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(1909- 1956) Pianist
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'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.
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