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Art Tatum

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(1909- 1956) Pianist

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Art Tatum
Host Nancy Wilson presents this profile of pianist Art Tatum, who Count Basie called "the eighth wonder of the world."

Despite seriously impaired vision (he was blind in one eye and had only partial sight in the other), Art Tatum received some formal piano training as a teenager at the Toledo School of Music and learned to read sheet music with the aid of glasses and by the Braille method. Other than that, he was self-taught, learning from piano rolls, phonograph recordings, radio broadcasts, and various musicians whom he encountered as a young man in the area around Toledo and Cleveland. Tatum acknowledged Fats Waller as his primary inspiration, with the popular radio pianist Lee Sims, whose interpretations contained many interesting harmonies, as an important secondary influence.

Tatum was playing professionally in Toledo by 1926 and performed on radio in 1929-30. In 1932, he traveled to New York as the accompanist for Adelaide Hall. There, in March 1933, he made his first solo recordings, for Brunswick. After leaving Hall, he worked in Cleveland from 1934-5 and led a group in Chicago from 1935-6. His reputation as an outstanding jazz pianist was consolidated in 1937 with his performances in various New York clubs and on radio shows. He toured England the following year and appeared regularly in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Taking Nat "King" Cole's successful jazz trio as a model, Tatum founded his own influential trio with Slam Stewart (double bass) and Tiny Grimes (electric guitar) in 1943. Grimes left the following year, but Tatum continually returned to this format, playing with Everett Barksdale in particular.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library: Art Tatum
NPR's Murray Horwitz and jazz critic and poet AB Spellman recommend The Chronological Art Tatum (Jazz Chronological Classics).

In 1944, Tatum played in a jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, and in 1947 he made a cameo appearance in the film The Fabulous Dorseys. Although he was regularly active in nightclubs, radio shows, recording studios, and was lionized by jazz musicians and critics, he did not acquire a large popular following during this period and was bypassed in jazz popularity polls. In 1953, he began an association with the record producer Norman Granz that led to a number of outstanding small-group recordings with such mainstream musicians as Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, and Ben Webster. More importantly, he was recorded in a long series of solo performances, which indicated both the extent of his repertory and his extraordinary imagination. Tatum remained active and constantly improving his art until shortly before his death.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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