Art Tatum – The Virtuoso of Jazz Piano


Being born blind never proved to go against the music in Arthur Tatum Jr’s heart. One of the most technically sound pianists, his technique and compositions manage to boggle musicians even in this advanced day and age. Born on the 13th of October 1909, Arthur Tatum could barely see from one eye after having cataracts in one eye with the other having limited vision – a condition which he had from when he was just months old. A child prodigy, he started by learning how to play the piano rolls from recordings which his mother used to play at home. He slowly started playing duets not knowing that they were meant to be played as duets but playing both the parts himself. Having learnt to play in this unusual manner, his playing style was very fast which he could surprisingly play with acute accuracy. While he was developing his talent, he also made sure that the piano was always tuned right and would insist that it be tuned right. He underwent surgery to improve the condition of his eye which didn’t give him relief for too long. In around 1930 when he was around 20 years old, he was inflicted which damaged his eye again. He started his career in Ohio where he was born. He later shifted base to New York in 1932. His music influences grew over the years and he started taking after James P Johnson and Fats Waller who were considered the best stride piano players. His claim to fame was a cutting contest. A cutting contest was a contest between stride piano players in Harlem where one player would “cut” into the piece the other player was playing and in the process try to outdo him. In a cutting contest in 1933, he beat his heroes at the keys – Fats Waller. At these contests, the standard songs that used to be played were Harlem Strut, Carolina Shout and Handful Keys – all of which were composed between Johnson and Waller. Tatum competed against them with his own arrangement of Tiger Rag – a tune originally composed by the Original Dixie Land Jazz Band. He out beat them and all the other competition making the event one that marked the phasing out of the stride era. After that, he became known to be the authority on the stride style of playing the piano. He held the record for being the best at the instrument only to be challenged by Donald “The Lamb” Lambert who came the closest to challenging Tatum at the instrument that he had come to master. The immediate reaction of a pianist to one of Tatum’s recording would leave him baffled at what he was doing where and how. His fingers flowed like water on the keys. He was consequently free stylist in his method of playing the piano. His mastery of being able to move his fingers fast over the keys of a piano with accuracy like as if one is listening to a sped up version of the player using the same techniques. This allowed him to fly like a breeze through a part that any other pianist would cringe to play because it was difficult. The technique itself was not the complicated. Jimmy Rowles, an admirer and colleague, confessed that the despite slowing down the faster parts of his signature piece “Tiger Rag”, you’d find a perfectly coherent, syncopated rhythm. Taking ground from his stride piano roots, he took the same genius to playing jazz like the good usage of pentatonic scales which allowed for jazz to grow a form of music which was ideal for solos. He influenced many jazz masters of the period like Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, and Chick Corea. Another handy work of the genius that Tatum was is the introduction of swinging the beat of a jazz song. He was firm believer that melody was king which showed in his music. He never attempted going away from the original melody of the song and preferred working with the original melody of the tune innovating with the chord progressions to suit the melody. The man was such a genius at the piano because most musicians couldn’t keep up with his speed and extensive techniques. He will go down in history as the virtuoso of jazz piano.

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