Friday, June 22, 2018

“Fine As [Phineas] Can Be”: Phineas Newborn, Jr.

“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to Jazz – the greatest pianist playing today.  In every respect, he’s tremendous. He is just beautiful. A wonderful Jazz musician,”
- Jazz pianist, Gene Harris

“Technically, he was sometimes claimed to run a close second to Art Tatum. In reality, Newborn was a more effective player at slower tempos and with fewer notes; but he could be dazzling when he chose,…. A sensitive and troubled soul, even the lightest of his performances point to hidden depths of emotion.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”
- Leonard Feather

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Legendary bassist Ray Brown, along with Les Koenig of Contemporary Records and Norman Granz at Pablo Records, were largely responsible for insuring that one of the greatest Jazz pianists of all-time – Phineas Newborn, Jr. [1931-1989] - didn’t slip into total obscurity following his initial acclaim.

Although Phineas was not a celebrity, he was highly regarded by knowledgeable Jazz fans, especially in the 1950's and 60's. ''In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum,'' said the late Leonard Feather, who for many years served as a Jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and The Los Angeles Times.

There was a time when Phineas looked set for stardom, but mental problems forced him to return to Memphis in the '60s, where he spent his remaining years struggling against the alcohol and drug problems that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state.

Whenever Phineas [who prefers to pronounce his name - “Fine as, ” with the accent of the first syllable, hence the title of Ray’s tribute tune] could pull himself together, Ray Brown brought him into the studio and recorded him in a trio setting along with Ray on bass and such drummers as Jimmy Smith or Elvin Jones on drums.

I got to know Phineas a little during the early 1960s when he played one of the week nights at The Manne Hole, drummer Shelly Manne’s venerable club in Hollywood. He usually worked with bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Milt Turner, but drummer Frank Butler often performed with him, as well.

One night he told me “his [my] Count Basie story.  It seems that Bill Basie was a friend of his Dad, a drummer who led a Rhythm and Blues band on Memphis’ famous Beale Street during the late 1930s.  Basie nicknamed Phineas, Jr. “Bright Eyes” because ‘as a boy his eyes would light-up as soon as he heard the music!’”

It was staggering to try and take-in all that Phineas had to offer. His technique was phenomenal and he tossed off so many ideas while improvising that if you stopped concentrating even for a second you were lost.  Listening to him in such an informal and personal setting was an exhilarating experience. Sadly, it was often not much of a shared experience as he hardly drew an audience.

The legendary Jazz pianist George Shearing once said that the “trick” to this music is getting it from the head and into the hands. Based on my first-hand observation of Phineas, I had the feeling that he had invented the “trick!”

With his technique, harmonic mastery, rhythmic displacement, and brilliant tone, Phineas Newborn, Jr. was nothing short of a Jazz piano phenomena.

But prodigious technique is frequently more of a curse than a blessing in Jazz circles and is often heavily criticized.

As the late Jazz writer, Leonard Feather, pointed out in his liner notes to Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano [Contemporary LP S-7600; OJCCD 175-2]:

“There has always been a tendency among music experts, and by no means only in jazz, to harbor misgivings about technical perfection. The automatic-reflex reaction is: yes, all the notes are there and all the fingers are flying, but what is he really saying? How about the emotional communication?

Art Tatum at the apex of his creative powers suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of a not inconsiderable pro­portion of the critics. Buddy De Franco, of course, has been a consistent victim. Phineas has been in similar trouble, and not because of any lack in his ability to transmit emotion but possibly, I suspect, because of the listeners' reluctance or in­ability to receive it. Nat Hentoff, in the notes for Maggie's Back in Town, pointed out that Phineas has "harnessed his prodigious technique during the past couple of years into more emotionally meaningful directions!" True, though conservative; I would lengthen the harness to four or five years. During that time, too, the technique has taken on even more astonish­ing means to accomplish even more incredible ends — witness one ploy that is uniquely remarkable: the ad lib use of galvanic lines played by both hands two octaves apart. Today, bearing in mind that Bernard Peiffer is French and Oscar Peterson Canadian, it would not be extravagant to claim that Phineas has no equal among American jazz pianists, from any standpoint, technical or esthetic. He is a moving, swinging, pianistically perfect gas.”

George Wein, the impresario who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, wrote these thoughts about Phineas and his music in 1956 as the liner notes to Phineas’ first album for Atlantic Records Here is Phineas [#1235; reissued on CD as Koch 8505].

For years now I've listened to people scream at me about unknown pianists they have discovered. "He’s greater than Bud . "He cuts Oscar . "He leaves Tatum standing still". As many times as I have heard these cries, that is how often I have been disappointed. In­variably, these unknowns are, at their best, simply minor talents, and, at their worst, pale copies of great pianists.

About a year ago I began to hear stories about a fan­tastic pianist in Memphis, Tenn. with the almost quaint sounding name of Phineas Newborn. Jr. Men I re­spected, such as John Hammond, Willard Alexander and, of course. Count Basie, among many others, insisted that I must hear this guy. Due to my previous sad experiences, I could not get excited. However, when I got a chance to really hear Phineas in Storyville [a nightclub in Boston which Wein owned], for the first time I was not disappointed. The unknown had lived up to his press notices.

Phineas Newborn, Jr. was born December 14. 1932 in Memphis. Tenn. I believe this makes him all of 23 years old at the recording of this album. In all my years of listening to music I have never encountered a music­ian of such tender years who had such a fantastic com­mand of his instrument. Perhaps my reaction to Phineas can be traced to my personal concern with the piano. If this was my only reason for liking him, then I say it would be sufficient, for to my knowledge the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.

