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Arthur Tatum Jr. (/ˈttəm/, October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist.

Art Tatum
Art Tatum, ca. May 1946 (William P. Gottlieb 08311).jpg
Tatum c. May 1946
Background information
Birth nameArthur Tatum Jr.
Born(1909-10-13)October 13, 1909
Toledo, Ohio, U.S.
DiedNovember 5, 1956(1956-11-05) (aged 47)
Los Angeles, California
GenresJazz, stride
Years activeMid-1920s–1956
LabelsBrunswick, Decca, Capitol, Clef, Verve

Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.[1][2] His performances were hailed for their technical proficiency and creativity, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. While playing in clubs, Tatum often drank enormous quantities of alcohol, mostly beer, but this did not negatively affect his playing. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries."[3]


Early lifeEdit

Tatum's mother, Mildred Hoskins, was born in Martinsville, Virginia,[4] around 1890, and was a domestic worker.[5] His father, Arthur Tatum Sr., was born in Statesville, North Carolina,[4][note 1] and had steady employment as a mechanic.[7] In 1909, they made their way from North Carolina to begin a new life in Toledo, Ohio.[8] The couple had four children; Art was the oldest to survive, and was born in Toledo on October 13, 1909.[9] He was followed by Arline nine years later and by Karl after another two years.[10] Karl went to college and became a social worker.[5] The Tatum family was regarded as conventional and church-going.[11]

Fats Waller was a major influence on Tatum.

From infancy, Tatum had impaired vision.[12] Several explanations for this have been posited, most involving cataracts.[12][note 2] He had eye operations, which meant that at the age of eleven he could see things that were close to him, and perhaps could distinguish colors.[14] Any benefits from these procedures were reversed, however, when he was assaulted, probably in his early twenties.[15] As a result, he was completely blind in his left eye and had very limited vision in his right.[16] Despite this, there are multiple accounts of him enjoying playing cards and pool.[17]

Accounts vary on whether Tatum's parents played any musical instruments, but it is likely that he was exposed at an early age to church music, including through the Grace Presbyterian Church that his parents attended.[18] He also began playing the piano from a young age, playing by ear and aided by an excellent memory and sense of pitch.[19] Other musicians reported that he had perfect pitch.[20][21] He learned tunes from the radio, records, and by copying piano roll recordings.[22] In an interview as an adult, Tatum rejected the story that his playing style had developed because he had found ways to reproduce piano roll recordings made by two pianists.[23] As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often.[24] He also started a lifelong interest in sports, and developed an encyclopedic memory for baseball statistics.[25]

Tatum first attended Jefferson School in Toledo, then moved to the School for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio late in 1924.[26] He was probably there for less than a year before transferring to the Toledo School of Music.[27] He had formal piano lessons with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music.[28] Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught the classical tradition, as he did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz.[29] Based on this history, it is reasonable to assume that Tatum was largely self-taught as a pianist.[30] By the time he was a teenager, Tatum was asked to play at various social events, and he was probably being paid to play in Toledo clubs from around 1924–25.[31]

Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more modern Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. Tatum identified Waller as his biggest influence, while pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield suggested that one of his favorite jazz pianists was Hines.[32] Another likely influence was pianist Lee Sims, who did not play jazz, but did use chord voicings and an orchestral approach (i.e. encompassing a full sound instead of highlighting one or more timbres[33]) that appeared in Tatum's playing.[34]

Later life and careerEdit


In 1927, after winning an amateur competition, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD during interludes in a morning shopping program and soon had his own daily program.[35][36] After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians; he enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last, after all the others had played.[37] He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn; his show was scheduled for noon, allowing him time to rest after getting home.[38] During 1928–29, the radio program was re-broadcast nationwide by the Blue Network.[36] Tatum also began to play in larger cities outside his home town, including Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit.[39]

As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, dropped in to hear him play.[40] They were impressed by what they heard: from near the start of the pianist's career, "his accomplishment [...] was of a different order from what most people, from what even musicians, had ever heard. It made musicians reconsider their definitions of excellence, of what was possible."[41] Although Tatum was encouraged by comments from these and other established musicians, he felt that he was not yet, in the late 1920s, musically ready to relocate to New York, which was the centre of the jazz world and was home to many of his main piano influences.[42]

