Art Tatum

I thought we’d continue our coverage of Art Tatum with an excerpt from the exquisitely researched website, Riverwalk Jazz.

Here’s the excerpt:

Behind narrator David Holt’s commentary, you’ll hear one of Tatum’s signature songs, Tea for Two.

I’m hoping you are beginning to see the Harlem Stride lineage from James P. Johnson (the “Father of Stride”) to Fats Waller and now…Art Tatum.

The starting point of Art Tatum’s style was that of Fats Waller’s Harlem stride. As Tatum once said, “Fats, that’s where I come out of and, man, that’s quite a place to come from.”

But to listen to Tatum is to be exposed to an artist with unrivaled speed, technical virtuosity, and perhaps most importantly, the exploration of more advanced, complex harmonies. He may have had the foundation of Waller’s style, but he certainly eclipsed him and anyone else who crossed his path.

To prove my point, I have included a recording of Art Tatum performing Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin. And, below that, I have included the example of Waller from our previous post. Get ready!

Fat’s Waller’s version:

My comparison is by no way meant to diminish Waller’s role in jazz history. On the contrary, sometimes I feel that Waller has a smoother sense of swing and perhaps that…less is more. I’ll let you decide.

As an aside, here are some famous anecdotes about a few very famous jazz musicians’ first exposure to Tatum:

When Oscar Peterson was a prodigious teenager, his father thought he was getting “too big for his britches.” His father sat Oscar down to listen to a recording of Tatum; the young Peterson wept and he refused to touch a piano for two months.

When Hank Jones first heard a recording of Tatum, he believed that at least three people were playing and clearly they had devised some sort of trick to make people think it was just one.

Les Paul, guitarist and pioneer of the solid-body guitar (that made Rock and Roll possible!), began his musical pursuits as a pianist. Regarding his first exposure to Tatum,  “after hearing Tatum for the first time, I quit piano completely and began playing guitar.” Lucky for the history of American music!