Phineas is a two handed pianist, as opposed to the tendency of modern pianists to dwell on the single finger, right hand style. The only time he can be ac­cused of being a one-handed pianist is when he puts his right hand in his pocket and plays two choruses of a ballad, such as Embraceable You. exclusively with his left hand. Unfortunately, he does not do this in this album, but when you see him in person, ask him to play a left-handed solo for you. His left hand is de­veloped to such an extent that he can and does execute any passage or chord with his left hand that he would do with his right. When you realize that he has the fattest right hand of anyone since Tatum (he might even exceed Tatum for sheer speed) then you get an
idea of just what happens.

However, technique is only one facet of music. What of Phineas' basic musical style? From whence does he come and where is he going?

First, let me warn the reader of what not to do upon first hearing Phineas. Do not be so overpowered by his technique that you neglect to listen to the music he plays. Through all his technical intricacies I hear a wonderful musical mind, a mind that without copying has absorbed the music of the jazz masters. I get a funny feeling when I hear Phineas. I concentrate on his fan­tastically-"Bird'-influenced ideas and then I can't help but get the feeling that at any moment he is going to swing right into a Waller-James P. Johnson stride piano effect. He never quite does and I sometimes wish he would.

Phineas says his first jazz idols were Bird, Dizzy and Bud Powell. Later on, after he had begun to develop his own style, he heard Tatum. There is no doubt of the influence that these men left on Phineas. There is also evidence that he has listened to Erroll Garner.

However, there is never a question that Phineas has a unique approach to music. (In this album I believe Daahoud comes the closest to defining the Phineas Newborn style).

The only real criticism I have of his playing can be traced to his immaturity, both musically and in years. He tends to want to play everything in the same tempo. To be more explicit, he feels so relaxed at up-tempos that even in ballads he resorts to double-timing in order to utilize his technique. Also, he has a few figures of which he is fond. These appear a little too often in his playing. As soon as Phineas gets over the idea that he must create an impression the first time around the nightclub circuit, I am sure these minor faults will disappear.

Biographically, Phineas' history is not startling. The son of Phineas Newborn, Sr., a fine drummer and band leader in Memphis, he and his brother, Calvin, one year his junior, had an early musical beginning (Calvin plays guitar in the Phineas Newborn Quartet and is heard on some of the sides in this album). Phineas started the study of piano at the age of six with the pianist in his fathers band. He continued right through high (trumpet, tuba, baritone horn, French horn). Later on, he learned the vibes, and in college and the Arm/ he acquired the baritone, tenor and alto saxophones. Those who have heard him say he is nearly as fantastic on these various instruments as he is on the piano. For­tunately, Phineas has concentrated on piano and does not try to impress us with his versatility.

His formal education, in addition to graduating from the Memphis School System, consists of two years as a music major at Tenn. A and I. Later on he spent a year at Lemoyne College in Memphis, before he was drafted into the Army in August 1953. He was discharged in June 1955, and played with his father's band until last month when he made the break after the Willard Alex­ander agency convinced him he should come North and let the world hear his talent. I am sure that Count Basic, who is Phineas' greatest booster, had much influence on his decision.

As in any record, the music in this album speaks for itself. My personal favorites are the Clifford Brown Daahoud, and a very Tatumesque Newport Blues. I also like his treatment of the Ellington standard I’m Beginning to See the Light. He is accompanied very ably by two jazz greats, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, in addition to his brother Calvin on guitar.                                             


Leonard Feather, who, as noted, became an early and frequent champion of Phineas’ music, offered these cogent observations about him and comparisons with other Jazz pianists in the liner notes to Phineas’ 1969 Contemporary album, Please Send Me Someone to Love [S-7622; OJCCD 947-2:

“For a more than a half century, there was a series of evolutions in keyboard jazz, which originated in ragtime, then was marked by the successive advent of stride, with its volleying left hand; horn-style piano, characterized mainly by a fusillade of octaves or long runs of single notes in the right hand; bebop piano, with its central concern for harmonic experiments and relatively limited left-hand punctua­tions; and a 1950s trend marked by a concern for rich, full chords and a more expansive left-hand concept.

The only pianist who succeeded in absorbing many character­istics of each of these phases, in fact the first authentic and com­plete virtuoso of jazz piano, was Art Tatum. His death in 1956 seemed to close the book; there was no room for development, no area to examine that he had not already explored.

Time has shown that there were indeed other directions. The atonal improvisations of Cecil Taylor were acclaimed by many observers as taking jazz forward into a freer, more abstract music. Bill Evans launched what I once characterized, in an essay on jazz piano for Show magazine (July 1963), as the Serenity School, cre­ating new harmonic avenues, new voicings, swinging without hammering, asserting tersely yet subtly, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. McCoy Tyner, armed with exceptional technical facili­ty, moved along still another route with extensive use of modes as a departure from the traditional chordal basis.

All these changes during the late 1950s and throughout the '60s did nothing to demolish the theory that Art Tatum represent­ed the ultimate. Coincidentally, it was during the year of Tatum's death that Phineas Newborn, Jr. first came to New York and emerged from Memphis obscurity (he was born Dec. 14,1931 in Whiteville, Tenn.) to establish himself as the new pianistic pianist, in the Tatum tradition.

In the abovementioned Show article, I wrote: "Most astonish­ing of the dexterous modernists is Phineas Newborn, Jr. As small, timid, and frail as Peterson is big and burly, Newborn belies his meek manner with a relentlessly aggressive style. His technique can handle any mechanical problem and he has, moreover, a quick, sensitive response to the interaction of melody and harmo­ny." Commenting that most critics tended to be skeptical of tech­nical perfection, I wrote of Newborn's A World of Piano! album (Contemporary S-7600) that it was "the most stunning piano set since Tatum's salad days in the 1930s."

A year later, in 1964, I went out on a rare limb to declare unequivocally, in Down Beat, "Newborn is the greatest living jazz pianist."

