is the musician who contributed to jazz the most. All things aside, he is an innovator and the first futurist of jazz genre. With his fast reflexes, wide imagination, his masterful technique and most importantly his rhythmical versatility makes Art Tatum a pioneer who paved the way for many legendary names that came after him.

Even though Tatum himself declared his idol as Fats Waller, his close friends saxophone player Eddie Barefield and pianist Teddy Wilson claim that Earl Hines is in fact the name that inspired Tatum the most. As a pianist well ahead of his time, Tatum’s style is indeed closer to Earl Hines, who is a much more modern pianist than Fats Waller.  The peak moment of Tatum’s career was the duello between him, Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie Smith at the Morgan’s jazz club in New York in 1933. During the duello Tatum plays his adaptations of “Tea For Two” and “Tiger Rag”. By the time the duello is finished, Art Tatum stands as the most important jazz pianist of his time.

"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.” - Teddy Wilson

The rumor has it that the important classical music pianists of the time also admired Tatum’s genius. Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Godowsky and George Gershwin watched Tatum live and they were very impressed. Out of these names, Horowitz had a particular admiration to Tatum, so much so that he himself was also influenced by Tatum’s style. It is this influence and admiration that convinced Horowitz to adapt “Tea For Two” to his own technique.  After months of working, Horowitz comes up with a very complicated arrangement of the track and played it for Tatum. Tatum thought it was a very difficult and wonderful arrangement of the song and his response flattered Horowitz. After listening to Horowitz’s version, Tatum offered to play the song to Horowitz and proceeded to playing an arrangement of the song for a long time until he was stopped by Horowitz.  And when Horowitz asked when he came up with that arrangement, Tatum’s answer was simple: “I make it up as I go.”

It is easy to see the influence of Tatum’s unique style and perfected technique in the jazz pianists that came after him. Oscar Peterson’s speed, Bill Evan’s melodic fluctuations, McCoy Tyner’s success in bebop jazz arrangements can all be traced back to Tatum’s pioneering.

“I wish I could play like Tatum's right hand!" - Charlie Parker.

When he was working as a dishwasher in Manhattan, bebop legend Charlie Parker watched Tatum live frequently. His quote above is a statement that defines the talents of Tatum in a very simple and clear way. Arthur Tatum brought a strong and energetic voice to jazz genre. His fast hands, sophisticated silences and unique rhythmical partitions made him a jazz standard; as he was declared world’s eight wonder by his colleagues at the time.

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