Tatum at the Vogue Room in New York City between 1946 and 1948

This had changed by the time vocalist Adelaide Hall, touring the United States with two pianists, heard Tatum play in Toledo in 1932 and recruited him.[43] This provided him with the opportunity to go to New York.[44] On August 5 that year, Hall and her band recorded two sides ("I'll Never Be the Same" and "Strange as It Seems") that were Tatum's first recordings.[45] Two more sides with Hall followed five days later, as did a solo piano test-pressing of "Tea for Two" that was not released for several decades.[46]

After his arrival in New York, Tatum participated in a cutting contest at Morgan's bar in Harlem, with the established stride piano masters – Johnson, Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith.[47] Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Waller's "Handful of Keys".[48] Tatum played his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag".[49] Reminiscing about Tatum's debut, Johnson said, "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played."[50] Tatum thus took over as the king of jazz piano players.[51] He and Waller became good friends, with similar lifestyles – both drank prodigiously and lived as well as their incomes permitted.[52]

Tatum's first solo piano job in New York was at the Onyx Club.[53] He played a mix of ragtime, one-step, and standard pieces, plus bits of stride and classical music.[53] He recorded his first four released solo sides, for Brunswick Records, in March 1933: "St. Louis Blues", "Sophisticated Lady", "Tea for Two", and "Tiger Rag".[54] The last of these was a minor hit, impressing the public with its startling tempo of approximately 376 (quarter note) beats per minute, and with right-hand eighth notes adding to the technical feat.[55]

Tatum's only known child, Orlando, was born in 1933, when Tatum was twenty-four.[56] The mother was Marnette Jackson, a waitress in Toledo; the pair were not married.[57] It is likely that neither parent had a major role in raising their son, who pursued a military career and died in the 1980s.[58]

During the hard economic times of 1934 and 1935, Tatum mostly played in clubs in Cleveland, but also recorded in New York four times in 1934 and once in the following year.[59] He also appeared on national radio, including for the Fleischman Hour broadcast hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935.[59] In August of the same year, he married Ruby Arnold, who was from Cleveland.[60] He began a residence of about a year at the Three Deuces in Chicago the following month, initially as a soloist and then in a quartet of alto saxophone, guitar and drums.[61]

At the end of his first Three Deuces stint, Tatum moved to California, travelling by train because of his fear of flying.[62] There, he soon adopted the same pattern that he had followed from early in his career: paid performances followed by long after-hours playing, all accompanied by prodigious drinking.[63] A friend from his early days in California observed that Tatum drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer by the case.[64] This lifestyle contributed to the effects of the diabetes that Tatum probably developed as an adult, but, as highlighted by his biographer, the pianist would have faced a conflict if he wanted to address the diabetes problem: "concessions – drastically less beer, a controlled diet, more rest – would have taken away exactly the things that mattered most to him, and would have removed him from the night-life that he seemed to love more than almost anything (afternoon baseball or football games would probably come next)."[65]

In California, Tatum also played for Hollywood parties and appeared on Bing Crosby's radio program late in 1936.[66] He recorded in Los Angeles for the first time early the following year – four tracks as the sextet named Art Tatum and His Swingsters,[67] for Decca Records.[68] Continuing to travel by long-distance train, Tatum settled into a pattern of performances at major jazz clubs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, interspersed with appearances at minor clubs where someone of his musical standing did not normally play.[69] Thus, in 1937 he left Los Angeles for another residence at the Three Deuces in Chicago, and then went on to the Famous Door club in New York,[69] where he opened for Louis Prima.[70] Tatum recorded for Brunswick again near the end of that year.[71]


In March 1938, Tatum and his wife embarked on the Queen Mary for England.[72] He performed there for three months, and enjoyed the quiet listeners who, unlike some American audiences, did not talk over his playing.[72] While in England, he twice appeared on the BBC television program Starlight.[73][74][75] Four of his very limited number of compositions were also published in England.[76] He then returned to the Three Deuces.[76] The overseas trip appeared to have boosted his reputation, particularly with the white public, and he was able to have club residencies of at least several weeks at a time in New York over the following few years, sometimes with stipulations that no food or drink would be served while he was playing.[77]

Tatum (right) at Downbeat Club, New York City, c. 1947

Tatum recorded 16 tracks in August 1938, but they were not released for at least a decade.[78] A similar thing happened the following year: of the 18 sides he recorded, only two were issued as 78s.[79] A possible explanation is that big band music and vocalists were popular, so very few jazz pianists made solo recordings, and there was a very limited market for them.[80] One of the releases, a version of "Tea for Two", was added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1986.[81] One recording from early in 1941, however, was commercially successful, with sales of perhaps 500,000.[80] This was "Wee Baby Blues", performed by a sextet and with the addition of Big Joe Turner on vocals.[80] Informal performances of Tatum's playing in 1940 and 1941 were released after his death on the album God Is in the House,[82] for which he was awarded the 1973 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist.[83]

