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Arthur "Art" Tatum Jr. (October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist and virtuoso. He was nearly blind.

Tatum is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries ... Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists."

Life and career

For a musician of such stature, there is very little published information available about Tatum's life. Only one full-length biography of Tatum has been published, Too Marvelous for Words, by James Lester. Lester interviewed many Tatum contemporaries for the book and drew from many articles published about Tatum.

Early life

Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohiomarker. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts of disputed cause which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgeries improved his eye condition to a degree but some of the benefits were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930 at age 20.

A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio and copying piano-roll recordings his mother owned. He developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing accuracy. As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often.

In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. Subsequently he studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was black and visually impaired, likely taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist', during interludes in Ellen Kay's shopping chat program and soon had his own program. By the age of 19, Tatum was playing with singer Jon Hendricks, also an Ohioan, at the local Waiters' and Bellmens' Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson, passing through Toledo would make it a point to drop in to hear the piano phenom.

Tatum drew inspiration from his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more 'modern' Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. A major event in his meteoric rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 in New York City that included Waller, Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Fats Waller's "Handful of Keys." Tatum triumphed with his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag", in a performance that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. Tatum's debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era. He was not challenged further until stride specialist Donald Lambert initiated a half-serious rivalry with him.

Tatum worked in New York at the Onyx Club for a few months and recorded his first four solo sides on the Brunswick label in March, 1933. He returned to Ohio and played around the midwest in the mid-1930s and in 1937 returned to New York where he appeared at clubs and played on national radio programs. The following year he toured England, playing for three months at Ciro's Club owned by bandleader Ambrose and in the late 1930s he played in Los Angeles and New York.


Tatum built upon stride and classical piano influences to develop a novel and unique piano style. He introduced a strong, swinging pulse to jazz piano, highlighted with spectacular cadenzas that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated, grandiose and intricate. He sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres but generally he did not venture far from the original melodic lines of songs. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s and 50's and beyond. But Tatum embellished those melodic lines with an array of signature devices and runs that appeared throughout his repertoire, sometimes too 'repetitiously' in the view of some. As he matured, Tatum became more adventurous in abandoning the melodies and elongating those improvisations. Although Tatum influenced the bebop movement, he did not embrace the bebop style, nor did he fraternize a great deal with its proponents.

Tatum was an innovator in reharmonizing melodies by changing the supporting chord progressions or by altering the root movements of a tune so as to more effectively apply familiar harmonies. Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the jazz age) and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of 'modern jazz'. Tatum also pioneered the use of dissonance in jazz piano, as can be heard, for example, on his recording of "Aunt Hagar's Blues", which uses extensive dissonance to achieve a bluesy effect. In addition to using major and minor seconds, dissonance was inherent in the complex chords that Tatum frequently used.

Tatum could also play the blues with authority, but his repertoire was predominantly Broadwaymarker and popular standards, whose chord progressions and variety better suited his talents. His approach was prolix, pyrotechnic, dramatic and joyous. His protean style combined stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie and classical elements, while the musical ideas flowed in rapid-fire fashion. He was playful, spontaneous and often inserted quotes from other songs into his improvisations. Tatum was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. He seldom played in a simplified way, preferring interpretations that displayed his great technique and clever harmonizations. A handful of critics have complained that Tatum played too many notes or was too ornamental or was even 'unjazzlike'.

From the foundation of stride, Tatum made great leaps forward in technique and harmony and he honed a groundbreaking improvisational style that extended the limits of what was possible in jazz piano. His innovations were to greatly influence later jazz pianists, such as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans and Chick Corea. One of Tatum's innovations was his extensive use of the pentatonic scale, which may have inspired later pianists to further mine its possibilities as a device for soloing. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's unique tone as "majestic" and devoted some time to unlocking this sound and to noting Tatum's harmonic arsenal.