Five years later, while perfectly content to let that categorical statement remain on the record, I reflected on what esthetic, what ratiocination led me to this conclusion. Under the spell of a set by Peterson in top form I might have made a similar remark. In either case, my reaction would have been primarily emotional, but the emotions in evaluating a work of art are often guided, per­haps subliminally, by a consciousness of the craftsmanship required for its creation.

Despite the chattering of the anti-intellectuals, I cannot see how any possible advantage can be found in technical limitation. Clearly technique can be abused, or used without imagination; I can think of a dozen popular pianists, some of them well-known via network television, who have made this point painfully clear. But a man like Newborn, who reached his present command of the instrument by practicing perhaps six or seven hours a day, automatically has an advantage over the simplistic artist, who resorts to simple figures and clich├ęs only because that is as far as his fingers and mind will take him.

Phineas demonstrates all the virtues and none of the handi­caps (if there are any) inherent in knowing how to use the piano. Taking him on his own terms, he's an involved, committed artist, for whom the instrument is virtually an extension of the man. This would not be possible if he were in any way hamstrung by not being able to execute whatever idea may cross his mind.

I won't deny that when he uses a personal device, such as the parallel lines in unison an octave apart, I am impressed by the ease with which he dashes off such passages; but even more meaningful to me is the originality and artistry of the melodic structure he has been able to build.

When Phineas plays the blues, as he does on at least three tracks in this album, it is not down-home, backwoods blues, but it's just as deep a shade of blue, and comes just as straight from the heart, as if he were a primitive trying to make something meaningful out of three chord changes and a couple of riffs. I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

If you spend some time listening to the music of Phineas Newborn, Jr., I think that it would be safe to say that you, too will “… hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

After all, if Leonard Feather is indeed correct, there have only been two other Jazz pianists comparable to Phineas in the history of Jazz: - Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

Not bad company, eh?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Exploring The Scene with The Poll Winners - Barney, Ray and Shelly

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This post features another recording from our earliest Jazz experiences which the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to commend to you as a reminder, if you’ve heard it before, or as an invitation to move your ears in a different direction, if you’ve not heard it previously.

Actually, this post highlights what is the fourth in a series of albums on Contemporary Records by The Poll Winners and it was issued under the title The Poll Winners Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Ray Brown: Exploring the Scene [s-7581; OJCCD 969-2].

Since guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne regularly scored high in jazz fans' polls of the day, Contemporary's decision to record them as a trio was commercially impeccable. But they were also a committed musical group too as indicated by the quality of their performances on this disc and their three previous LPs: [1] The Poll Winners [1957, OJCCD 156], The Poll Winners Ride Again [1958 OJCCD-607] and Poll Winners Three [OJC 692].

[There is also a reunion recording from 1975 entitled The Poll Winners/ Straight Ahead OJCCD-409].

As the lead voice in the trio, guitarist Barney Kessel best fits this description from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:”The blues he heard as a boy in Oklahoma, the swing he learned on his first band job and the modern sounds of the West Coast school': Nesuhi Ertegun summary of Kessel, written in 1954, still holds as good as any description.  Kessel has often been undervalued as a soloist down the years: the smoothness and accuracy of his playing tend to disguise the underlying weight of the blues which informs his improvising and his albums from the 1950s endure with surprising consistency.”

Along with Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, Ray Brown was probably the most frequently recorded bassist in modern Jazz. His big sound, uncluttered rhythm and tasteful melodic sense developed into bass lines that were among the best in the business.

Shelly Manne’s cool melodicism, restrained dynamism, and sophisticated playing made him one of the finest musicians in modern Jazz - whatever the instrument. Jack Brand in his bio on Shelly called him “the most melodic Jazz drummer who ever lived."

Although not as common as piano-bass-drums Jazz trios, this is one of the best of the guitar-bass-drums version of the trio format even though it existed only for recording purposes.

The always dependable Leonard Feather prepared the liner notes to the original LP and they contain a wealth of background information about the musicians and the music on this album.

“DESPITE THE ELEPHANT ON THE COVER, and in an election year to boot [1960], the polls relevant to the participants in this album are those conducted annually by three leading U.S. magazines with jazz oriented readers: Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy. Each year for the past four years Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Shelly Marine won first place in all three polls as the most popular jazz guitarist, bassist, and drummer. And each year Contemporary has acknowledged the poll results with a new Poll Winners album.

The "scene" explored by Messrs. Kessel, Brown, and Manne in this fourth set of improvisations is, of course, the jazz scene - particularly the scene of the past few years during which their poll winning activities took place. Jazzmen are among the most non-conforming of all non-conformists, and a run-down of the nine selections in this album illustrates the point very well. Their composers are among today's best-known jazz players. Yet what a group of strongly individual personalities they are! They range from ebulliently swinging Erroll Gamer to brilliant, moody Miles Davis, from lyrical Brubeck to the far-out cry of Ornette Coleman, from the subtle sophistication of John Lewis to the blues-rooted Horace Silver, and the gospel-rooted soul jazz of Bobby Timmons. Together, the nine pieces represent a cross-section of today's many-faceted and fascinating jazz world.

CERTAINLY NOT LEAST among the strongly individual talents in that world are Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. Barney has been "on the scene" since the mid-1940s when he played with Artie Shaw, appeared in the movie short Jammin' the Blues, and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, October 17,1923, was self-taught, and received early encouragement from Charlie Christian. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1942, he knew no one, and had not one cent in his pockets, yet within a few years he was known internationally. He won the Esquire Silver Award in 1947, first of many accolades to come his way. He has played and recorded with most of the top jazz artists (Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, etc.) and since 1953, as an exclusive Contemporary artist, has made a number of his own albums. Barney has also been extremely active in motion picture, radio, and TV studio recording. In 1960 he formed his own quartet, and is currently appearing in the nation's leading jazz clubs.

