Saturday, July 8, 2023

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 fingers 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 fingers 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 pay 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.”


  1. thanks, great reading!

  2. Hi, jazz pianist here! Thank you soo much for this and the many other great articles and interviews on this site, which I'm only starting to discover. Just an incredible resource.
    I felt driven to make an index, so I could see what's on here! Maybe there already is one, I couldn't find it. It's unfortunate that blogs don't make it easy to do that! I hope you don't mind. I couldn't find a contact email for you so am writing here. JazzProfiles index. I can send the html for it, and/or the bash script that made it, if you like. Thanks again for the truly amazing site!


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