Jazz Profiles from NPR
Art Tatum
Produced by Molly Murphy

Art Tatum  

One of the greatest improvisers in jazz history, Art Tatum also set the standard for technical dexterity with his classic 1933 recording of "Tea for Two." Nearly blind, Tatum's artistic vision and ability made him an icon of jazz piano, a musician whose impact will be felt for generations to come.

Listen to pianists Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, clarinetist Buddy DeFranco and vocalist Jon Hendricks and Tatum biographer James Lester talk about Art Tatum

While Tatum's skills were undeniable, his style continues to stir controversy on whether or not he was an "official" jazz musician. Some jazz critics dismissed his playing as so much ornate window-dressing and the pianist himself as a novelty instead of a serious jazz artist; others saw him as the new and improved second coming of stride legend Fats Waller, one of Tatum's idols.

Listen to Lester talk about Tatum's piano skills

What made Tatum's music even more astonishing was watching his extremely calm demeanor as his nimble figures raced up and down the ivories. According to a radio interview with "Voice of America" host Willis Conover, however, Tatum was never fully satisfied with his amazing deftness.

Listen to Art share his dissatisfaction with his technical skills

Born Arthur Tatum, Jr. on October 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio, the pianist had lost most of his sight by the age of four. He received some formal training on the piano at the Toledo School of Music, learning to read sheet music with the aid of glasses and then in Braille. But Tatum was primarily self-taught, cribbing from piano rolls, phonograph recordings, and radio broadcasts while learning what he could from musicians he encountered.

By 19, Tatum he was playing with vocalist Jon Hendricks at Toledo's Waiters & Bellman's Club, a popular local jazz club that hosted national acts as well. A few of those national acts -- Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Andy Kirk among them -- took notice of the young house pianist, often stunned by his speed and dexterity.

Listen to Hendricks recall performing with Art Tatum at Toledo's Waiters & Bellman's Club

Adelaide Hall  

In 1932, Tatum traveled to New York with vocalist Adelaide Hall (left). His reputation had arrived earlier and some of New York's finest jazz musicians were eagerly awaiting his arrival. The following year, Tatum cut his first sides, for the Brunswick label. The first song was aforementioned "Tea for Two," which became his signature tune.

Listen to Lester talk about the anticipation of Tatum's arrival to New York City

Tatum's stay in New York was brief, and he returned to the Midwest, playing in Cleveland and Chicago for the mid-1930s. He made a triumphant return to New York in 1937, playing at several clubs and appearing on national radio shows.

The following year, Tatum toured England and he began appearing regularly in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Taking Nat "King" Cole's successful jazz trio as a model, Tatum founded his own influential trio with Slam Stewart (double bass) and Tiny Grimes (electric guitar) in 1943. Grimes left the following year, but Tatum continually returned to this format, playing with guitarist Everett Barksdale in particular.

Tatum was not only made a favorite among jazz musicians, but also European classical musicians like Conductor Leopold Stokowski, composer Sergei Rachmaninov and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. But as Tatum's virtuosity continued to awe his fellow musicians, many music critics vilified his playing as being overbearing.

Listen to pianists Billy Taylor and Hank Jones recall a meeting between Tatum and Horowitz

Although Tatum was not considered a bebop jazz musician, he had a legion of bop followers like the alto saxophone icon Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell, and he became a mentor for pianists Billy Taylor and Oscar Peterson. His obsession with music didn't prevent him from indulging in his other favorite activities: sports and cards.

Listen to pianist Oscar Peterson relates an story about playing cards with Tatum and bassist Ray Brown

As bebop began to take control of jazz in the early 1950s, Tatum continued playing variations of the stride piano style, mostly at small clubs throughout the country. In in 1953, Tatum tracked a record 124 solos for noted producer Norman Granz and while the sessions were hasty, they yielded material for 13 albums.

Listen to Tatum and biographer Lester recall the pianist's prolific 1953 sessions with Norman Granz

Soon after, Granz assembled an all-star group of jazz musicians like vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, drummer Buddy Rich, saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco to record with Tatum. During these sessions many musicians were just as amazed at the amount of beer Tatum drank as they were about the amount of musical virtuosity continued to stream out of Tatum's hands.

Although his excessive drinking didn't affect his playing, it did unfortunately affect his health. By 1952, Tatum began showing evidence of euremia, a toxic blood condition resulting from a severe kidney disease. On November 5, Tatum died at age 47, and although his career was relatively short, Tatum's brilliant playing still remains unparalleled and highly influential.


View the Art Tatum show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Art Tatum's The Chronological Art Tatum: 1949