Ray Brown was bom in Pittsburgh, October 13,1926. While not yet twenty he played with Dizzy Gillespie. Much of his playing since 1951 has been with Oscar Peterson's trio -which for a time in '52 - '53 included Barney Kessel. Ray Is generally conceded to be the bassist of the past decade. He received his first award, Esquire's New Star, in 1947 and has won the Down Beat poll every year since 1953. the Metronome poll every years since 1955, and the Playboy poll each year since it began in 1957.

In addition to his playing on Contemporary's three previous albums, Ray has recorded several of his own albums and a great many with Peterson for Verve Records.  He is on the faculty of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, Canada, and lives in nearby Downsview when not on tour.

During the past year, Shelly Manne has been one of the busiest of all jazzmen: leader of his own group, composer of the score for the movie, The Proper Time, impresario of his own jazz club, the Manne Hole in Hollywood, and constantly in demand for studio recording work for motion pictures, TV, and records. Born in New York City, June 11,1920, Shelly's first playing was done there on 52nd Street in the early 1940s. In the twenty years since, he's played with almost every major jazz figure - in small groups and big bands. He won the first of his eleven Down Beat plaques in 1947, the year in which Barney and Ray won their first national awards. Since 1952 he has lived in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles; since 1953 has been an exclusive Contemporary recording artist.

Little Susie is a blues by pianist Ray Bryant, named for his daughter. It was written in 1957, but became popular in 1960 as a single, and is the title song of Bryant's recent trio album (Columbia CL 1449/stereo CS 8244).
The Duke, Dave Brubeck's best-known composition, was written in 1955 as a tribute to Duke Ellington. It was recorded several times by Brubeck's quartet for Columbia. The first version is on Jazz: Red Hot and Cool (CL 699).

So What was conceived by Miles Davis as a setting for an improvised recording by his sextet. It is described by pianist Bill Evans as "a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, 8 of another, 8 more of the first." It is on Miles' Kind of Blue (Columbia CL 1355/stereo CS 8163). For the Poll Winners' version, Shelly used two unusual percussion instruments. The lujon is a teakwood box enclosing six tubes of different lengths. On top of each tube is an aluminum plate, which is struck by a mallet producing a marimba-like sound. The lujon is the brainchild of Bill Loughborough of San Francisco, also the inventor of the boo-bam. The second instrument Shelly plays is a mbira, a small, African thumb-piano which is shaken to produce rhythmic sounds; at the same time the thumbs can produce tones by activating light metal strips. The pitch of neither instrument can be controlled; Shelly's "melodic lines" are not intended to be accurate melodically or harmonically. They serve to heighten the primitive intensity of this hypnotic work.

Misty was written by Erroll Garner in the early 1950s, and has been recorded by him several times. It’s a lovely ballad which has achieved a popularity both in and out of jazz. An interesting treatment with piano and orchestra is heard in Garner's Other Voices (Columbia CL 1014).

Doodlin' is by Horace Silver, the pianist-composer. It’s a blues, dates from 1956, and was recorded by Silver for Blue Note on Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (BLP 1518).

The Golden Striker is by John Lewis, pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It comes from Lewis' 1957 original film score for No Sun in Venice. The Golden Striker was inspired by the life-size figures which revolve and strike the hours atop a building near St. Mark's in Venice. (Atlantic 1334/stereo 3D 1334.)

Li’l Darlin' was written in 1957 by ace arranger and trumpet-leader Neal Hefti for Count Basie, and is one of Hefti's own favorites. It is usually associated with Basie who recorded it for Roulette (52003/stereo SR 52003.)

The Blessing is by Omette Coleman, one of his first compositions, recorded by him for Contemporary (M3551/stereo S7551). It was written in 1952 in a park at Fort Worth, Teas at two in the morning, but not recorded until 1958.

This Here by pianist Bobby Timmons, was recorded in 1959 and made popular by Cannonball Adderley's Quintet, of which Timmons was a member. It’s a jazz waltz, which Cannonball describes in his delightfully informal introduction to his recording In San Francisco (Riverside 12-311/stereo 1157) as having "all sorts of properties. Ifs simultaneously a shout and a chant, depending upon whether you know anything about roots of church music and all that kind of stuff. I don't mean, un, Bach chorales and so - that's different, you know what I mean. This is soul, you know what I mean. You know what I mean? (laughter) All right.. It’s really called This Here, however for reasons of soul and description we have corrupted it to become 'dishyere."'

The style and outlook of the nine composers represented are extremely varied, yet the album has its own consistency and unity because Barney, Ray and Shelly have transformed the material at hand, playing it in their own highly personal way, and bringing to it new meanings, new emotional content.

In listening to the three hours of their recorded music now available, one realizes The Poll Winners are not just three jazz stars who get together to record because they won the popularity polls. They have a separate identity as a group. Their ensemble sound is more than the result of the unusual instrumentation, and more than the sum of their strongly individual talents.
Nat Hentoff has described what they do as a "three-way conversation."
Shelly explains: "You know the minute you do something, Barney and Ray are going to pick it up and make something of it. I think this interplay - back and forth - is the most wonderful way to play, it's the kind of playing I really enjoy the most."

- Leonard Feather


Cover photo of Manne, Brown, and Kessel by William Claxton. design by Guidi/Tri-Arts. Elephant from the collection of Don Badertscher Antiques. Album front and liner © 1960 Contemporary Records. Inc. Printed in U.S.A.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Art Tatum - "Too Marvelous for Words" - James Lester

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“By all the criteria of the nineteenth-century piano tradition, Art Tatum made himself into a piano virtuoso worthy to be compared to the best who have ever played. This achievement certainly did not come from years of hard labor under European-trained teachers, which is the usual route for concert pianists. It seems instead to have come from a very fine match between the opportunities the piano offers, on the one hand, and Tatum's innate sensitivities and gifts of coordination, on the other. Once he had been exposed to it and his mind had gotten its teeth into it, he was launched into a search for higher and higher levels of achievement, in the same way the great European artists had been.

