From the time Tatum was born on Oct. 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, he was destined for revolutionizing jazz. He was born with a blind eye and the other partially blind, but his ears were his way of seeing the world. He could sit down and play the same music meant for four hands. He was unbeatable at any piano competition. His influence on jazz will be forever respected by jazz pianists (and non-pianists) worldwide.
As a child, Art received a little formal training for piano at Toledo School of Music, but he mainly just taught himself. By the age of 18, he was already playing for radio broadcasts and even had his own show at one point. By age 24, he wrote and released “Tiger Rag,” a song fully equipped with fast beats, incredibly technical rhythms, and the need for skill. As he continued in his musical career, his articulation, style, and individuality only got better.
Art changed the entire face of jazz music. He helped lead the next generation into the bebop era. He was the musician that started to change the chord progressions, fingered with the harmonics, and tried new inversions of different chords (to get a more “jazzy” sound). Tatum was able to use his classical background and his jazzy style to create his own type of music. It was technical and complex, but still full of the freestyle that jazz so easily expresses. He used his left-handedness to create extreme bass parts and his right hand to create beautiful runs up and down the entire piano.
Art had incredible ears. Although he was nearly blind in one eye and completely blind in the other, he could see perfectly when it came to music. It was said that Tatum could find the dominant note in a flushing toilet. He had incredible pitch, so he knew exactly which notes would sound perfect with the others. In regard to his piano, they called him, “God” because he was so good. Tatum never stopped playing piano. It was his life. As one man said, “Tatum played so brilliantly and so much…that I thought the piano was gonna break. My mother left the room…so I said ‘What’s wrong, Mama?’ And she said ‘Oh, that man plays too much piano.'”
Even extremely critical people would compliment him for his piano skills. Whenever he ever entered a competition for piano, he never lost. Art’s style of music was not the simple, easy music that anybody could play. His technique was mastered. He had the most intricate ornamentation in every line of a song he played. Not only that, but he didn’t even seem like he was trying. As he pounded away at the keys, it didn’t seem like pounding but more floating. It seemed so effortless to him. 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.” Tatum was revolutionary. He led future jazz musicians into the next era of jazz. He had the skill and the mind of a genius, and for that, he will never be forgotten.
Courtney from Study Moose
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