The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. It was said that he could make a bad piano sound good. Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, he employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated and chords were cleanly sounded. Tatum's harmonic invention produced tonal colors that identified his musical palette. He played with boundless energy and occasionally his speedy and precise delivery produced an almost mechanical effect not unlike the sound of a player piano.


Critic Gunther Schuller declared "On one point there is universal agreement: Tatum's awesome technique." That technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency. He did not indulge in theatrical physical or facial expression. The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages puzzled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially mystified other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be "playing the impossible." Even when playing scintillating runs at high velocity, it appeared that his fingers hardly moved. Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed the pyrotechnics with meticulous accuracy and timing. His execution was all the more remarkable considering that he drank prodigious amounts of alcohol when performing, yet his recordings are never sloppy. Tatum also displayed phenomenal independence of the hands and ambidexterity, which was particularly evident while improvising counterpoint. Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right." Around 1950 when Bud Powell was opening for Tatum at Birdland , Powell reportedly said to Tatum: "Man, I'm going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you're ready." Tatum laughed and replied: "Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I'll do with my left." Powell never took up the challenge.

Tatum played chords with a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training. Jimmy Rowles said "Most of the stuff he played was clear over my head. There was too much going on — both hands were impossible to believe. You couldn't pick out what he was doing because his fingers were so smooth and soft, and the way he did it — it was like camouflage." When his fastest tracks of "Tiger Rag" are slowed down, they still reveal a coherent, syncopated rhythm.

After Hours

After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians who would play for each other. Biographer James Lester notes that Tatum enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last when several pianists played. He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn, to the detriment of his marriages. Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in those free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances. Evidence of this can be found in the recording entitled "20th Century Piano Genius" which consists of 40 tunes recorded at private parties at the home of Hollywood music director Ray Heindorf in 1950 and 1955. According to the review by Marc Greilsamer, "All of the trademark Tatum elements are here: the grand melodic flourishes, the harmonic magic tricks, the flirtations with various tempos and musical styles. But what also emerges is Tatum's effervescence, his joy, and his humor. He seems to celebrate and mock these timeless melodies all at once."

Group Work

Tatum tended to work and to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep pace with his lightning-fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. Other musicians expressed amazed bewilderment at performing with Tatum. Drummer Jo Jones, who recorded a 1956 trio session with Tatum and bassist Red Callendar is quoted as quipping, "I didn't even play on that session [...] all I did was listen. I mean, what could I add? [...] I felt like setting my damn drums on fire." Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train." Tatum said of himself: "A band hampers me."

Tatum did not readily adapt or defer to other musicians in ensemble settings. Early in his career he was required to restrain himself when he worked as accompanist for vocalist Adelaide Hall in 1932-33. Perhaps because Tatum believed there was a limited audience for solo piano, he formed a trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart, whose perfect pitch enabled him to follow Tatum's excursions. He later recorded with other musicians, including a notable session with the 1944 Esquire Jazz All-Stars, which included Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other jazz greats, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He also recorded memorable group sessions for Norman Granz in the early 1950s.


Tatum's repertoire consisted mainly of music from the Great American Songbook -- Tin Pan Alleymarker, Broadway and other popular music of the 20's, 30's and 40's. He played his own arrangements of a few classical piano pieces as well, most famously Dvořák's Humoresque no. 7. Although Tatum was not a composer, his versions of popular numbers were so original as to border on composition.


Mainstream jazz piano has gone in a different direction than that pioneered by Tatum. Nevertheless, transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously. But perhaps because his playing was so difficult to copy, only a handful of musicians — such as Oscar Peterson, Johnny Costa, Johnny Guarnieri, Adam Makowicz, Luther G. Williams, Steven Mayer and Christopher Jordan — have attempted to seriously emulate or challenge Tatum. Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum influence. Phineas Newborn's playing, such as his recording of "Willow Weep For Me", is closely modeled on Tatum.


Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. Although recording opportunities were somewhat intermittent for most of his career due to his solo style, he left copious recordings. He recorded for Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56). Tatum demonstrated remarkable memory when he recorded 68 solo tracks for Norman Granz in two days, all but three of the tracks in one take. He also recorded a series of group recordings for Granz with, among others, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter, Harry Sweets Edison , Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.


Although only a small amount of film showing Tatum playing exists today, several minutes of professionally-shot archival footage can be found in Martin Scorsese's documentary The Blues. Tatum appeared in the 1947 movie The Fabulous Dorseys, first playing a solo and then accompanying Dorsey's band in an impromptu song.

Tatum appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show in the early 1950s, and on other television shows from this era. Unfortunately, all of the kinescopes of the Allen shows, which were stored in a warehouse along with other now defunct shows, were thrown into a local rubbish dump to make room for new studios. However, the soundtracks were recorded off-air by Tatum enthusiasts at the time, and many are included in Storyville Records extensive series of rare Tatum recordings.

Tatum is portrayed briefly (by actor Johnny O'Neill) in Ray, a 2004 biopic about R&B artist Ray Charles. When Charles enters a nightclub he remarks "Are my ears deceiving me or is that Art Tatum?" O'Neill captures Tatum's cool and collected presence at the keyboard.


Art Tatum died at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, Californiamarker from the complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure). He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991. He was survived by his wife, Geraldine Tatum.

Legacy and tributes

Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

Numerous stories exist about other musicians' respect for Tatum. Perhaps the most famous is the story that Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house." Fats Waller's son confirmed the statement.

Charlie Parker (who helped develop bebop) was highly influenced by Tatum. When newly arrived in New York, Parker briefly worked as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the legendary pianist. Parker once said “I wish I could play like Tatum’s right hand!”

When Oscar Peterson was still a young boy, his father played him a recording of Art Tatum performing "Tiger Rag". Once the young Peterson was finally persuaded that it was performed by a single person, Peterson was so intimidated that he did not touch the piano for weeks. Interviewing Oscar Peterson in 1962, Les Tompkins asked "Is there one musician you regard as the greatest?" Peterson replied "I’m an Art Tatum–ite. If you speak of pianists, the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know, from what I’ve heard to date, is Art Tatum." "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."

"Here's something new .... " pianist Hank Jones remembers thinking when he first heard Art Tatum on radio in 1935, " .... they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing."

The jazz pianist and educator Kenny Barron commented that "I have every record [Tatum] ever made — and I try never to listen to them … If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up!" Jean Cocteau dubbed Tatum "a crazed Chopin." Count Basie called him the eighth wonder of the world. Dave Brubeck observed, "I don't think there's any more chance of another Tatum turning up than another Mozart."

Dizzy Gillespie said "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."

The elegant pianist Teddy Wilson observed, "Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur."

Other luminaries of the day including Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Leopold Godowsky and George Gershwin marveled at Tatum's genius.

Classical composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff said "he has better technique than any other living pianist, and may be the greatest ever."

Jazz critic Leonard Feather has called Tatum "the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument."

In 1993, an MITmarker student invented a term that is now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: The Tatum. It means "the smallest perceptual time unit in music."

The Toledo Jazz Society presents an annual event dedicated to Tatum entitled the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival.

Zenph Studios, a software company focused on precisely understanding how musicians perform, recorded a new album of Tatum’s playing with Sony Masterworks in 2007. They created re-performances of Tatum’s first four commercial tracks, from March 21, 1933, and the nine tracks from the April 2, 1949 live concert at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium. Sony recorded these anew in the same venue, in front of a live audience. These 13 tracks are on the album, “Piano Starts Here: Live from The Shrine,” which was recorded in high-resolution surround-sound and in binaural, as well as regular stereo. The binaural recording, when heard in headphones, let you hear what Tatum may have heard as he played on stage, with the piano spatially in front (bass on the left, treble on the right) and the live audience clearly downstage on the righthand side. Zenph’s re-performances have been performed live in numerous venues, including the Toronto Jazz Festival and New York’s Apollo Theater. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson requested a live presentation, which he heard in an emotional re-performance in his home in March 2007.