He responded sensitively to the nature of the piano, as they had, and he arrived, probably independently, at many of the same ways of dealing with it as they had. His basic gifts, in other words, were world-class, and his gifts drove him to be the pianist he was. Tatum wove the virtuoso tradition and the jazz idiom together in his playing, from the early days of his development, and brought a previously unimagined level of playing into jazz.”
- James Lester, Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum

"The true genius is not helpfully communicative. … In reality, he lacks the key to verbal communication of his inner motivations, except within his art.   .   .   .  He does not seek self-knowledge, gives no account of himself, neglects and consumes himself.   .   .   .   He burns up, but does not defy the burning: rather, he ignores it. He does not see himself in relation to the world. He doesn't see himself at all."
- HILDESHEIMER, Mozart (on the difference between the true genius and the would-be genius)

“And so will someone when I am dead and gone write my life? (As if any man really knew aught of my life, Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life….)"                               

“This book is dedicated to the hundreds of jazz musicians whose lives and contributions also deserve books but will probably never get them.”
- James Lester, Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum

Much of what Jazz musicians do goes up into the air, or, in today’s parlance, the ether. To say that their art is ephemeral would be an understatement in the extreme. The music is here one moment and gone the next. It seems sometimes that this is also the case with the Jazz musicians, too: here today gone tomorrow.

Mercifully, there are some book-length treatments of their music and careers; more and more it seems as Jazz moves more closely into the academic world. There are articles and interviews in the major music magazine that have focused on Jazz over the years, both at home and abroad:  Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, DownBeat, Metronome, Esquire, Playboy, JazzTimes, and a few others, come to mind.

I suppose, many Jazz musicians would prefer it this way: let the music speak for itself; it’s not about me.

But it’s hard not to wonder how they came to develop their marvelous talents and skills; to know more about the musician behind the music.

Phineas Newborn, Jr., who the eminent Jazz author Leonard Feather called one of the three greatest Jazz pianists of all time along with Art Tatum and Bud Powell, died a virtual unknown and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Memphis, Tennessee.  And, there is as yet, to my knowledge, no full length biography of Phineas [pronounced “Fine As”] and one wonders if there ever will be.

One of the main reasons that I started this blog was to do my part to provide some in-depth profiles to help remedy what James Lester underscores in his dedicatory statement to his biography of Art Tatum: “This book is dedicated to the hundreds of jazz musicians whose lives and contributions also deserve books but will probably never get them.”

Thank goodness for the tenacity [and temerity?] of James Lester for when he went looking for a biography of Art Tatum, who many consider to me the greatest Jazz pianist of all time, he couldn’t find one.

So, he decided to write one himself.

He explains how it all came to be in the following Introduction to Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum.

[Should you be in the mood to enhance your reading experience of this piece, rack up the 8 volumes of Art Tatum’s Solo Masterpieces [Pablo], set the controls on your CD changer for random play, pour yourself a glass of your favorite red plonk and sit back to enjoy what at some point in the process should be an out-of-body experience as all of your senses engage in the World of Art Tatum. There’s never been a “world” quite like it and I doubt that there ever will be one again.]


“... a creature who, for all his fame. still stands in need of a tittle understanding." - LYTTON STRACHEY (referring to Shelley)

ART TATUM'S NAME is now a secure part of American popular culture, and almost everyone understands that to put someone on Tatum's level is to bestow the highest praise. A play reviewer can write: "Stoppard handles words the way that Art Tatum used to handle a keyboard," and the compliment is widely understood, even by people who never heard Art play the piano. More than thirty-five years after his death, his name is still a metaphor for excellence, and not just in America but the world over. I recently met a young jazz pianist and her mother, both from Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union, and they were offended that I thought they might not know who Art Tatum was.

But who was Art Tatum?

In 1988 I set out to find a good biography of Tatum. I wanted to learn something about where such a giant had come from, who his own idols had been, what experiences had made him the figure I knew, what sort of a person he was, what sort of life he had when he wasn't playing. It astonished me to discover that no biography of Tatum has yet been published. No fellow pianist, no Jazz writer, no family member, in the thirty-seven years since his death, has yet undertaken a written record of his life. No wonder that if he exists at all for lovers of jazz he exists as a distant, an almost abstract figure, a black eminence waving his hands over the keyboard and thundering through the jazz world.
Art Tatum has not been forgotten, certainly not by the experts. Billv Taylor's 1983 book, Jazz Piano, has more entries in the index for Art Tatum than for any other name, and Gunther Schuller, in his 1989 hook, The Swing Era, Volume 2, gives more pages to Tatum than to any other soloist. The Smithsonian collection of recordings Jazz Piano, released in 1989, has more tracks of TatuirTs playing than of any other pianist. There are currently several concert pianists (for example, Steven Mayer) who pay their respects to Tatum by frequently playing transcriptions of his recordings in their programs, along with the standard classical piano repertoire. I recently attended a performance by Stanley Cowell, a significant post-Tatum jazz pianist, who devoted his whole concert to playing Art Tatum arrangements. Unfortunately there were far more of us in the audience over fifty than under forty; Cowell was preaching to the converted. (Cowell has gone on, incidentally, to compose a piano concerto dedicated to the memory of Art.)

But nothing has come along to tell us who he was. My aim has been to write the book I was unable to find in 1988, to do my best to answer the question of where he came from, and to put into a coherent narrative all the fragments of information about his life that now exist only in isolated sources and in personal memories.

My intent has not been to provide a reference work, documenting his career, the chronology of his public appearances, the dates and places of his recordings. I wanted to get the musician into focus as a person.

