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 debut afterward, simply said, “When Tatum played Tea for Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.” It was also the beginning of the end of stride piano, even though Tatum is often classified in that genre. I am reluctant to classify Tatum in any genre.
Tatum spent his early career in and around the Midwest, mostly in Toledo and Cleveland, but also in Detroit, Saint Louis, and Chicago. Later he played in leading clubs throughout the U.S. and also had a stint in England. Although Tatum was idolized by many jazz musicians, his popularity faded in the mid to late 1940s with the advent of bebop – a movement which Tatum did not embrace. In any case, Tatum was one of a kind: a soloist with no peers and a unique style. He did play with a trio for two years but when you hear the recordings you are given to wonder what they are doing there. Drummer Jo Jones, who recorded a 1956 trio session with Tatum and bassist Red Callender is quoted as saying, “I didn’t even play on that session; all I did was listen. I mean, what could I add? I felt like setting my damn drums on fire.” Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was “like chasing a train.”
Critic Gunther Schuller declared, “On one point there is universal agreement: Tatum’s awesome technique . . . Even when playing scintillating runs at high velocity, it appeared that his fingers hardly moved.” Hank Jones said, “When I finally met him and got a chance to hear him play in person, it seemed as if he wasn’t really exerting much effort, he had an effortless way of playing. It was deceptive. You’d watch him and you couldn’t believe what was coming out, what was reaching your ears. He didn’t have that much motion at the piano. He didn’t make a big show of moving around and waving his hands and going through all sorts of physical gyrations to produce the music that he produced, so that in itself is amazing. There had to be intense concentration there, but you couldn’t tell by just looking at him play.” Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed with meticulous accuracy and timing, all the more remarkable considering that he drank prodigious amounts of alcohol when performing.
Tatum played with a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training. Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams told Whitney Balliett, “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.” Jimmy Rowles said, “Most of the stuff he played was clear over my head. There was too much going on — both hands were impossible to believe. You couldn’t pick out what he was doing because his fingers were so smooth and soft, and the way he did it — it was like camouflage.” When his fastest tracks of “Tiger Rag” are slowed down, they still reveal a coherent, syncopated rhythm.
Classically trained composers are sometimes given to writing “variations on a theme by . . .” What would Dvořák make of this, I wonder (now a jazz standard)?
Choosing a recipe for Tatum was a real challenge. Jazz centers, such as New Orleans, would present no problem. What am I supposed to do with Toledo? Ohio in general is pretty stereotypically Midwestern in food tastes: hot dogs and hamburgers, turkey and apple pie, with pockets of ethnic cuisine – German, Greek, Hungarian, etc. Ohio is the birthplace of many standard “American” chains such as White Castle and Bob Evans. Yet it also bred Cincinnati chili, a marvelous concoction (Greek inspired), classically served as a “three-way” – finely ground meat spiced with a host of flavors including cinnamon and chocolate, served over spaghetti with a mountain of shredded cheese on top. My first stop in Cincinnati is the nearest Skyline for a “bowl of plain,” followed by a second.
Eventually I decided that I should simply embrace what the Midwest offers and talk about hamburgers. Here’s my favorite. The “secret,” as in all good cooking, is to use the best ingredients. I use ground sirloin for the meat (85% lean). Too lean and it ends up dry. I use the best blue cheese on offer at the time. As my mentor, Robert Carrier says, “don’t use wine in cooking you would not drink.” So don’t use blue cheese you would not eat by itself. For the bun I use crusty Italian rolls. For me the important part that brings it all together is toasting the inside of the bun. My recipe is more or less stream of consciousness from memory.
© Tío Juan’s Bacon Blue Cheese Burger
The best burgers are made over hardwood coals, but charcoal works well too. Gas grills are an abomination. You want the smoke from a real fire permeating the meat. Sure it’s messy. So what? If you use charcoal NEVER use a lighter fluid; it lingers and gets into the food. Build a fire of kindling and start the charcoal with it.
I make hamburger patties out of about ¼ lb of meat per burger. Add about 1 tablespoon of finely diced onion, salt and pepper to taste, and some chopped fresh parsley. Shape into patties that are thick and well rounded.
Fry off some bacon (enough for three strips per burger), until it is crisp. Reserve.
Cut blue cheese (your choice) into thin slices.
Place the patties on a well oiled grill and LEAVE THEM ALONE. Check the underside periodically, and when the meat is nicely browned flip them. When they are cooking on the second side, lay the buns, cut side down, on the grill to toast.
Assemble by placing the meat on half the bun. Top with bacon strips, then the cheese, and finish with the bun.
Obviously you can add standards such as lettuce and tomato if you wish, but I prefer the simple combination of beef, bacon, and cheese. Sometimes I add a bottom layer of endive to add a little crunch.