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Art Tatum (1909-1956)
As one story goes, in the mid 1940s in a jazz club inNew York, Art Tatum sat at his piano unaware thatVladimir Horowitz lurked just inside the club'sentrance, a fedora drawn down to disguise hisprominent face. Further inside, Mary Lou Williams, asuccessful jazz pianist of the day, sat at a table withDuke Ellington. Ellington, who later said he felt toooverwhelmed to express his feelings, was only one ofscores of musicians who sat in the small club that night,silently watching their idol. Horowitz, apparentlydumbfounded, later remarked that he could believeneither his eyes nor his ears.
There exist many contemporary accounts of Tatumcausing such reactions and it is fortunate that recordingsexist which would tend to substantiate the variousclaims. Of these recordings Oscar Peterson said \Thereis 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, hisaccomplishment is still the subject of enjoyment,conversation and awe, as much among classicalmusicians as jazz artists.
It was logical that Duke Ellington, one ofAmerica's most gifted composers, should recognize thescope of Tatum's gifts. Beyond Tatum's incredibletechnique, his enormous repertory of Americanvernacular music and his facility as a jazz ensembleplayer, Ellington must have marvelled at theunparalleled richness of his improvisations, theirharmonic and contrapuntal beauty, their complexity -and the conciseness. Ellington's own scores impressedlisteners as containing orchestral colours unique to midtwentieth-century music, much the way in whichStravinsky's colossal three pieces of 1910 - 20 brokenew ground in their day. Similarly, jazz historians viewthe music tradition from which Tatum came, namelyHarlem Stride, as a classic musical style with adistinctive language of its own. Derived from Ragtime,its foremost practitioners included Thomas "Fats"Waller, of whom Tatum said "Fats, man, that's where Icome from. And quite a place to come from".
Fats's piano rolls evidently made their way out toToledo, Ohio, where Tatum grew up. So did the musicof Lee Sims, the only other musician Tatum everacknowledged as an influence. In recordings that arerarely heard today, Sims played elegant, floridarrangements of American songs from the early part ofthis century, gracefully covering the keyboard in themanner of, say, Thalberg or Mendelssohn. Tatumhimself, it is important to note, studied classical pianowith a Toledo musician named Overton Rainey. Theinfluence of Sims, Tatum's classical training andcontinuous lifelong exposure to classical music aresubtly, yet unquestionably felt throughout Tatum'swork. From right- hand passagework sometimes basedon nineteenth-century music to actual transcriptions ofclassical compositions and quotations from Ravel toEthelbert Nevin, Tatum honoured the classical traditionin many subtle ways.
As an assimilator of Harlem Stride, Tatum almostimmediately surpassed his mentors. His left hand, now"striding", now "walking" in parallel motion, wasflawlessly secure and steady. Where Fats Walleralternated low notes with mid-register chords, Tatumtried out basses with seamless tenths, often with notes inbetween. So-called "substitute" chords, made up ofharmonies not envisaged by the composers of theoriginal tunes, are already much in evidence in earlyTatum. A striking example is the two-bar descendingline of parallel chords leading back to the restatement ofTea for Two, about thirty seconds into the solo. Thepassage is not dissimilar to the kind of parallel motionone sees often in Debussy, and certainly it must havestood out in Harlem in 1933.
Most noticeably, florid and spectacularly rapidpassagework set Tatum apart from his jazz influences.
By 1933 he had developed an arsenal of pianisticembellishments which, when slowed down andanalysed, are clearly derived from the slower paced runsof earlier stride pianists and related to, though differentfrom, passages found in Chopin, Liszt and theircontemporaries.
One barometer of Tatum's development is his evermore far-reaching harmonic vocabulary. By the time herecorded Lover Come Back To Me, dissonance resolvesto yet more dissonance, fully resolving only at phraseending - and sometimes not even then. And whatdissonance this is! Not random in the slightest, butcompletely the result of Tatum's pushing against theouter limits of a system derived from earlier diatonicharmony, where basic chord relationships are keptstrictly intact.
Tatum's transcriptions of actual classicalcompositions demonstrate his wit and charm. As FatsWaller was wont to do, Tatum also enjoyed cracking asmile, and his conversation of Dvořak's somewhatsentimental Humoresque, from folksy to downrightsassy, is memorable. Elegy features almost classicalconfigurations in the right hand, as opposed to theshimmering, speeded-up Waller-like runs in the 1933solos.
Another characteristic of the best classical music isfound more and more as Tatum develops: concisenessof expression. From Mozart to Debussy, economy ofexpression was a virtue, and in Tatum's repertoire thereexisted certain pieces which were recorded over andover again, each time more concisely. The 1940 SweetLorraine, though not Tatum's last, is unsurpassable inthis respect. Each succeeding restatement of the tunecompletely alters it slightly, yet the differences are sosmall and well chosen that a first time listener whocomes in the room in the midst of the solo almost cannotbe sure that he is not hearing the actual tune. ThatTatum's improvisations on the tune here are as pleasingas the tune itself, yet hardly different from it, shows alevel of musical thought to which few jazz artists haveever aspired. It was as if Tatum, when at his best,possessed a gift for instant composition, much in theway that Mozart composed in his head and only wrote itdown later.
Tatum's work was, among other things, a fusion ofHarlem Stride, ingenious pianistic extensions, humour,harmony that stretched its language to the limits, andthe subtlest of improvisational techniques. His complexart justifies hearing, rehearing, study and performance.Steven Mayer