Art Tatum is the greatest technical virtuoso jazz has ever known on the piano, and arguably on any instrument. His playing presents such daunting problems to the analyst that it has never really been done credit. Born virtually blind, Tatum began his musical life as a violinist, but from the age of thirteen he began teaching himself piano. What followed can only be described as phenomenal. After working locally he arrived in New York in 1932 and soon established himself as the most wonderful solo pianist of all time. From 1943 until his death he forsook the role of piano soloist for most of the time to lead a highly successful instrumental trio, but it is as literally a one-man band that he is revered.
His style is so baroque as to encompass all styles; indeed, one of the deepest pleasures of listening to him lies in following the shift, or sometimes the leap, from one convention to the next, even though each of them is steeped in something unique to Tatum. The great paradox of his career has been that the very infallibility of his keyboard mastery which won him his reputation, allied to his apparently limitless harmonic imagination, proved too heady a brew for some coarser critical tastes, so that the legend lingered for a while that he was hardly a jazz musician at all. In fact he is indisputably the outstanding jazz pianist in history, a player whose convolutions of time never once in a long career confused him to the point where the tempo drifted, a creator whose questing mind enabled him to endow the most familiar themes with sudden sumptuous harmonic variations, an artist whose mastery of every jazz virtue and every jazz style made him very likely the most awe-inspiring jazz musician who ever lived.
Born in Toledo, Ohio: October 13, 1910.
Died in Los Angeles, California: November 4, 1956.
(Bio and photo credits: courtesy of Concord Music Group)