Tatum was, though, able to make a more than adequate living from his club performances.[80] Billboard magazine suggested that he could make at least $300 a week as a soloist in 1943;[84] when he formed a trio later that year, it was advertised by booking agents at $750 a week.[85] The other musicians in the trio were guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart.[86] They were a commercial success on 52nd Street, attracting more customers than any other musician, with the possible exception of vocalist Billie Holiday, and they also appeared briefly on film, in an episode of The March of Time.[87] As a solo pianist up to that point, critics had praised Tatum, but the paying public had given him relatively little attention; with the trio, he enjoyed more success with the public, but critics expressed disappointment.[88] However, in 1944, Tatum was awarded Esquire magazine's prize for pianists in its critics' poll (he never won a DownBeat readers' poll).[89]

All of Tatum's studio recordings in 1944 were with the trio, and radio appearances continued.[90] He abandoned the trio in 1944,[91] possibly at an agent's behest, and did not record with one again until 1952.[92] Early in 1945, Billboard reported that Tatum was being paid $1,150 a week as a soloist by the Downbeat club on 52nd Street to play four sets of twenty minutes each per night.[93][94] This was described much later as an "unheard-of figure" for the time.[95] The Billboard reviewer commented that "Tatum is given a broken-down instrument, some bad lights and nothing else", and observed that he was almost inaudible beyond the front seating because of the audience noise.[94]

Aided by name recognition from his record sales and reduced entertainer availability because of the World War II draft, Tatum began to play in more formal jazz concert settings from 1944[96] – appearing at concert halls in towns and universities all around the United States.[97] The venues were much larger than jazz clubs – some had capacities in excess of 3,000 people[98] – allowing Tatum to earn more money for much less work.[97] He recorded with the Barney Bigard Sextet and cut nine solo tracks in 1945.[92]

A fellow pianist from the years after World War II estimated that Tatum routinely drank two quarts (1.9 l) of whiskey and a case of beer over the course of 24 hours,[99] but such drinking did not negatively affect his playing.[100] Rather than being deliberately or uncontrollably self-destructive, this habit was probably a product of his being careless about his health, which was a common characteristic of jazz musicians, and his enthusiasm for life.[101]

Performances at concert settings continued in the second half of the 1940s, including participation in Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events.[102] In 1947 Tatum again appeared on film, this time in The Fabulous Dorseys.[103] A 1949 concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was recorded and released by Columbia Records.[104] In the same year, he signed to Capitol Records and recorded 26 pieces for them.[105] He also played for the first time at Club Alamo in Detroit, but stopped when a black friend was not served.[106] The owner subsequently advertised that black customers were welcome, and Tatum went on to play there frequently in the following few years.[106]

Although Tatum remained an admired figure, his popularity waned in the mid- to late 1940s with the advent of bebop[107] – a musical style that Tatum did not embrace.[108]


Tatum began working with a trio again in 1951.[109] The trio – this time with Stewart and Everett Barksdale – recorded in 1952; this was the pianist's only studio recordings between the Capitol session and late in 1953.[110] Tatum toured the United States in 1952, with fellow pianists Erroll Garner, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis, for concerts billed as "Piano Parade".[111]

Jazz impresario Norman Granz, who recorded Tatum extensively in 1953–1956

Granz, who owned a record label, decided to record Tatum's solo playing in a way that was "unprecedented in the recording industry: invite him into the studio, start the tape, and let him play whatever he felt like playing. [...] At the time this was an astonishing enterprise, the most extensive recording that had been done of any jazz figure."[112] Over several sessions starting late in 1953, Tatum recorded 124 solo tracks, all but three of which were released, spread over a total of 14 LPs.[112] Granz reported that the recording tape ran out during one piece, but Tatum, instead of starting again from the beginning, asked to listen to a playback of just the final eight bars, then continued the performance from there on the new tape, keeping to the same tempo as on the first attempt.[113] The solo pieces were released by Clef Records as The Genius of Art Tatum,[113] and added to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.[81]

