MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: That's what jazz musicians call "playin' a whole lotta piano." And nobody ever played more piano than Art Tatum. A.B. Spellman, tell us why this Art Tatum belongs in our Basic Jazz Record Library.
A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: I say this record because it catches Art Tatum in 1949.
HORWITZ: My birth year! So that's why you picked it!
SPELLMAN: Absolutely. This is Tatum when his music, I believe, was at its apex even though his health was just starting to deteriorate. He still was capable of all of the pianistic gymnastics for which he was noted. At the same time, his musical sense had become more mellow, more mature. He had less need to display his flash, but when he did, it was always to say something specific.
HORWITZ: Let me ask you a question. Does it ever get lost in the technique? I mean because there are all these famous stories about Art Tatum. There's a story about when he walked in to a club where Fats Waller was playing. Fats Waller said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, I play piano, but tonight God is in the house."
SPELLMAN: And Waller was no slouch himself!
HORWITZ: Not at all. And Tatum said he came straight from Fats. But there's much more pianistically going on in Tatum — is it too much?
SPELLMAN: Well no, Murray. There's a burden on the listener with Tatum. It's a burden because Tatum has so much technique, so much flash and is so vain about his technique that you can get lost right there. With Tatum, you have to listen through the technique.
SPELLMAN: No one ever loved music more than Tatum. And his background was so solid and broad that it enabled him to do anything that he wanted to. He was, for example, particularly great at playing in after-hours clubs on keyboards that were out of tune and where the notes stuck. He was said to be able to fly up the piano, catch the notes that were stuck, pull them back up, and then play back over them again without ever missing a beat.
HORWITZ: Wow. He influenced a whole pile of musicians. It seems like any pianist you talk to today talks about Tatum.
SPELLMAN: Yes he did, Murray. And not just pianists. He also unfluenced Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, John Coltrane... all of these musicians that said they came out of Tatum. Charles Mingus once talked about how beboppers were trying to figure out how to use cycles of fifths and there you heard them in little throwaway passages of Tatum's, the solution to his problem.
In fact, bebop probably would not have happened when it did were it not for Art Tatum, because of his harmonic invention. He was the first musician to take a harmonic approach to the song as opposed to a melodic approach. And he would just turn the harmonic approach to a song inside out, upside down, and that was the textbook that the bebop musicians needed to do what they had to do.
I would say that with the possible exception of Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum is the most influential jazz musician ever.
HORWITZ: So you need, in your Basic Jazz Record Library, The Chronological Art Tatum: 1949. It's on the Classics Records label. For all of our NPR Basic Jazz Record Library listings, check out our Web site. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.
SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.