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Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated
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Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated


Fifty years ago today, the jazz musician Art Tatum died. He's been called one of the piano geniuses of all time, in any genre, and yet his legacy is often overlooked. It's hard to summon enough superlatives for Tatum's piano playing, his harmonic invention, his technical virtuosity, his rhythmic daring.

The great stride pianist Fats Waller famously announced one night when Tatum walked into the club where Waller was playing, I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house. NPR's John Burnett remembers Art Tatum.

JOHN BURNETT: Arthur Tatum, Jr. was a musical prodigy. Born in Toledo, Ohio to a mechanic and a domestic who worked in white homes, legally blind and largely self-taught, he memorized entire piano rolls and absorbed music from the radio and the Victrola.

He emerged in the 1930s as a fully-formed musician whose improvisational skill quickly became legend. There had never before been anyone like Art Tatum.

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Mr. DICK HYMAN (Jazz Musician) Tatum's playing was unworldly, unreal, because his standard was so high.

BURNETT: Dick Hyman is a jazz pianist and composer who lives in Venice, Florida and is considered a great performer of early piano jazz.

Mr. HYMAN: Tatum's harmonies, to begin with, were beyond what anybody was doing at that time, and really beyond what anybody's done since. His chromatic harmony...

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Mr. HYMAN: Chords made up of many additional notes to the normal triad...

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Mr. HYMAN: The highly regarded jazz critic and author Gary Giddins listens to lots and lots of jazz, but he says there are certain artists who are mine.

Mr. GARY GIDDINS (Jazz Critic and Author): Because they give me the most pleasure, and a week hardly goes by that I don't play them. And Tatum is one of them because he just - he's endlessly fascinating. You know, people used to criticize Tatum, and they would say things like, well, it's too ornamental, there's too much decorative stuff. But my argument is that that is the essence of Tatum. If you don't like the ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That's where his genius is.

BURNETT: One of Giddins's favorite recordings is a rare radio broadcast of Tatum playing Over the Rainbow only a few weeks after the movie, The Wizard of Oz, opened in 1939. The song wasn't even popular yet, but somehow Tatum not only knew it, but he had mastered the harmonic structure and added a kaleidoscope of substitute chords. Giddins stands next to a CD player in his office above 15th Street in New York City.

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Mr. GIDDINS: This is his intro. The second chord was slightly off. Right there, he goes into a minor and comes back. Right here. Whenever he comes to this section - a whole, you know, diversion away.

BURNETT: Tatum's playing was something supernatural. People who heard him on record for the first time often thought they were listening to two piano players. He became a phenomenon in New York. It wasn't unusual to look up and see the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz or the composer George Gershwin sitting in the audience in awe.

Tatum would rip off impossibly fast arpeggios, strings of 64th notes that end on the perfect piano key, as one write observed, like a trapeze artist catching his partner out of the air.

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BURNETT: Tatum usually played solo because it was so hard for accompanists to follow his dazzling volcanic musical ideas. He tried to play everything he heard in his head. The New Yorker's long-time jazz critic, Whitney Balliett, once observed, Tatum's mind abhorred a vacuum.

The jazz pianist and educator, Dr. Billy Taylor, a protégé of Tatum's, says his mentor could even make a bad piano sound good.

Dr. BILLY TAYLOR (Jazz Pianist): He really heard so many things. The piano was out of tune, he'd try to make something - make it work so that even the note itself was out of tune; he would use that. Just like the Fab Five there.

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Dr. TAYLOR: And he would use those kind of things in many of the very fast runs that he made, you know?

BURNETT: Tatum's stupefying ability could make him difficult to listen to, says Jim Lester(ph). He's a retired psychologist and semi-professional jazz pianist in Annapolis, Maryland, who wrote a Tatum biography titled Too Marvelous for Words.

Mr. JIM LESTER (Tatum Biographer): The first time Les Paul heard him in New York, the guitar player, he went in and listened to Tatum for a while and then left, and a friend of his came out and said, what's the matter, are you sick? He said, no, I just can't take any more. He didn't mean he didn't like it. He meant he was listening so hard to try to catch everything, he was tired.

BURNETT: Over the past year, Storyville Records, a Danish label, released nine CDs full of rare Tatum material, what one collector calls the equivalent of discovering unpublished Shakespeare plays. Many of these previously unreleased recordings came from the vault of a retired real estate executive named Arnold Laubich. A self-described Tatum fanatic for 60 years, he's the world's preeminent collector of Art Tatum recordings.

Mr. ARNOLD LAUBICH (Collector): This is Art Tatum singing If You Hadn't Gone Away.

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BURNETT: Laubich stands in his basement music room in his home in Scarsdale, New York, remembering the moment when he was a teenager and he first heard Art Tatum. He never got over it.

Mr. LAUBICH: Listening to him for the first time is a transforming moment, and most musicians, especially people of the era, can remember exactly when and where they were. It's always the same date that someone was assassinated, when the first time they heard Art Tatum. And they can tell you what he was playing.

BURNETT: The Storyville CDs are remarkable because they offer an audio glimpse into the invisible world of jazz, the after hours parties where musicians unwound and tried out new songs and new ideas, or just had fun. And imagine what it must've been like to be in the room with Art Tatum. He's been playing for 12 hours, but his keyboard work is still brilliant. His hulking imminence sits at an out-of tune piano, hunched, hearing but not seeing, sweat staining the suit coat and vest he wears so often that Billie Holliday called him the Banker. It's noisy, it's smoky, everyone's drunk. People are lining up drinks on the piano for Tatum. He thumbs a blistering glissando with his right hand and downs a jigger of whiskey with his left, never slowing, never missing a beat.

Mr. LAUBICH: That recording was made at a nightclub called Jessie's in Los Angeles, and it was obviously done in the wee hours of the morning. You can hear a voice saying, I've got to go to work. So it went all through the night.

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Unidentified Woman: Well, I've got to go to work in about an hour and a half, so we've got to get going pretty soon.

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Mr. LAUBICH: And he played all night and into the day, and often till noon or later, from the night before. And this is what he would do. He would go to these places. And sometimes he'd go from place to place and crowds would follow him. But the crowds were friends.

BURNETT: Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 at the age of 47 of complications from his prodigious drinking. Arnold Laubich says a couple of years ago he gave a lecture on Tatum to a class at City College in New York, and no one had heard of him. Tatum has never joined the pantheon of jazz greats like Armstrong, Ellington, Parker and Davis. There's no Tatum songbook, because he rarely composed. It's said he was so original that he re-composed every song he ever played. His piano playing was so advanced that almost nobody could copy him, and yet Tatum's genius is remembered in small but significant ways.

A few years ago, a young MIT graduate student invented a term that's now in common usage in the field of computational musicology - the Tatum. Coined in part to honor the great pianist, it means the smallest perceptual time unit in music. This is John Burnett, NPR News, and this is Art Tatum playing Tiger Rag.

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YDSTIE: You can hear full recordings of Art Tatum's version of Over the Rainbow and other performances from this story at This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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