I regret that I didn't start sooner. There is some excellent material about Tatum, the musician, already in print. There is an admirable discography (Laubich and Spencer) and three technical analyses of his performance style (Howard, Howlett, and Schuller). Even the dedicated searcher, however, will turn up little about the people and events in Tatum's life. Several brief biographical sketches, most of which cover the same ground, can be found in chapter or magazine article form, and there are short paragraphs buried in other narratives. But each of these comprises only a few fragments of his story, and when I had read through them all I longed to find out how they
really fit together.

Tatum, I soon realized, was more a worthy than a promising subject for a biography - I was particularly interested in personal interviews with people who had known him or worked with him, of course, but 1988 was a very late date on which to start collecting living memories about Art Tatum. His contemporaries, those who were still with us, were in the general vicinity of eighty years old and were showing a marked tendency to shuffle off this mortal coil, all too often before I could reach them. One of his two living relatives and his widow, for reasons which I could never persuade them to reveal to me, were uncooperative.

Getting acquainted with people who knew Art personally, from early schoolmates to those who spent his last days with him, has been far and away the most enjoyable part of writing this book. Of course, there is often no hard evidence against which to evaluate personal accounts of incidents, and one either finds the account plausible or one does not. As an audience for many stories, I've found myself involved in a lot of what may be sifting fiction from fiction. If they were good stories, and not outrageously improbable, I have included them.

It is especially frustrating that there is no almost no record of the man's own report of himself, in his own words. No one I've talked to ever received a letter from Tatum, and his very limited vision makes it plausible that there may be no letters (although I can't be sure that his relatives don't possess some). Many potential interviewers saw him as a bit aloof and unapproachable  —and never approached him. Barry Ulanov knew and interviewed a large proportion of top Jazz figures in Tatum's era, but told me that he "gave up as fruitless any attempt to get a long narrative from him," as he would have liked to. The 1930s and '40s abounded with jazz greats who were more than willing to talk, and the reluctant or retiring ones got passed over. The few published interviews with Tatum have a curious quality; in them, he sounds genial and cooperative but gives almost no information in reply to the interviewer's questions. Without some expression of his own attitudes it is almost impossible to imagine his inner world, the place from which he emerged from time to time to astound us.

Musically, we don't need to know about that, but having it would let us feel much closer to the man. When I spoke about Art with Ellis Marsalis, a jazz pianist and teacher, and father of (among others) Wynton and Branford Marsalis, he remarked that no one could write about Tatum properly who hadn't "gigged," or worked as a jazz musician himself. I want to say here, at the beginning, something about my credentials for writing a biography of a jazz pianist.

The last time I wrote about jazz was in 1941. I was in the eighth grade and wrote a prize-winning essay on the "comeback" of Louis Armstrong. (Little did I realize that the comeback of which I wrote was to be onlv the first of several—it was in fact impossible to keep Louis down.) For my prize I chose a biography of W. C. Handy, composer of, among other things, the "St. Louis Blues" (St. Louis is my home town). I tell you this to make it clear that I am not a Jazz academic, not a jazz critic, not even an occasional contributor of articles on jazz in any form. My connection with jazz has been as an avid listener and as a moonlighting performer, on both piano and trombone.

Music in our household was determined by my mother's taste which ran to Wayne King and Guy Lombardo, the simplest and most pre-digested music of its time. I was a child during the Depression, and the radio in our house was generally tuned to those "sweet bands" that seemed to console America in that often sad era. Somehow I found my way to the right stuff by the time I was on the brink of being a teenager. I was buying (and I now confess to the world occasionally stealing) 78 rpm recordings of the Jazz bands of Will Hudson, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and other hot bands of the late 1930s, and listening secretly after bedtime to radio station WIL for the best jazz program on the air in St. Louis. Having started piano lessons at around age eight or nine, at my own instigation, I had found the world of "Pine Top" Smith, Meade Lux Lewis, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and of course Tatum, by the time I was thirteen (not, I admit, without pausing briefly to pay attention to such society pianists as Eddy Duchin and Carmen Cavallero — blame it on my youth).

I have been playing semi-professionally since 1941. I think my first paid appearance as a performer was at a block party in the Italian section of St. Louis. I was on piano and the band was on a six-foot high platform in the middle of the street. We played with such vigor that my ringers bled under the nails (not for the last time). I learned boogie-woogie and it made me very popular at parties, but as time went on it was Teddy Wilson whom I tried more and more to sound like. I loved Wilson's crisp and polished style, the clarity and sparkle of his melodic lines, the variety and interest of his left hand, the tenths constantly in motion, and those crystalline runs that sounded so spontaneous and yet inevitable at the same time. His sophistication and rich musicality, and maybe also his introverted character, appealed to my own personality much more than did "getting into the gorilla bag" (the phrase is Oscar Peterson's) with boogie-woogie. Finally, there was the fact that Wilson sounded accessible to me. I could hear what he was doing, and with enough work it seemed it might just be within reach. Tatum, of course, never was within reach, and I turned to him purely for musical experiences and not for a model. Tatum was there to define the limits of the possible, as he still is.

Since then I have held union cards in six major cities, as a pianist and a trombonist. In an Army Special Services unit in 1946 I played lead trombone in the big band, piano in a small group featuring the tenor player Warne Marsh, and wrote the book of arrangements for the band. I did several arrangements for the George Hudson band in St. Louis, the pride of the black community there, and was introduced by Hudson as a potential arranger to Lionel Hampton. In more recent years I've played hundreds of dances and private parties, in big bands and in smaller groups. My unknowing mentor Teddy Wilson once heard me play and commented (so I'm told), "He really seems to know what he's doing"—faint praise, perhaps, but from such a source it meant worlds to me. (There is a line in a novel that describes how I sometimes feel about my own playing, in which one of the characters says about another: "He seems to know what he's doing even if he can't do it.")

