BORN 1910, DIED 1956
MUSICAL SELECTION: "Tiger Rag"
For many years regarded as a nonpareil jazz pianist in terms of technique and harmonic imagination, more than four decades after his death Tatum still has few if any peers in these areas. Born in Toledo, Ohio, and from birth suffering from blindness in one and severe limitations in the other, Tatum was drawn to
music from boyhood, taking up both violin and piano. By the time he was 13 the violin had been jettisoned in favor of piano, with Tatum receiving some formal training while at Toledo School of Music. He mastered the Braille method of reading music as well as using powerful glasses to read ordinary manuscripts, but the majority of his learning was done after leaving school. Furing the 1920s he learned from records, piano rolls and other means, perfecting the most effortless stride technique ever heard as well as embarking on his lifetime fascination with ever more sophisticated chord substitutions and elaborate rearrangement of popular tunes, overlaid by a richly baroque right-hand technique and a uniquely flexible approach to metric time. Tatum was already known by word of mouth before his arrival in New York in 1932, but his debut there as accompanist to Adelaide Hall, followed by an engagement as a solo at the Onyx club and his first recordings (including the legendary "Tiger Rag" at what was commonly acknowledged by other pianists to be an "impossible" tempo) caused astonishment.
Tatum was quickly and widely acknowledged as so far ahead of the pack (including his original ido, Fats Waller) as to be in a league of his own. By the mid-1930s he was internationally known as a true phenomenon on his instrument, his later piano-guitar-bass trio with Tiny Grimes a model for hundreds of other piano trios to follow in its level of musical interplay.
Tatum's fame breached parochial jazz borders, bringing musicians such as Horowitz and Toscanini to Harlem clubs after Carnegie Hall performances to witness his genius. His innovations, often skirted by pianists overawed by his technique, were most successfully incorporated by sax players, from Coleman Hawkins onward, who were able to
transfer Tatum's quicksilver harmonic thinking to their melody instruments.
Tatum's popularity took a tumble in the late 1940s as jazz fashions changed and other, more startling and
energetic styles came to the fore. However, in the 1950s he signed to Norman Granz's label and began in 1953 on a project to record one of the taped over the next three years, is available on CD on the Pablo label: the solo performances alone take up seven CDs, while the group performances range from a trio session with bass and drums to separte dates with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Buddy DeFrance, and Harry Edison. Tatum was often criticized for being an overwhelming accompanist: here he shows that, with player of commensurate stature, he complements busily but always appositely. With the solo performances, he so thoroughly rethought the standards he played that they became vessels for his own musical messages. Tatum died in 1956