Composed by Walter Gross.
Recorded on December 28-29, 1953 by Art Tatum for Clef in Los Angeles.
Art Tatum, solo piano.
The story: How does one begin to discuss the piano artistry of Art Tatum? Adjectives like magnificent, incredible and amazing are inadequate. Tatum was better than that.What exactly did Tatum do when he played the piano? Once again, language fails us. In all of his playing, above all else, there was staggering piano technique.I vividly remember when I first heard Tatum. An older musician friend of mine who was a pianist, put on a Tatum recording. I don’t recall now which one it was because it doesn’t make any difference. All Tatum recordings are mind-blowing. After the recording concluded, I asked my friend how many people were playing piano on that? He laughed. Just one, he said, Art Tatum.
But technique is just what is apparent on the surface. Yes, there are patented Tatum runs, played at super-sonic speed with absolute command. But what about how Tatum gets into and out of those runs? Somehow, he always made it seem so perfect, so easy, so inevitable. Far more than with any other artist, I have always found it necessary to play and then replay, sometimes many times, each Tatum recording I am really trying to listen to and understand. Nevertheless, his playing is so full of every conceivable pianistic effect that I often simply turn off the music and shake my head. To put a fine point on it, Tatum was completely, irrevocably, and sometimes overwhelmingly…Tatum. He was unique.
“Early in the twentieth century (1909) Tatum’s parents, Mildred Heerston and Arthur Tatum, Sr., made their way from North Carolina to begin a new life in Toledo, Ohio. Shortly after their arrival, on October 13, 1909, Arthur Tatum, Jr. was born. Young Arthur had severe vision impairment. After beginning to play the piano at age three, Tatum began to receive tuition from several piano teachers in Toledo. When he was old enough, he studied music for four years at the Jefferson School for the handicapped in Toledo, followed by another four years at the Cousino School for the Blind in Columbus, Ohio, where he also learned to play the violin and guitar. He then returned to Toledo and continued studying at the Toledo School of Music. His teachers there were astonished by his piano technique, and his nearly photographic memory for music. They tried to steer him toward a career as a “classical” pianist. Tatum however realized early on that Jim Crow America was not ready for a black concert pianist in the late 1920s, no matter how talented he was. He then began to focus on jazz.
Tatum drew inspiration from pioneering jazz pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more “modern” Earl Hines, Tatum identified Waller as his main influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield, “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 (some of) his ideas from Earl’s style of playing – but Earl never knew that.”
A major event in Tatum’s meteoric rise to success within the jazz community 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 then included Johnson’s “Harlem Strut,” “Carolina Shout,” and Waller’s “Handful of Keys.” Tatum performed his arrangements of “Tea for Two” and “Tiger Rag,” in a way that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. 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.” Tatum’s New York debut was historic because he outplayed elite piano competition and that heralded the demise of the stride piano era.
Tatum worked first around Toledo and Cleveland, Ohio, then later in New York at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street for a few months. He recorded his first four solo sides on the Brunswick label in March 1933. He then returned to Ohio and played around the American midwest – Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Saint Louis and Chicago – in the mid-1930s. He appeared on the Fleischmann Hour network radio program hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935. He also played at the Three Deuces in Chicago, and in Los Angeles at the Trocadero, the Paramount and the Club Alabam. Clearly Tatum was a busy performer.
In 1937, he returned to New York, where he appeared at clubs and played on national radio programs. The following year he embarked on the Queen Mary for England where he toured, playing for three months at Ciro’s Club in London, owned by English bandleader Ambrose. In the late 1930s, Tatum returned to play and record in Los Angeles and New York.
Tatum built upon stride and classical piano influences to develop a novel and unique piano style. He introduced super-virtuoso technique to jazz piano, highlighted with cadenzas and runs that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated and intricate. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s, 1950s and beyond.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, Tatum sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres, although generally not venturing too far from the original melody. His embellishments of melodic lines, sometimes to rococco extremes, were sprinkled with a wide array of what became his signature pianistic devices. Throughout the 1940s, as Tatum matured, he became more adventurous in his playing, often abandoning the written melody and expanding his improvisations harmonically and rhythmically. No matter what keyboard devices Tatum used however, his playing was never repetitive. He was simply an inexhaustible fount of music.