Granz also recorded Tatum with a selection of other stars in 7 more recording sessions, which led to 59 tracks being released.[112] The critical reception was mixed and partly contradictory.[114] He was, variously, criticized for not playing real jazz, the choice of material, and that he was past his best, and praised for the enthralling intricacy and detail of his playing, and his technical perfection. [115]

Nevertheless, the releases renewed attention on the pianist, including for a newer generation; he won the DownBeat critics' poll for pianists three years in a row, from 1954.[116] In 1954, he appeared on television in The Spike Jones Show; his solo performance of "Yesterdays" is one of the rare surviving video recordings of his playing.[117] There are few visual recordings of Tatum: black American musicians were not often filmed during his lifetime.[118]

In 1955 and 1956, Tatum also played at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit.[106] Earlier, Tatum had selected and purchased for Clarence Baker the Steinway piano at Baker's, finding it in a New York showroom and shipping it to Detroit.[119]

Tatum and Ruby divorced early in 1955.[120] They probably did not travel much together and she had become an alcoholic; the divorce was acrimonious.[121] He married again later that year – Geraldine Williamson, with whom he had probably already been living.[120] She had little interest in music, and did not normally attend his performances.[122]

Following a health warning, he stopped drinking in 1954 and lost weight.[123] He again toured for several weeks as a trio with Stewart and Barksdale, and still travelled the long distances between venues by train or bus, refusing to fly.[116] By 1956, his health had deteriorated: he had advanced uremia.[124] Nevertheless, in August of that year he played to the biggest audience of his career: 19,000 gathered at the Hollywood Bowl for another Granz-led event.[124] The promoter had plans for Tatum to have a solo concert tour.[124] The following month, he had the last of the Granz group recording sessions, with saxophonist Ben Webster, and then had at least two concerts in October.[125] He was too unwell to continue touring, so returned to his home in Los Angeles.[126] Musicians visited him on November 4, and the pianists played for him as he lay in bed.[127]

Tatum died the following day, at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from complications of uremia. His was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles[128] but was moved by his wife, Geraldine, to the Great Mausoleum of the Glendale Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991[129] so she could be buried next to him. His headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest.[130] She died on May 4, 2010, in Los Angeles, and was interred beside him at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Tatum was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964[131] and was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.[132]

Personality and habitsEdit

Tatum was independent-minded and generous with his time and money.[133] People who met Tatum consistently "describe him as totally lacking in arrogance or ostentation", and as being gentlemanly in behavior.[134] He typically gave very little information about himself in interviews,[135] and preferred not to discuss his personal life or history with others, even with people he knew.[136]

Although marijuana use was common among musicians during his lifetime, Tatum was not linked to drug use.[137]


Tatum's repertoire mainly consisted of music from the Great American Songbook, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and popular music of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. He played his arrangements of a few classical piano pieces, including Dvorak's Humoresque and Massenet's "Élégie".[138]

He added pieces to his repertoire over time.[139] By the late 1940s, most of the new pieces were medium-tempo ballads but also included compositions that presented him with harmonic challenges, such as the simplicity of "Caravan" and complexity of "Have You Met Miss Jones?"[139] He did not add to classical piano pieces he had used earlier.[139]

Tatum also recorded around a dozen blues pieces during his career.[140] His repertoire in after hours performances was much wider than for professional appearances.[141]


"Tatum integrated the practices and characteristic gestures of the stride and swing keyboard traditions, at the same time transforming them through his virtuosity...Simple decorative techniques became complex harmonic sweeps of colour; traditional repetitive patterns became areas of unpredictable and ever-changing shifts of rhythm."[142][143] Tatum's "rhythmic-melodic ideas were introduced with unpredictable and ever-changing combinations of notes per beat even in the most rapid passages...He could apply different variation techniques simultaneously, and used subtle rhythmic intensification and relaxation to give clear identity and shape to his phrases."[144][143]

Tatum had a different way of improvising from what is typical in modern jazz.[108] He did not try to create new melodic lines over a harmonic progression; instead, he implied or played the original melody or fragments of it, while superimposing countermelodies and new phrases to create new structures based around variation.[108][139] "The harmonic lines may be altered, reworked or rhythmically rephrased for moments at a time, but they are still the base underneath Tatum's superstructures. The melodic lines may be transformed into fresh shapes with only a note or a beat or a phrase particle retained to associate the new with the original, yet the melody remains, if only in the listener's imagination."[145]

"Tatum's harmonic imagination was so challenging that a performance could include fluid altered voicings, unexpected passing chords and substitutions, [and] left-hand counter-melodies".[139] He also used "fluid voicings, substitute chords, and sometimes whole substitute progressions beneath it."[108]

"Jazz harmonic vocabulary in the early 1930s was basically triadic with flat-sevenths and an occasional ninth for effect"; Tatum went beyond this, influenced by the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel.[146] He made jazz musicians more aware of harmonic possibilities by changing the chords that he used with great frequency; this helped lay the foundations for the emergence of bebop in the 1940s.[146] Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the Jazz Age), and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of "modern jazz".

