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Art Tatum (1909-1956)

As one story goes, in the mid 1940s in a jazz club in New York, Art Tatum sat at his piano unaware that Vladimir Horowitz lurked just inside the club’s entrance, a fedora drawn down to disguise his prominent face. Further inside, Mary Lou Williams, a successful jazz pianist of the day, sat at a table with Duke Ellington. Ellington, who later said he felt too overwhelmed to express his feelings, was only one of scores of musicians who sat in the small club that night, silently watching their idol. Horowitz, apparently dumbfounded, later remarked that he could believe neither his eyes nor his ears.

There exist many contemporary accounts of Tatum causing such reactions and it is fortunate that recordings exist which would tend to substantiate the various claims. Of these recordings Oscar Peterson said “There is so much in them yet unheard, even by the trained ear. One feels almost premature in making an assessment”. Almost forty years after Tatum’s death, his accomplishment is still the subject of enjoyment, conversation and awe, as much among classical musicians as jazz artists.

It was logical that Duke Ellington, one of America’s most gifted composers, should recognize the scope of Tatum’s gifts. Beyond Tatum’s incredible technique, his enormous repertory of American vernacular music and his facility as a jazz ensemble player, Ellington must have marvelled at the unparalleled richness of his improvisations, their harmonic and contrapuntal beauty, their complexity - and the conciseness. Ellington’s own scores impressed listeners as containing orchestral colours unique to midtwentieth- century music, much the way in which Stravinsky’s colossal three pieces of 1910 - 20 broke new ground in their day. Similarly, jazz historians view the music tradition from which Tatum came, namely Harlem Stride, as a classic musical style with a distinctive language of its own. Derived from Ragtime, its foremost practitioners included Thomas “Fats” Waller, of whom Tatum said “Fats, man, that’s where I come from. And quite a place to come from”.

Fats’s piano rolls evidently made their way out to Toledo, Ohio, where Tatum grew up. So did the music of Lee Sims, the only other musician Tatum ever acknowledged as an influence. In recordings that are rarely heard today, Sims played elegant, florid arrangements of American songs from the early part of this century, gracefully covering the keyboard in the manner of, say, Thalberg or Mendelssohn. Tatum himself, it is important to note, studied classical piano with a Toledo musician named Overton Rainey. The influence of Sims, Tatum’s classical training and continuous lifelong exposure to classical music are subtly, yet unquestionably felt throughout Tatum’s work. From right- hand passagework sometimes based on nineteenth-century music to actual transcriptions of classical compositions and quotations from Ravel to Ethelbert Nevin, Tatum honoured the classical tradition in many subtle ways.

As an assimilator of Harlem Stride, Tatum almost immediately surpassed his mentors. His left hand, now “striding”, now “walking” in parallel motion, was flawlessly secure and steady. Where Fats Waller alternated low notes with mid-register chords, Tatum tried out basses with seamless tenths, often with notes in between. So-called “substitute” chords, made up of harmonies not envisaged by the composers of the original tunes, are already much in evidence in early Tatum. A striking example is the two-bar descending line of parallel chords leading back to the restatement of Tea for Two, about thirty seconds into the solo. The passage is not dissimilar to the kind of parallel motion one sees often in Debussy, and certainly it must have stood out in Harlem in 1933.

Most noticeably, florid and spectacularly rapid passagework set Tatum apart from his jazz influences. By 1933 he had developed an arsenal of pianistic embellishments which, when slowed down and analysed, are clearly derived from the slower paced runs of earlier stride pianists and related to, though different from, passages found in Chopin, Liszt and their contemporaries.

One barometer of Tatum’s development is his ever more far-reaching harmonic vocabulary. By the time he recorded Lover Come Back To Me, dissonance resolves to yet more dissonance, fully resolving only at phrase ending - and sometimes not even then. And what dissonance this is! Not random in the slightest, but completely the result of Tatum’s pushing against the outer limits of a system derived from earlier diatonic harmony, where basic chord relationships are kept strictly intact.

Tatum’s transcriptions of actual classical compositions demonstrate his wit and charm. As Fats Waller was wont to do, Tatum also enjoyed cracking a smile, and his conversation of Dvořák’s somewhat sentimental Humoresque, from folksy to downright sassy, is memorable. Elegy features almost classical configurations in the right hand, as opposed to the shimmering, speeded-up Waller-like runs in the 1933 solos.

Another characteristic of the best classical music is found more and more as Tatum develops: conciseness of expression. From Mozart to Debussy, economy of expression was a virtue, and in Tatum’s repertoire there existed certain pieces which were recorded over and over again, each time more concisely. The 1940 Sweet Lorraine, though not Tatum’s last, is unsurpassable in this respect. Each succeeding restatement of the tune completely alters it slightly, yet the differences are so small and well chosen that a first time listener who comes in the room in the midst of the solo almost cannot be sure that he is not hearing the actual tune. That Tatum’s improvisations on the tune here are as pleasing as the tune itself, yet hardly different from it, shows a level of musical thought to which few jazz artists have ever aspired. It was as if Tatum, when at his best, possessed a gift for instant composition, much in the way that Mozart composed in his head and only wrote it down later.

Tatum’s work was, among other things, a fusion of Harlem Stride, ingenious pianistic extensions, humour, harmony that stretched its language to the limits, and the subtlest of improvisational techniques. His complex art justifies hearing, rehearing, study and performance.

Steven Mayer

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