Tatum’s jazz approach was rooted in both his harmonic inventiveness and dazzling technical prowess. Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings, such as 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals, were well ahead of their time in the 1930s, and they would be explored by bebop-era jazz musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his piano lines, a practice which was further developed by fellow jazz pianist Bud Powell and jazz saxophone virtuoso Charlie Parker. This, among other musical ideas, eventually led to the development of “modern jazz.” Tatum was also a pioneer in the use of dissonance in jazz piano, as can be heard, for example, on his recording of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” which uses extensive dissonance to achieve a bluesy effect. In addition to using major and minor seconds, dissonance was inherent in the complex chords that Tatum frequently used.” (*)
Tatum appeared fully formed as a nonpareil piano soloist in the late 1920s. Although his early style was rooted in the stride tradition, and throughout his career traces of that style remained, he always eschewed any hint of the repetitive “oom-pah” left hand rhythm that so many pianists who try to play in the stride style get. Instead, Tatum used the stride rhythm with utmost delicacy, sometimes for as little as two bars before heading off at top speed in another direction. It, like all other pianistic techniques, was one of many that Tatum employed during the course of a performance. It never weighed down his playing. Indeed, most of Tatum’s music has a floating, rubato, out-of-tempo feel to it.
Tatum was not simply admired by other pianists, they worshipped him. Above, L-R: Albert Ammons (behind Tatum), Teddy Wilson and Hazel Scott.
Although Tatum most certainly listened to the piano recordings of his jazz predecessors as a youth, I detect very little of anyone else’s playing in Tatum’s playing. Conversely, Tatum’s influence on his contemporaries and on jazz pianists in general has been pervasive. I hear much Tatum in the playing of such jazz masters as Teddy Wilson (who studied informally with Tatum), Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson (who was an unashamed Tatum idolator), and Bud Powell. None of these artists merely imitated Tatum’s playing: they were simply formed in the crucible of his music, assimilating it along with other influences, before going their own ways.
The music: Despite Tatum’s unquestioned brilliance as a pianist, he never had a really successful career in the commercial sense. He certainly worked regularly, and made many recordings throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But by the early 1950s, he was working less. His lifestyle was always incredibly unhealthy. He smoked, and drank vast quantities of beer. He ate sporadically, got little exercise and had a tendency to obesity. He would wander about from club to club playing piano and drinking beer after his own gigs had ended, some times for as long as 48 hours at a stretch. Tatum had begun to look like he was a man in his sixties when he was actually in his early forties. What was actually going on in his body was that his kidneys were beginning to fail. It is uncertain if he knew this in late 1953, but he certainly knew it by 1954.
Whatever was going on, by late 1953, the bold, canny impressario Norman Granz signed Tatum to record for Clef Records (one of Granz’s boutique jazz labels, along with Norgran and Verve). The terms of the contract were unusual: Granz wanted to record Tatum’s entire repertoire. He set up the first recording date, December 28, 1953, laid in a couple of cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and told Tatum to record whatever he wanted. By midday on December 29, Tatum had recorded an astonishing sixty-nine acceptable takes, including “Tenderly,” which is presented here.
“Tenderly” was composed as a waltz by Walter Gross in 1945. Gross was a pianist and conductor at CBS radio in the halcyon days of that network’s music department in the 1930s and ’40s. I have always thought of the melody of “Tenderly” as being pianistic, though a lyric was later added (by Jack Lawrence), and many singers have recorded it effectively. Tatum’s performance of it is for me the ultimate interpretation by a pianist.
(*)The brief biography of Tatum presented in this post is based on the one appearing in Wikipedia. The Wikipedia post is based on an excellent essay on Tatum written by A.B. Spellman that was a part of the Time-Life “Giants of Jazz” volume of his recordings issued in 1982.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Here is a link to the impressions of a young musicians coming upon Art Tatum in the middle 1930s. The musician, George Duning, went on to write many arrangements for Kay Kyser’s band before having a long and successful career in Hollywood writing music for films and television: