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Art Tatum Biography

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

He was known for his virtuosic playing and creative improvisation. Tatum was widely recognized among his colleagues as the most gifted jazz pianist alive. To many, he was one of the greatest pianists of any musical genre, and arguably one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. Critic Scott Yanow declares that "Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists."[1]

Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. From birth he suffered from cataracts which left him blind in one eye, and with only very limited vision in the other. He played piano from his youth, and played professionally in Ohio and especially the Cleveland area before moving to New York City in 1932.

Tatum drew inspiration from his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, and had a great influence on later jazz pianists, such as Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, and Oscar Peterson.

Unusually for a jazz musician, Tatum rarely abandoned the original melodic lines of the songs he played, preferring instead to feature innovative reharmonization (changing the chord progressions supporting the melodies). He also had a penchant for filling spaces within melodies with trademark runs and embellishments, which some critics considered gratuitous and "unjazzlike," while his fans regarded the pyrotechnics as exciting and vital to his music. Tatum also displayed harmonic ideas that were well ahead of their time in the 1930's and would be emulated by Bebop era musicians ten to twenty years later.

Tatum tended to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep up with his lightning-fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. He formed a trio during the early 1940's with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. They recorded a number of 78 rpm discs during the short period they were together. To hear these recordings today is to marvel at the structure and interplay which are unequalled to this day.

Tatum's solo piano recordings are his greatest legacy. His repetoire was drawn mainly from the American standards songbook. Tatum used his effortless technical brilliance, prodigious memory, groundbreaking harmonic concepts and overall musical genius to create a library of piano masterpieces.

Tatum's contemporaries recognized his prowess. When Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house". In addition, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, after hearing Tatum play, claimed he was the greatest piano player in any style. And legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker (who helped develop bebop) was highly influenced by Tatum. When newly arrived in New York, Parker briefly worked as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant where Tatum happened to be performing, and often listened to the legendary pianist.

Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death, though the predominately solo nature of his skills meant that recording opportunities were somewhat intermittent. Tatum recorded for Decca (1934-41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953-56). For Granz, he recorded an extended series of solo albums and group recordings with, among others, Ben Webster, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter and Lionel Hampton.

Although Tatum refrained from classifying himself as a classical pianist, he adapted several classical works into new arrangements that showcased his own musical style.

Only a small amount of film showing Art Tatum playing exists today as the vast majority has been lost (several minutes of professionally shot archival footage can, for example, be found in the video documentary Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues). Tatum appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show in the early 1950's, and on other television shows from this era. Unfortunately, all of the kinescopes of the Allen shows, which were stored in a warehouse along with other now defunct shows, were thrown into a local rubbish dump to make room for new studios. However, the soundtracks were recorded off-air by Tatum enthusiasts at the time, and many are included in Storyville Records extensive series of rare Tatum recordings.

Art Tatum died in Los Angeles, California from the complications of uraemia (as a result of kidney failure), having indulged in excessive beer drinking since his teenage years. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
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