Prior to the 1940s, Tatum's "style was directly related to the form of the typical popular song, which was usually two bars of active melody followed by two relatively stationary bars, and it was those second two-bar phrases that Tatum used for his stunning runs. In the '40s, however, Tatum began to expand the runs beyond those open two bars, to lengths of eight or more bars, and sometimes crossing over the natural eight-bar segments of the song."[147] He also began to use a harder, more aggressive attack.[148] He also changed "from early harmonic substitutions to an intensification of the harmonic rhythms and to a variety of left hand choices and techniques, and an overall move towards a contrapuntal as well as a harmonic balance between the upper and lower registers of the keyboard".[149] Schuller argues that Tatum was still developing towards the end of his life – he had greater rhythmic flexibility when playing at a given tempo, more behind the beat swing, more diverse forms of expression, and he employed far fewer quotations than earlier in his career.[150]

Musicologist Lewis Porter identifies three aspects of Tatum's playing that a casual listener might miss: the dissonance in his chords; his advanced use of substitute chord progressions; and his occasional use of bitonality (playing in two keys at the same time).[151] There are examples on record of the last of these going back to 1934, making Tatum the farthest harmonically out of jazz musicians until Lennie Tristano.[151] Tatum frequently used dissonant major and minor seconds.

His approach to the piano combined stride, ragtime and classical elements.[152] Saxophonist Benny Green wrote that Tatum was the only jazz musician to "attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal.[153] He was playful, spontaneous, and often inserted quotes from other songs (typically, not from jazz compositions) into his improvisations.[154]

Tatum remained serious at the keyboard, not attempting crowd-pleasing words or gestures.[107] He was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. He seldom played in a simplified way, preferring interpretations that displayed his great technique and clever harmonizations. Keith Jarrett criticized Tatum for playing too many notes,[155] was too ornamental and "unjazzlike".[citation needed] Critic Gary Giddins opined, "That is the essence of Tatum. If you don't like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That's where his genius is.[156] Tatum often did not modify his playing when in a band:[33] a general criticism of him in a group setting was that he "was too assertive to be a good accompanist; he seemed to compete with the soloist he allegedly was accompanying."[157] Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train."[158] Tatum said of himself, "A band hampers me."[159]

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. Among the musicians who said that Tatum could make a bad piano sound good were Billy Taylor[156] and Gerald Wiggins.[160] Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, Tatum employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated, chords were cleanly sounded and the melodic line would not be blurred.[161][better source needed]

For critic Martin Williams, there was also the matter "of Tatum's sly, redeeming, pianistic humor. Time and again, when we fear he is reaching the limits of romantic bombast, a quirky phrase, an exaggerated ornament will remind us that Tatum may be having us on. He is also inviting us to share the joke and heartily kidding himself as well as the concert hall traditions to which he alludes."[139]

Balliett commented: "Tatum's style was notable for its touch, its speed and accuracy, and its harmonic and rhythmic imagination. No pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one — no matter how fast the tempo — was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page. Vast lower-register chords were unblurred, and his highest notes were polished silver. . . . His speed and precision were almost shocking. Flawless sixteenth-note runs poured up and down the keyboard, each note perfectly accented, and the chords and figures in the left hand sometimes sounded two-handed. Such virtuosity can be an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be in his up-tempo flag-wavers, when he spectacularly became a high-wire artist, a scaler of Everests. Tatum's bedrock sense of rhythm enabled him to play out-of-tempo interludes or whole choruses that doubled the impact of the implied beat, and his harmonic sense — his strange, multiplied chords, still largely unmatched by his followers, his laying on of two and three and four melodic levels at once — was orchestral and even symphonic."[162] His style of playing was not one that could be adapted to bebop: "the orchestral approach to the keyboard [...] was too thick, too textured to work in the context of a bebop rhythm section."[163]


