Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most phenomenal musicians America has ever produced, pianist Art Tatum, born in Toldeo, Ohio on Oct, 13, 1909. In his relatively short life—he died in 1956—the nearly-blind Tatum made hundreds of recordings, primarily of the American popular songbook, and all featuring his amazing technique with its blistering arpeggiations, harmonic creativity, and technical sureness. That he was the most virtuosic of jazz pianists has never seriously been doubted or challenged. But Tatum’s music is easy to admire, and perhaps difficult to love. I know. For a long time I was one.
The problem with Tatum is that he doesn’t fit into neat category, or school. Of the great swing era performers, he was the only one who was best heard by his lonesome. Playing with collaborators diminished, rather than enhanced his music making. He was unique. One- part 19th century piano virtuoso, the heir to Franz Liszt and Sergei Rachmaninov, one part cocktail pianist like Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavarallo, endlessly tinkling the ivories in versions of the popular songs of the day, and one part jazz musician, the friend of Fats Waller and Coleman Hawkins, and he sounds like all three. The standard complaint about Tatum is that he doesn’t swing, that his endless runs get in the way of the underlying music. Well, hard swinging wasn’t what he was about, and ornamentation was the essence of his music, and he needed the song forms to confine his talent. And if his challenge was to find an expressive mastery equal to his unrivaled technical mastery, all that one can say is that he got better at this as he grew older, and I think his 1949 Capitol recordings, and his mid-1950s solo work for Norman Granz are the pinnacles of his career, though all the peaks are lofty. The thing is about Tatum, as is the case for all music, if you listen to what he is, rather than for what he is not, his genius becomes apparent, and you get washed over by wave after wave of musical pleasures. Anyway, I have been listening to Tatum all day, and you out there, whoever you are, should too. See Art run. And run. And run some more.