My vocation has been elsewhere, as a psychologist, but I have gigged. Those are my "credentials" and combined with my interest in Tatum they have given me the brashness to pursue the writing of this book. At least it seems brash to me; as an editor of DownBeat once remarked to a feature writer, "Tatum is a really big subject."

ART TATUM, COMING from out of nowhere (this is not a slight on Toledo, Ohio, but a comment on the disparity between his background and his accomplishment), set a precedent and a standard by which generations of Jazz pianists could not escape judging themselves — even though by such a standard failure was almost guaranteed. Jimmy Knepper, the New York-based jazz trombonist, put this idea simply: "Tatum, Parker, and a few others got Jazz out of the simple stage and now it's imperative to be a virtuoso."

Tatum was indeed a virtuoso, on several levels, and there is absolutely no dispute about his technical brilliance. It is the element or his playing that is easiest to assess, since his playing practically demands to be measured against the standards of the whole Western tradition of the concert piano, and to my mind at least Tatum is best understood in the light of that tradition. Consider some educated descriptions of his playing:

“. . . almost every one of Tatum's performances is from a pianistic-technical point of view a marvel of perfection ... his playing must be heard to be believed, and in its technical perfection it is something beyond verbal description, at least this author's verbal capacities. The note-perfect clarity of Tatum's runs, the hardly believable leaps to the outer registers of the piano (he is not known ever to have missed one), his deep-in-the-keys full piano sonority, the tone and touch control in pyrotechnical passages clearly beyond the abilities of the vast majority of pianists to merely render the notes in some nominal way — these are miracles of performance which must be appreciated aurally." [Schuller, Swing Era, 482)

“Tatum's style was notable for its touch, its speed and accuracy, and its harmonic and rhythmic imagination. No pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one — no matter how fast the tempo — was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page. Vast lower-register chords were unblurred, and his highest notes were polished silver. . . . His speed and precision were almost shocking. Flawless sixteenth-note runs poured up and down the keyboard, each note perfectly accented, and the chords and figures in the left hand sometimes sounded two-handed. Such virtuosity can he an end in itself, and Tatum was delighted to let it be in his up-tempo flag-wavers, when he spectacularly became a high-wire artist, a scaler of Everests. Tatum's bedrock sense of rhythm enabled him to play out-of-tempo interludes or whole choruses that doubled the impact of the implied beat, and his harmonic sense — his strange, multiplied chords, still largely unmatched by his followers, his laving on of two and three and four melodic levels at once — was orchestral and even symphonic. [Whitney Balliett, Ecstasy, 113]

Listening to a really good pianist one might say, "I could never do that." But confronted with Tatum most musicians have said to themselves, "Nobody can do that!" "To have heard him play," one pianist wrote, "was as awe-inspiring as to have seen the Grand Canyon or Halley's comet. . . ." It seems to me, however, that Teddy Wilson, a contemporary, close friend, and first-class player himself, put the paean to Tatum in its clearest form:

“Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest Jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play . . . everyone there will sound like an amateur. Pianists with regular styles will sound like beginners. Art Tatum played with such superiority that he was above style. It is almost like a golfer who can hit a hole in one every time he picks up the iron. It was a special kind of ability he had. If I had to choose an all-'round instrumentalist, in a classical vein, or in a more modem vein, I'd choose Art Tatum.”

The famous Tatum runs are certainly what first jump out at you; they are, someone said, like the arc left against the night sky by a Fourth of July sparkler. They can dominate your attention, and they have given generations of pianists a sense of inferiority. But it has to be said, and then underlined, that to stop there is to miss most of what is significant about Tatum. As one record reviewer put it: "Art Tatum's performances demand much of the listener. He is not easy and cannot be fully discovered with one or two surface listenings. Of course, you get the gloss, the flash, his elegant sound. But there is so much more." What can be missed by a casual listener is the tremendous structural complexity in what he did, and the very advanced (for Jazz) harmonies that he used. (Chapter 7 includes a discussion of Tatum's performance style.)

Tatum's virtuosity is not for everybody, however. His dazzling command of the keyboard has been a wedge that has divided opinion about him. There has been a minority of critics who find in him an unnecessary ornateness or even floridity, a shallowness, "an excess of hyperbole." One of the most polite expressions of this point of view was that "his tendency to display his accomplishments sometimes gets in the way of a performance." The cultivation of virtuoso skill has always exposed players to the same criticism: NO SOUL. Performers back to Franz Liszt and beyond have suffered this criticism: decoration, not substance; effect, not content. In the case of Jazz musicians the complaint is that showy displays of musical athleticism take the place of musical thought and usurp the place of more significant improvisation. Jazz criticism is a murky, subjective thing, but one important criterion has always been originality; whenever skill seems to have replaced imagination, or prepared devices take the place of creativity, a reputation suffers. Because of his virtuosity, it has never been easy to judge Tatum by this particular criterion.

It is clear, though, that what Tatum did, as Knepper suggested, was considerably more than add one more to the variety of Jazz piano styles. His harmonic and rhythmic innovations affected the whole context for jazz playing, and not just for pianists. In the scope of his influence he is comparable to Louis Armstrong before him, and to Charlie Parker who came after. He is, however, impossible to categorize as to style — he seemed to develop along a track of his own even though he was thoroughly aware of the action on all the adjacent tracks. And he is difficult to assess clearly because it's hard to know what standards to apply. Whitney Balliett with his reliable deftness of language summed him up in 1968, and captured a central truth about Tatum's career : "No one ever knew exactly what he was or what to do with him. He was said to be the greatest Jazz pianist who ever lived and he was said to be not a Jazz pianist at all. He was admired by classical pianists ... by Jazz musicians, and by dazzled, tin-eared laymen. People poked fun at his ornate style . . . and then wept at his next brilliance . . . nobody has decided yet what kind of a pianist he was" [Balliett, Ecstasy, III). The clearest light can be thrown on Tatum, I think, if we see him as a displaced person, a kind of outsider, keeping alive an old tradition (piano virtuosity) in an alien country (Jazz).

