TATUM, Art: Hold That Tiger!
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ART TATUM "Hold That Tiger"
Original 1933-1940 Recordings
"Art was probably the last man left who had no trouble finding a place to play after hours." Roy Eldridge
Art Tatum is nowadays generally regarded by jazz experts as the unparalleled improviser whose unprecedented technical dexterity and mastery of tone painting and harmonic progression were far in advance of his time, and as jazz pianists go he is universally revered as the most dazzlingly pianistic of them all. But his style of playing was for many years a stumbling-block to the many average enthusiasts who considered his obsessive, lightning-speed roulades degenerate and "disintegrated and unimaginative" virtuosity out of context in true jazz.
Arthur Art Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio, on 13th October 1909, with cataracts on both eyes which, even after many operations, left him with only partial vision. His background at least was musical, "classical" even, insofar as his parents were keen amateurs of their respective instruments (his father played guitar, his mother was an above average pianist) and encouraged their visually impaired son from the age of thirteen to study first violin, then piano. Subsequently, he attended the Cousino School for the Blind, in Columbus, where he also studied guitar, violin and accordion and during his middle teens first played professionally as a sideman with the band of vocalist-drummer Speed Webb, before emerging as a soloist heavily influenced (he would later acknowledge) by Fats Waller and Lee Sims.
During 1928 Art played in residence at Chicken Charlies in Toledo and the following summer began a two-year stint as a staff pianist on his local WSPD radio where his fifteen-minute morning programmes were regularly picked up by NBCs Blue Network and broadcast nationally. Throughout 1930 and 1931 he worked variously in Toledo clubs (notably in Milt Seniors band at the Chateau La France and at the Tabernella, and also undertook various short-term residencies and tours with his own small band in Cleveland and elsewhere. His fluent playing was heard on radio by Adelaide Hall who in 1932 took him to New York as her accompanist, initially in a duo with Francis Carter.
While with Adelaide Hall (their association lasted for about 18 months) he had opportunity to sub with various groups (most notably McKinneys Cotton Pickers) and soon became well known in New York where, in March 1933, he secured his first recording contract, for Brunswick. His astonishing, epoch-making first four titles comprised Vincent Youmans Tea For Two (1924) and Duke Ellingtons Sophisticated Lady (1933) and two tried-and-trusted jazz standards W. C. Handys St. Louis Blues (1914) and Nick La Roccas ODJB success Tiger Rag (1917). A further thirteen improvisations, recorded by Brunswick in August 1934, included the Kirby Walker stride favourite The Shout (1916), Turner Laytons After Youve Gone (1918) and the 1929 Gershwin Brothers hit standard Liza (this last reprised by Art in October, 1934).
Art remained in New York until late 1934 and from then until mid-1935 his activities centred around clubs in Cleveland (Vals, Jimmy Jones and The Greasy Spoon). And while his first visit to Hollywood (September, 1935) produced a programme destined for general release years later on a Jazz Panorama LP, during more than a year spent in residency at the Three Deuces in Chicago, nothing further of the neglected master temporarily upstaged by the contemporary trend for swing bands appeared commercially on disc. At the end of 1936, however, he transferred to Hollywood where he spent a year at the Club Alabam, the Paramount Theatre and elsewhere and recorded another four titles, for Decca. After a further stint in Chicago (at the Three deuces) in November 1937 he returned to New York where his pianistic reputation was finally consolidated at The Famous Door. Through the global distribution of his recordings (including his latest improvisations for Decca on "Body And Soul", "Ive Got My Love To Keep Me Warm", Gone With The Wind and Stormy Weather) he was already a major jazz personality when, in March 1938, he toured England and made various London appearances (most notably at Ciros and the Paradise Club).
Tatums style amalgamated elements of stride, blues and swing. In the main, his transcriptions focused on the contemporary film and popular standards and only rarely featured his own compositions, but a significant few parodied the classical and semi-classical repertoires (those based on Massenets haunting Elégie originally a song dating from the 1890s and Dvor?â??áks celebrated Humoresque (No.7 of 8 Humoresques for Piano, Op.101, 1894) are prime examples). However, the repertoire chosen was apparently immaterial to him and it will be noted that, after having first stated the original melody as a point of departure, as it were a "theme and variations", he invariably returns to it punctually and with consummate ease, however convoluted the digression.
Peter Dempsey, 2002