Art Tatum

Art Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio and despite being blind in one eye and only partially sighted in the other he became arguably the greatest jazz piano player who ever lived.

He came from a musical family and when younger had some formal training at the Toledo School of Music, however he was largely self-taught. His teacher their recognized his talents and tried to steer him towards as a career as a classical concert pianist. Tatum was more interested in the music of Fats Waller, which would be a strong influence on his music. At 18 he was playing interludes at a local radio station and within a short period of time he had his own show. In 1932 he was heard by the singer Adelaide Hall who brought him to New York as her accompanist. One year later he made his first recordings, among which was “Tiger Rag”, though a 1932 test pressing of the the same song eventually appeared. This song which features breakneck tempo and rippling left- hand and right-hand cascades and crashing bass notes had every pianist in the country amazed by his astonishing dexterity.

While in New York he established his reputation in “cutting contests” with other top pianists, which he never lost, overwhelming both Fats Waller and James P. Johnson during his first visit to the Big Apple. He spent the next few years playing in Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles and even England in 1938. During this time he established himself as a major figure in jazz circles. In the early 1940s Tatum formed an extremely popular trio with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. He spent much of the next decade touring North America. In 1953 Tatum signed by producer Norman Granz and recorded extensively both as a soloist and in small groups with Benny Carter, Buddy DeFranco, Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Ben Webster, Harry Sweets Edison and others. His incredible talent allowed him to be extremely productive during this time. Ray Spencer in his biography, noted that Tatum was constantly “refining and honing down after each performance until an ideal version remained needing no further adjustments”. This allowed him to achieve a remarkable work rate. For example, his solo sessions for Granz were mostly completed in two days. That is a total of 69 tracks and all but three of them needed only one take. Sadly, on Nov. 5, 1956 his prodigious output was cut short when he died of uremia, however his artistic influence has been strong and long-lasting.

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