Impressions of Art Tatum at the Grand Piano


Art Tatum (1909–’56)

(Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Library Of Congress)

The scene is The Three Deuces, a popular gathering place for the Chicago music profession. The tables are crowded and among the regular customers we see musicians and entertainers from the better-known dance bands and radio studios. A sudden hush gathers over the room as a grand piano is rolled out upon the pocket-size dance floor. A ripple of applause as Art Tatum, pianist extraordinary, calmly seats himself at his piano. There is no introduction, no ballyhoos—he simply starts to play—and the eyes of everyone, musician and layman alike, are trained intently upon this pianistic marvel. Sam Beers, genial host of The Three Deuces, hovers in the background, and even Paul and Bill—our pals the waiters—have stopped for a moment to listen to Tatum’s meanderings over the keyboard. And there’s a reason for all this rapt attention. Man! What rhythms, what harmonies, what beautiful techniques.

“In The Middle Of A Kiss” for an opener—soft and sweet—a pianistic caress and a sigh, then a sudden “swing out!” gate for a few bars, immediately followed by an expressive return to a “sweet and slow” interpretation.

His Flat-Finger Technique

One of the first things apparent to the eye is the Tatum flat-finger technique. The backs of his hands are fat and pudgy, but the fingers are long and taper to slender tips. Instead of the customary high wrists and curved fingers of the “legit” pianist, Tatum’s hand is almost perfectly horizontal, and his fingers seem to actuate around a horizontal line drawn from wrist to fingertip. Even in the fastest scale passages, the fingers of his right hand barely seem to move but rather appear like a breath of wind through a wheat field.

From “In The Middle Of A Kiss” into a flashy, rhythmic arrangement of “Lulu’s Back In Town,” this Tatum is a showman and seems to know the meaning and value of change of pace. That rhythmic left hand is “sailing” and has every foot in the place tapping. The right hand is traveling like greased lightning, now playing measure after measure of scale and arpeggio work through black and white keys alike, then it will suddenly “swing out” into some octave passages of “licks” that bring inarticulate sounds of admiration from the “hot” men gathered around. There is no let-up in the one-in-a-bar tempo and swiftly the number comes to a flashy close. The applause has hardly died down and Tatum has made another change of pace by softly leading into “Sentimental Over You.”

Marvelous Change Of Pace

The person who doesn’t raise “goose pimples” upon hearing Tatum’s rendition of this favorite simply hasn’t a heart. A beautiful soft legato touch—thrilling pianissimos—first chorus in tempo and melody. Second chorus with a full harmony accompaniment in the left hand and an embellished melody in the right. Third chorus, peculiar rhythms and more change of harmonic structure with much elaboration on thematic material, but you can still pick out the melody. Fourth chorus slightly Harlem and how he “takes off” ... “Tea For Two” and we are convinced that this pianist is a real showman who knows how to pick his numbers. What amazing confidence Tatum shows in his perfect hand and finger control. Scale passages and arpeggios clear-cut and beautifully clean. More clever modulations and interesting harmonies. More of that excellent legato touch in “Chasing Shadows,” a little comedy touch with the incongruous introduction of “Johnny Get Your Gun” themes at unexpected places. Now, an improvisation that displays Tatum’s ability to great advantage.

Right Hand Faster Than Hines

It seems to us that his right hand is even faster and more interesting than that of the great Earl “Fatha” Hines, which is saying a lot. But we think Hines’ left hand is more versatile than Tatum’s, who sticks to straight rhythm most of the time, whereas Hines goes in for those weird off-beat, out-of-tempo accompaniments. But Tatum’s right hand is something to behold. “Moonglow” variations show a remarkably keen and active mind with a great conception of the possibilities of elaboration on thematic material. A novelty number suggestive of a Zez Confrey solo, with an interesting left-hand accompaniment that sounds like the pizzicato of a full string section. “East Of The Sun,” with pianissimo passages that remind you of a Debussy nocturne. A chord passage that might have been taken from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” Changes of key that are reminiscent of one of Bix Beiderbecke’s brain children. Yet, through all of this, we can still hear and recognize “East Of The Sun.” And that’s sumpin’. Did you hear that modulation? Cyril Scott would have admired that succession of chords.

Tatum A Showman On Keys

“Tiger Rag” as a finale. This tune is one of our pet peeves, but Tatum makes us like it. Brother, you have never really heard “Tiger Rag” unless you have heard Tatum’s version. A pianistic “Tiger” gone berserk with a vengeance. A fast chromatic passage in the left hand that is practically a realistic growl. A part of one of the famous Jimmy Dorsey sax choruses in the right hand. Listen to him go! A whirlwind finish and a great round of applause. For an encore, a soft sweet ballad. What a startling and effective contrast from “Tiger Rag.” And there, friends, you have the great Art Tatum, pianist extraordinary—a fine musician and a clever showman. More power to you, Art. And here’s hopin’ you hit the top. You deserve it.

He Is Not Blind

Although Art has had trouble with his eyes since he was 9 years old, he is not blind. In his own words, he describes his eyesight as “not too good, but I can see enough to read and write and get around.” For all fine writing, he uses a strong pair of glasses.

At the piano, Art never uses manuscripts nor reads music. In the privacy of his room, he works out the chords, and then experiments with the melody. When his “arrangement” of that melody is complete, he has mastered every conceivable chord relationship possible, and the theme has been so masterfully interwoven in intricate and pleasing rhythmic passages—and framed in the most colorful and brilliant minor and diminished chord formations—that it takes your breath away.

Tatum is an architect of music with the artisan’s impulse to create. He builds as confidently and with remarkable taste, structures in melodic beauty as surely as a craftsman builds a monument in steel and mortar.

Modesty Refreshing!

Though Tatum knows he is a fine performer (and what artist doesn’t?), with him, it is not a question to be discussed, but to be dismissed at once with the thoughts of what he wants to do. Asked what his approach to music was, or to what his particular genius was due, he answered very frankly, “There’s no technique or anything special about it. I just want to play modern piano! I just strive for something different; that’s what the public wants.”

His ambitions embrace a desire to have a band of his own someday and to evolve a style of music that the boys and girls of today will be playing 10 years from now.

His Wife To Assist Him

Art is also in the process of teaching his wife, Ruby, to play the piano. He believes she will be an invaluable aid to him when she can read the chords to him, or more intricate compositions, and save him the difficulty with which he works now, with the assistance of powerful glasses.

The two people most generally admired by this wizard of the ivories is Vladimir Horowitz for concert piano, and “Fats” Waller for the more popular brand of melodic outpourings. He is also very fond of Louis Armstrong.

Art has recorded for both Decca and Brunswick, the more popular of his releases being “The Shout,” “After You’ve Gone,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Tea For Two,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “Stardust.”

He is now playing over the NBC network mornings (except Sunday) from 9 to 9:15 Central Standard Time, over station WMAQ and appearing nightly at The Three Deuces. DB

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May 2024
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