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Art Tatum – The Virtuoso of Jazz Piano
Being born blind never proved against the music in Arthur Tatum Jr.’s heart. One of the most technically sound pianists, his technique and compositions manage to amaze musicians even in this advanced day.
Born on October 13, 1909, Arthur Tatum could barely see out of one eye after having a cataract in one eye while the other had limited vision – a condition he had at just one month old. A child prodigy, he started by learning to play piano rolls from recordings his mother played at home. Little by little, he started playing duets, not knowing that they were meant to be played as duets, but he played both parts himself.
After learning to play in this unusual way, his playing style was very fast, which he was surprisingly able to play with great precision. As he developed his talent, he also made sure that the piano was always tuned correctly and insisted that it be tuned correctly.
He underwent an operation to improve the condition of the eye, which did not give him relief for too long. Around 1930, when he was about 20 years old, he was beaten, which damaged his eye again. He began his career in Ohio, where he was born. He later moved base to New York in 1932.
His musical influences grew over the years and he began to favor James P Johnson and Fats Waller, who were considered the greatest piano players. His claim to fame was a surgery competition. A cutting competition was a competition between step piano players held in Harlem, where one player would “cut” to a piece the other was playing and try to beat him at the same time. In 1933, in a cutting competition, he beat his hero in the keys – Fats Waller.
The standard songs played at these competitions were Harlem Strut, Carolina Shout and Handful Keys – all composed by Johnson and Waller. Tatum competed against them with his own arrangement of Tiger Rag, a song originally composed by the Original Dixie Land Jazz Band. He won them and all the other contests, making the event one that marked the gradual end of the Step Era. After that, he became known as an authority on piano playing style. He held his best record on the instrument, but his challenge was Donald “The Lamb” Lambert, who came closest to challenging Tatum on the instrument he had come to master.
The pianist’s immediate reaction to one of Tatum’s recordings left him confused about what he was doing where and how. His fingers ran like water on the keys. So he was a free stylist in his piano playing method. His ability to quickly move his fingers over the piano keys as precisely as if he were listening to a sped-up version of the instrument using the same techniques. This allowed him to fly like the wind through a part that any other pianist would cringe at playing because it was difficult.
The technique itself was not complicated. Jimmy Rowles, an admirer and colleague, admitted that even if you slow down the faster parts of his signature piece “Tiger Rag,” you’ll find a perfectly unified, syncopated rhythm. Drawing from his step-length piano roots, he brought the same genius to jazz playing, such as the good use of pentatonic scales, which allowed jazz to grow into the ideal form of music for solos. He influenced many jazz masters of the era, including Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans and Chick Corea.
Another handy work of Tatum’s genius is the introduction to the swinging of a jazz song. He firmly believed that melody was king, which was reflected in his music. He never tried to abandon the original melody of the song and preferred to work with the original melody of the tune with innovative chord progressions according to the melody.
The man was such a genius at playing the piano that most musicians couldn’t keep up with his speed and vast technique. He will go down in history as a jazz piano virtuoso.
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