In the descriptions of many listeners, hearing Art Tatum for the first time was somewhat like living through an earthquake — it astonished, it alarmed, it could shake one's foundations. Inflated as that may sound in the 1990s, when performance expectations are vastly different from what they were in Tatum's era, it was overwhelmingly true in the 1930s and 40s. Musicians traveling from city to city were already telling each other in the late 1920s about the unbelievable piano playing they had heard in Toledo, and he was well on his way to becoming a living legend before he made his first solo recordings in 1933. The impact on his listeners was made all the greater by the knowledge that Art Tatum was nearly blind.

I liken Tatum to an earthquake advisedly. Earthquakes are not only impressive but they can be destructive. I never heard anyone say that Tatum inspired him or her to play the piano. A really accomplished musician might find encouragement. Mel Powell, who had intensive classical training as a child and later won rave reviews as a teen-age pianist and arranger with Benny Goodman, told me his first experience with Tatum's playing was positive: "What it probably did was to encourage me to see that that kind of sheer instrumental virtuosity that I'd been cultivating in the other world of music not only had a place [in Jazz] but was the summit."  More than a few-musicians, however, were anything but encouraged by him; Rex Stewart, who is best known for having become a star in Duke Ellington's trumpet section, reports that after his first encounter with Art Tatum he somehow felt he was inadequate at filling Louis Armstrong's shoes (with the Fletcher Henderson band of 1928), and he "toyed with the idea of giving up the horn and going back to school" (Stewart). Bobby Short, who is best known as an entertainer rather than a Jazz pianist but who is none the less talented for that, was once "stopped in his tracks" by Tatum:

“. . . one day Len [Short's manager] took me into Lyon and Healey's music store to listen to a Tatum record. His technique was like Horowitz's. He was a wizard, I listened to the recording and I was shocked to hell! When it was finished, the salesman said, "Do you play the piano, son?" Yes, I did. "Would you play for us?" I crossed over to the piano and sat down, and because I was so impressionable and depended on my ear for so much, found that I couldn't play the piano at all. Not a note. Tatum had undone me to that extent. I could not get my ringers to react to my mind, because mv mind was suddenly overflowing. I'd been stopped in my tracks.”  [Black and White Baby, 157-58]

The pianist Lennie Tristano noticed this phenomenon in some of his listeners and called it "kinesthetic paralysis." Even Oscar Peterson had to go through this experience. In an interview (with Andre Previn) Peterson described his very first encounter with the Tatum technique. In his teens his father — perhaps thinking that Oscar was getting too big a head about his playing ("I thought I was pretty heavy at school, you know—I'd play in all the lunch hours with allthe chicks around the auditorium.")—sat him down to listen to the Tatum recording of "Tiger Rag," one of Art's early recordings which simply blew everyone away, including the ascendant Oscar: "And, truthfully, I gave up the piano for two solid months; and I had crying fits at night." Oscar Peterson!? (In a different interview, with a Time researcher, Peterson said he gave up playing for three weeks. Whichever it was, Oscar was clearly shaken up.)

Some people who thought they were becoming piano players gave up the instrument for another; for example, Les Paul, the renowned guitarist, told me: "When I saw Tatum, and heard Art Tatum, I quit playing the piano. . . . I just sez, that's not for me. 'Cause this guy, I'll never be able to beat a blind black man playing piano like that. . . . This guy is just way, way too good, and he's got so much going." Everett Barksdale, who later had the little-envied job of playing guitar in Tatum's Trio in the '50s, heard him in Detroit in 1926 when he still considered himself a piano player: "This is unbelievable, I don't believe anybody can do that thing on the instrument," he remembered thinking, and "so that was the end of my piano career." And many of the pianists who kept going carried the scars for years; I have heard Johnny Guarnieri, who had an entirely respectable career as a jazz pianist, first in a small Artie Shaw group and later as a solo performer, say that he was fifty-five years old before he realized he didn't have to play like Tatum. Many pianists spent years of their careers "chasing after him," trying to reach his level of accomplishment, even trying to play exactly like him, to the detriment of tapping their own creativity or finding their own style.

Tatum's astonishing technique not only stunned jazz musicians (and paralyzed a few) but also won the admiration of some of the prominent concert artists, conductors, and composers of the day— such artists as Gershwin, Leopold Godowsky, Paderewski, and Rachmaninoff. Most important to Tatum, Vladimir Horowitz admired and praised him, often extravagantly. Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, said in a television interview that from the moment he first heard Tatum on record he "absolutely fell in love with him." When the great Soviet violinist David Oistrakh arrived in America, one of the first things he wanted to do was shop the record stores for Tatum recordings.

Gershwin "listened with rapture" to Tatum, especially when the songs were Gershwin's own, such as "Liza" and “I’ve Got Rhythm." He once gave a party especially for Tatum at his 72nd Street apartment in New York. One of the guests was the famous concert pianist Leopold Godowsky (from whom Fats Waller is alleged to have taken some lessons), and one who was there reported that "Godowsky listened with amazement for twenty minutes to Tatum's remarkable runs, embroideries, counter-figures and passage playing" (Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance, 195).

With the technical ability to make concert musicians pav attention, and with the improvisational creativity to make jazz musicians go anywhere to hear him (John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet once spent $1000 in a week listening to Tatum on 52nd Street), he had the potential for being a giant in either world. What did he really want? How did he really see himself? There was no question in which world he would have to make his career. Partly because of his blindness (although we don't really know how much that handicapped him in learning composed pieces), but mainly because of the barriers a black musician faced in his time, Jazz offered Tatum the only viable way forward in music. He took it and ran.”