Art Tatum was born October 13, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio. He was born with cataracts in both eyes, consequently leaving him legally blind. Despite his impairment, he became arguably the greatest pianist in the history of jazz, commanding a facility on the instrument that was truly unrivaled.
Although he was largely self-taught, Tatum had formal musical training as a child. Studying at the Columbus School for the Blind, he procured a comprehension of music through a system of braille. Tatum was clearly influenced by the masters of the classical oeuvre, however it was the syncopated, jubilant style of Harlem Stride piano that spurred his interests.
While still in his formative years, he was given the opportunity to play interludes at WSPD, a Toledo, Ohio radio station. Shortly thereafter, he was featured in a program of his own. In 1932, Tatum moved to New York City to accompany vocalist, Adelaide Hall. The following year, he made his first recordings, among which was “Tiger Rag.”
Perhaps inspired by the format of the Nat “King” Cole Trio, Tatum formed a similar aggregate with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. He recorded exclusively with the trio for nearly two years, but abandoned the format in 1945 and returned to solo piano work. The last two years of his life, Tatum regularly played at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, including his final public performance in April 1956. His recording output included work for Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56).
Tatum passed away on November 4, 1956 as a result of uremia.
Below is a clip that includes pianists Dick Hyman and Billy Taylor discussing Tatum’s peerless approach.