Monday, March 9, 2020

How Art Tatum Got His Style

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Stay with this; it’s short but you’ll like where it’s going and the premise it’s based on.

It's not often that you hear comparisons between Brubeck and Tatum, or for that matter, between Brubeck and Teddy Wilson, Billy Kyle, Milt Buckner and Thomas “Fats” Waller, but those comparisons are for another time [see the blog feature “Dave Brubeck: Solo Piano Player”].

But while Art Tatum’s condition of blindness was known about from an early age, Dave Brubeck’s eye problems stemming from an affliction known as strabismus - a condition in which the visual axes of the eyes are not parallel and the eyes appear to be looking in different directions - was rarely noted.

What has been recognized is that Tatum’s blindness caused him to rely on his ears as the platform from which he derived his phenomenal technique, but what hasn’t been credited is that Dave’s abnormal alignment of the eyes and the related squinting also caused him to develop his style aurally.

Both Tatum and Brubeck heard the music because each, for different reasons, couldn’t see it. 

Here’s how Philip Clark describes the similarities in the development of Brubeck and Tatum’s pianism in his Dave Brubeck A Life in Time [pp. 311-312] 

“The picture that emerges of the young Dave, holed up on the ranch in lone, anxiously cupping his ears to the radio in the hope of catching a morsel of Benny Goodman or Count Basie on the radio, is of a dreamer—a teenager lost in music. To that extent he was his mother's son, and Bessie tried to instill in him a well-read, rigorous musicality that she could recognize and respect. For the first time, though, Brubeck's determination to do things his own way came to the fore. Despite Bessie's best efforts to teach Dave written notation, he much preferred to eavesdrop as Bessie taught her other students, then regurgitate what he had heard by ear. 

Dave's reluctance to engage with notation began with a childhood diagnosis of strabismus, which left him wearing glasses at an early age and made reading music a near impossibility. It took Bessie a while to cotton on to the fact that she was being hoodwinked—a situation that she came to accept.

Could Dave's aural development and perception—his acute, bat-sharp ears—have been heightened by his visual impairment? Not that Brubeck knew it, but there was an intriguing precedent for a pianist with sight problems but all-hearing ears. 

Art Tatum, 90 percent blind from birth, was born in Toledo, Ohio, ten years before Brubeck. Making his formative steps as a pianist, he replicated the 78 rpm records that littered the Tatum home to the best of his ability, his aural imagination and burgeoning technique finding workable solutions to the problem of how to copy what he was hearing. 

Only subsequently did he realize he had been listening to four-hand boogie-woogie performances by Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons and had negotiated a way of rendering their performances with two hands. As Tatum continued to practice, broadcasts of master pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Earl Hines mulched with the classical music he heard — Horowitz and Godowsky playing Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, and American light classical music by Victor Herbert and Edward MacDowell. 

Through the imagination of his inner ear, Tatum instinctively blended the figurations and gestures of early jazz and stride piano into the elaborate ornamentation he'd heard—but not read—in classical music.”


  1. This is a valuable correction to the mistaken notion that Dave could not read music. He could but as Fats once famously quipped “it didn’t affect his playing !”

    1. Yes, it is simply not true that Dave could not read music. I will explain where this error comes from sometime in a post--after checking it with you Darius for accuracy! All the best to you from Lewis!

  2. Tatum's home could not have been littered early on with 78s of four-hand boogie-woogie performances, since none were in existence until the last years of the 1930s. (Look up Ammons, Johnson and Lewis in the discographies.) Tatum's style was distinct and established by the time of his first solo recording (a 1932 demo of Tiger Rag).


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