Tatum's work was used and referenced heavily in the WB TV series Everwood (2002-2006), with some actual sound recordings used and compositions being performed in concerts by Ephram Brown (portrayed by Gregory Smith) in select episodes. James Earl Jones' character Will Cleveland introduced these works to young Ephram, who was an aspiring pianist, in the second season episode "Three Miners From Everwood".

For his 2008 album “Act Your Age,” Gordon Goodwin wrote a new big band arrangement to accompany Zenph’s re-performance of “Yesterdays,” and the track was recognized with a Grammy Nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement.


  • Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 2: Jazz Rehearsal, II- Art Tatum Trio, Folkways Records, 1952
  • Makin' Whoopee, Verve, 1954
  • The Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1954
  • Genius Of Keyboard 1954–56, Giants Of Jazz
  • Still More of the Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1955
  • More of the Greatest Piano Hits of All Time, Verve, 1955
  • The Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet, Verve, 1956, reissued as The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight, Pablo, 1975
  • The Essential Art Tatum, Verve, 1956
  • Masterpieces, Leonard Feather Series MCA2-4019, MCA, 1973
  • God is in the House , Onyx, 1973 [re-released on High Note, 1998]

  • Piano Starts Here, Columbia, 1987
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1, Capitol, 1989
  • The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2, Capitol, 1989
  • Solos 1940, Decca/MCA, 1989

  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1990
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1990
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1990
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1990
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1990
  • The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1990
  • Art Tatum at His Piano, Vol. 1, Crescendo, 1990
  • The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces, Pablo, 1990

  • Classic Early Solos (1934–37), Decca Records, 1991
  • The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1991
  • The Best of Art Tatum, Pablo, 1992
  • Standards, Black Lion, 1992
  • The V-Discs, Black Lion, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 5, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1992
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8, Pablo, 1992

  • I Got Rhythm: Art Tatum, Vol. 3 (1935–44), Decca Records, 1993

  • Fine Art & Dandy, Drive Archive, 1994
  • The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1994
  • Marvelous Art, Star Line Records, 1994
  • House Party, Star Line Records, 1994
  • Masters of Jazz, Vol. 8, Storyville (Denmark), 1994
  • California Melodies, Memphis Archives, 1994
  • 1934–40, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1994

  • 1932–44 (3 CD Box Set), Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
  • The Rococo Piano of Art Tatum, Pearl Flapper, 1995
  • I Know That You Know, Jazz Club Records, 1995
  • Piano Solo Private Sessions October 1952, New York, Musidisc (France), 1995
  • The Art of Tatum, ASV Living Era, 1995
  • Trio Days, Le Jazz, 1995
  • 1933–44, Best of Jazz (France), 1995
  • 1940–44, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995

  • Vol. 16-Masterpieces, Jazz Archives Masterpieces, 1996
  • 20th Century Piano Genius (20th Century/Verve, 1996
  • Body & Soul,Jazz Hour (Netherlands), 1996
  • Solos (1937) and Classic Piano, Forlane, 1996

  • Complete Capitol Recordings, Blue Note, 1997
  • Memories Of You (3 CD Set) Black Lion, 1997
  • On The Sunny Side Topaz Jazz, 1997

  • 1944, Giants Of Jazz, 1998

  • Standard Sessions (2 CD Set), Music & Arts, 1996 & 2002/Storyville 1999

  • Art Tatum - Ben Webster: The Album (Essential Jazz Classics) 2009



  • Jed Distler (1981/1986) Art Tatum: Jazz Masters Series: intro and notes to Tatum Piano Transcriptions: Amsco Publications: ISBN 0-8256-4085-7
  • James Lester (1994) Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-509640-1
  • Gunther Schuller (1989) The Swing Era - The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, "Art Tatum" p 476-502, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-507140-5
  • Riccardo Scivales (1998) The Right Hand According to Tatum, Ekay Music, Inc. ISBN 0943748852

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