Tatum's technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency.[164] The apparently effortless gliding of his hands, even during virtuosic passages, stunned his contemporaries.[144] Fellow pianist Hank Jones said he had a style that seemed effortless.[25] Pianist Chick Corea commented on his touch: "Art Tatum is the only pianist I know of before Bill [Evans] that also had that feather-light touch – even though he probably spent his early years playing on really bad instruments."[165] Tatum could maintain these qualities of touch and tone even at the most rapid tempos, when almost all other pianists would be incapable of playing the notes at all.[33]

Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed the pyrotechnics with meticulous accuracy and timing. Tatum also displayed phenomenal independence of the hands and ambidexterity, which was particularly evident while improvising counterpoint.[citation needed] He also used his thumbs and little fingers to add melody lines while playing something else with his other fingers.[166] Drummer Bill Douglass, who played with Tatum, commented that the pianist would "do runs with these two fingers up here and then the other two fingers of the same hand playing something else down there. Two fingers on the black keys, and then the other two fingers would be playing something else on the white keys. He could do that in either hand".[167]

A screen capture from the 1947 film The Fabulous Dorseys, showing Tatum's straight-fingered technique.

Douglass reported that Tatum could stretch to tenths;[167] in fact, he could also reach elevenths, and could play a succession of chords such as the illustrated examples at rapid tempos.[140][note 3] He was able to play any of his chosen material in any key.[169]

Examples of chords played by Tatum that "were easy for him to reach"[140]

Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right."[158] He used double-time stride playing[143] where his left hand alternated between playing bass notes (or tenth intervals) and mid-range chords at high speeds well over 300 beats-per-minute, in showcase recordings such as "I Wish I Were Twins", "The Shout", and "Elegy".[citation needed] He sometimes inverted the normal left-hand stride technique: playing the chord first, then the single note higher up the keyboard.[139]

Tatum used a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training; a 1935 observer wrote that, when playing, "Tatum's hand is almost perfectly horizontal, and his fingers seem to actuate around a horizontal line drawn from wrist to finger tip."[170] Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams said, "Tatum taught me how to hit my notes, how to control them without using pedals. And he showed me how to keep my fingers flat on the keys to get that clean tone."[171] He had a strong sense of time.[172]

After hoursEdit

Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances.[173][174] Whereas in a professional setting he would often give audiences what they wanted – performances of songs that were similar to his recorded versions – but decline to play encores, in after hours sessions with friends he would play the blues, improvise for long periods on the same sequence of chords, and move even more away from the melody of a composition.[144][143] Tatum also sometimes sang the blues in such settings, accompanying himself on piano.[148] Schuller describes "a night-weary, sleepy, slurry voice, of lost love and sexual innuendos which would have shocked (and repelled) those 'fans' who admired Tatum for his musical discipline and 'classical' [piano] propriety."[148]


Critical opinion differs widely when assessing Tatum's influence.[151] Readers may "learn that he was heavily influential, but you will also read the opposite – that his style was so personal and technical that he had little actual influence."[151]

His improvisational style extended what was possible on jazz piano.[175] He influenced jazz pianists such as Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu, and Chick Corea. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's tone as "majestic" and devoted time to unlocking this sound.[2] His influence went beyond the piano, however: his innovations in harmony and rhythm established new ground for what was possible in jazz.[175]

Transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously.[176] The virtuoso solo aspects of Tatum's style were taken on by pianists such as Oscar Peterson, Martial Solal, Adam Makowicz, and Simon Nabatov.[177] Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum's influence.[178] "His influence on later jazz pianists was enormous: even musicians of radically different outlook, such as Bud Powell, Lennie Tristano and Herbie Hancock, learnt key Tatum performances by rote, though few could compass his technical range or re-create his inimitable, plush tone."[142]

"Other musicians, among them Charlie Parker, were inspired by Tatum's technical accomplishments to bring a similar virtuosity to their own instruments."[142] When newly arrived in New York, Parker worked for three months as a dishwasher in a Harlem restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the pianist.[179] "Perhaps the most important idea Parker learned from Tatum was that any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved."[180] Dizzy Gillespie was also affected by Tatum's speed, harmony, and daring solos.[181] Vocalist Tony Bennett also incorporated aspects of Tatum into his singing. "I'd listen to his records almost daily and try to phrase like him. [...] I just take his phrasing and sing it that way."[182]

Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins changed his playing style after hearing Tatum play in Toledo:[183] Hawkins's "arpeggio-based style and his growing vocabulary of chords, of passing chords and the relationships of chords, were confirmed and encouraged by his response to Art Tatum."[139] This style was hugely influential on the development of saxophone playing in jazz, and put it on course to becoming the dominant instrument in the music.[183]

Many musicians were negatively affected by exposure to Tatum's abilities.[184] Many pianists tried to copy him and attain the same level of ability, hindering their progress towards finding their own style.[185] Others, including trumpeter Rex Stewart and pianists Oscar Peterson and Bobby Short, were overwhelmed and began to question their own abilities.[186] Some musicians, including Les Paul and Everett Barksdale, stopped playing the piano and switched to another instrument after hearing Tatum.[184]

Praise by musiciansEdit

When Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano to make way for him, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house."[156]

Peterson stated that Tatum was "the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know."[187] "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."[188]

"Here's something new..." pianist Hank Jones remembers thinking when he first heard Art Tatum on radio in 1935, "they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing."[189]

Jazz pianist Kenny Barron commented, "I have every record [Tatum] ever made—and I try never to listen to them ... If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up!"[190]

Among classical musicians who expressed their admiration for Tatum's playing were George Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky, Vladimir Horowitz, David Oistrakh, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.[191] In 1985, Jerry Garcia said of Tatum, "He's the guy I put on when I want to feel really small. When I want to feel really insignificant. He's a good guy to play for any musician, you know. He'll make them want to go home and burn their instruments. Art Tatum is absolutely the most incredible musician."[192]

Critical standingEdit

There is little published information available about Tatum's life. One full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words (1994), by James Lester.[193] This may be attributable to Tatum's life and music not fitting into any established framework for jazz musicians: "jazz historiography seems to have resigned itself to a bemused ambivalence in regard to Tatum and to have postponed resolving the issue by consigning him to the special kind of marginality reserved for talented non sequiturs. As a consequence, not only is Tatum underrepresented in jazz criticism but his presence in jazz historiography seems largely to prompt no particular effort in historians beyond descriptive writing designed to summarize his pianistic approach."[30]

"In some respects, he stands out as one of the most controversial figures in the history of the music, with supporters and detractors much at odds."[194] "Some applaud Tatum as supremely inventive, while others say that he was boringly repetitive, and that he barely improvised."[151] Gary Giddins suggested that Tatum's standing has not been elevated to the very highest level of jazz stars among the public "because he rejected a standard approach to linear improvisation, preferring juxtapositions that demand attention, [and so] becalms many listeners into hapless indifference."[195]

The adjective "Tatum-esque" has come to be used by writers who wish to compare a pianist's playing with that of Tatum.[196]


In 1993, an MIT student in the field of computational musicology coined the term "tatum", which was named in recognition of the pianist's speed.[197][198] It has been defined as "the smallest time interval between successive notes in a rhythmic phrase",[197] and "the fastest pulse present in a piece of music".[199]

In 2003, a historical marker was placed outside Tatum's childhood home at 1123 City Park Avenue in Toledo, but by 2017 the unoccupied property was in a state of disrepair.[200] At the Lucas County Arena of Toledo, a 27-feet-high sculpture, the "Art Tatum Celebration Column", was unveiled in 2009.[201]


Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. He recorded nearly 400 titles, if airchecks and informal issued recordings are included.[202] He recorded for Brunswick (1933), Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56).

Posthumous releases

  • Piano Starts Here (Columbia, 1968)
  • Capitol Jazz Classics – Volume 3 Solo Piano (Capitol, 1972)
  • God is in the House (Onyx, 1973, reissued by High Note, 1998)
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1 (Capitol, 1989)
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2 (Capitol, 1989)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 6 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 4 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 2 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces (Pablo, 1990)
  • The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces (Pablo, 1991)
  • Standards (Black Lion, 1992)
  • The V-Discs (Black Lion, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 3 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 4 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 5 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 6 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7 (Pablo, 1992)
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8 (Pablo, 1992)
  • Complete Capitol Recordings (Blue Note, 1997)


  1. ^ Tatum Sr.'s age at the time of Art's birth is given as either 24 or 28, meaning he was born around 1885 or around 1881.[6]
  2. ^ Tatum's eyesight is discussed in detail in the book Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats.[13]
  3. ^ In an informal recording from 1952, he can be heard playing A and D, "demonstrates it, fills it out, and responds that it's 'Not too bad when you fill it out'."[168]


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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit