Today is the birthday (1909) of Arthur “Art” Tatum, legendary jazz pianist. I first heard a recording of Tatum playing “Tea for Two” when I was in my early 20’s and, with no exaggeration, played it through 15 to 20 times in a row with my mouth open in disbelief. I am sorely tempted to simply embed a bunch of audio files and leave it at that. What else need be said? As it happens, not a whole lot is known about Tatum’s life. Here are the bare bones.
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother, Mildred Hoskins, played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgical procedures improved his eye condition to a degree but some of the benefits were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930 at age 20.
Tatum had absolute pitch (perfect pitch), and learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, copying tunes from the radio and piano roll recordings his mother owned. He developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing accuracy. As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano’s intonation and insisted it be tuned often. In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. He subsequently studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was also visually impaired, likely taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as ‘Arthur Tatum, Toledo’s Blind Pianist’ during interludes in Ellen Kay’s shopping chat program, but soon had his own program. By the age of 19, Tatum was playing at the local Waiters’ and Bellmens’ Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, and Fletcher Henderson, would make it a point to drop in to hear him.
In 1931, vocalist Adelaide Hall went on a world tour that lasted almost two years. During the tour, Hall heard Tatum in Toledo and hired him as one of her stage pianists. In 1932, Hall returned to New York with Tatum and introduced him to Harlem on stage at the Lafayette Theatre. In August 1932, Adelaide Hall made four recordings using Tatum as one of her pianists including the songs “Strange As It Seems” and “You Gave Me Everything But Love.”
Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more contemporary Earl Hines, six years Tatum’s senior. Tatum identified Waller as his main influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson, “Art Tatum’s favorite jazz piano player was Earl Hines. He used to buy all of Earl’s records and would improvise on them. He’d play the record but he’d improvise over what Earl was doing . . .’course, when you heard Art play you didn’t hear nothing of anybody but Art. But he got his ideas from Earl’s style of playing – but Earl never knew that.”
A major event in his rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 at Morgan’s bar in New York City that included Waller, Johnson, and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson’s “Harlem Strut” and “Carolina Shout” and Fats Waller’s “Handful of Keys.” Tatum knocked everyone over with his arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag,” in a performance that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. James P. Johnson, reminiscing about Tatum’s de