About this Recording
8.120730 - TATUM, Art: Fine And Dandy (1937-1944)

‘Fine And Dandy’ Original Recordings 1937-1944

Art Tatum is one of the few musicians for whom the word “incredible” truly fits. Tatum’s technique on the piano was so wondrous that it amazed classical pianists, his speed could be blinding and his musical vocabulary, especially harmonically, was three decades ahead of his contemporaries in the 1930s.

Tatum was born 13 October 1909 in Toledo, Ohio. Nearly blind from birth (just having a slight amount of vision in one eye), he was selftaught on the piano initially before gaining some formal training at the Toledo School of Music. Tatum also briefly played guitar, violin and accordion but soon stuck exclusively to piano. He later stated that his main influences were Fats Waller and some of the semi-classical pianists of the 1920s but there is no explanation for his genius or where he originated many of his more startling musical ideas.

Tatum began playing professionally as a teenager in 1926 and had his own radio show in Toledo during 1929-30. Although visiting musicians raved about the pianist and urged him to come to New York, Tatum did not make the move until 1932 when he was hired by singer Adelaide Hall as one of two pianists to back her vocals. Tatum relocated to New York, made his recording debut with Hall and began playing piano in after-hours clubs and bars. His first solo recordings in 1933 are particularly astounding, particularly a version of “Tiger Rag” that finds him sounding like three pianists.

Art Tatum spent most of his career playing solo in dives. It was said by some that he could not play with other musicians due to his many key and tempo changes and his speedy runs, but the opposite was true; most musicians were scared to play with him! Tatum’s command of the piano and his ability to play stride piano, swing and boogie-woogie with remarkable speed and complexity meant that anyone performing with him would have to have a great deal of self-confidence and be extremely alert.

In the 1930s Tatum worked for extended periods in New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles, visiting England in 1938. Although he did not receive the publicity of Fats Waller (whose humorous vocals were very accessible), Teddy Wilson (due to his exposure with Benny Goodman) and (in the 1940s) Nat King Cole, all of the pianists were in awe of his abilities.

After his initial recording date as a soloist in 1933, Tatum recorded fairly extensively during August–October 1934 and then did not have any other commercial record dates until cutting four numbers with a band in February 1937. Otherwise he had made only one other visit to the recording studios (not counting radio transcription dates) before April 1939. Among the four songs that he recorded on 29 November 1937 were “The Sheik Of Araby” and “Chlo-e”. The Sheik Of Araby is a good example of Tatum’s approach. He plays the first chorus and the verse fairly straight and throughout the performance always keeps the melody close by. And yet, his variations are full of surprises, his left hand is continually changing patterns, there is some heated striding, and each chorus is hotter than the previous one. The final minute shows listeners why one night when Fats Waller spotted Tatum in the audience he said “God is in the house.”

Chlo-e has been interpreted as both a sentimental ballad and, in Spike Jones’ case, as an easy song to satirize. Tatum takes “Chlo-e” on its own merits, reharmonizing it in spots, tossing in some surprising double-time runs and adding some of his subtle wit but mostly playing the tune with warmth.

Moving to 1939, the 29-year old pianist begins Tea For Two with the last part of the chorus and a melodic out-of-tempo stanza before jumping into a cooking tempo that features him coming up with some miraculous ideas for the next two choruses. He concludes the piece in the same mood as it had begun. Deep Purple begins ironically, with Tatum almost sounding as if he is just discovering the beauty of the piece as he plays it; the second chorus shows that he had long since mastered the song and could do anything with it that came to mind.

Moonglow, immortalized by the Benny Goodman Quartet in 1936, receives an interpretation by Tatum in 1940 that is just as timeless. The theme moves slowly, so the pianist has plenty of room even in the first melody chorus to toss in dazzling ideas. And even when he is playing at his most rapid or most harmonically adventurous, the performance sounds relaxed. Cocktails For Two, which like “Chlo-e” would become infamous due to Spike Jones’ version, is revealed by Tatum to be a sentimental and sweet melody that he treats with affection.

On 13 February 1940, Earl Hines and his big band recorded their hit “Boogie Woogie On St Louis Blues”. Although that catchy recording is memorable, Tatum cuts it to shreds during his boogie-woogie treatment of W. C. Handy’s song from five months later. Boogie-woogie was the rage at the time, and Tatum shows that he could hold his own with the pianists who specialized in that infectious form of 12-bar blues (Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis). Cole Porter’s Begin The Beguine in 1938 was the song that made Artie Shaw famous. Tatum developed his own fresh approach to the standard and performed a similar arrangement for the piece throughout his career. This 26 July 1940 version was Tatum’s first on record and remains one of his most beloved recordings.

Earl Hines, who preceded Tatum, was the first jazz pianist to break up the metronomic role of the left hand of stride pianists, often suspending and implying time rather than stating it on every beat. Rosetta is one of his most famous compositions and there are spots in this complex rendition where Tatum pays direct tribute to Hines. Indiana, a dixieland standard by the mid-1920s, is taken at a slower tempo than usual, giving Tatum an opportunity to bring out some of the hidden beauty in the song.

The remainder of ‘Fine And Dandy’ dates from 1944. Tatum handles six standards in a similar but never predictable fashion, stating the theme prominently in the first chorus and then taking wild departures without wandering far from the theme no matter how much he twists and turns the chord structure or sprinkles his improvisations with stunning outbursts. Fine And Dandy is quite a tour-de-force (listen to how it ends!), It Had To Be You is transformed from a romantic ballad into a remarkable journey and Ja-Da is given a playful treatment that turns the simple song into high art. Where Or When and Sweet And Lovely are relatively relaxed and thoughtful while Danny Boy has a few unexpected moments where the pianist plays out of key for a moment, adding suspense to the performance.

In late 1943, Art Tatum surprised the jazz world by forming a trio. Electric guitarist Tiny Grimes, who was most influenced by Charlie Christian, and bassist Slam Stewart (who contributed hummed solos that were sung in conjunction with his bowed bass) worked quite well with Tatum and the venture lasted on and off for a couple years. Boogie is a blues romp that finds Grimes and Stewart matching Tatum’s wit if not his virtuosity. If I Had You shows that, although Tatum had to stick to one tempo and one key during performances with his trio, he was still free to thrown in constant curveballs that challenged his sidemen. The swinging blues Soft Winds and the minor-key romp Topsy show just how tight yet spontaneous the group could be.

After the trio broke up (with Slam Stewart joining Benny Goodman), Tatum went back to performing solo for much of the remainder of his career. He was an inspiration for Oscar Peterson and the bebop generation that followed while not feeling compelled to modernize his style since he was already so far ahead of everyone else.

Art Tatum passed away from uremia on 5 November 1956 when he was just 47, having set a standard for jazz pianists that has never been surpassed.

– Scott Yanow
author of 7 jazz books including Swing, Bebop, Trumpet Kings and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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