Diving into the archives this weekend for a few tunes from the legendary pianist Art Tatum.
Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. His performances were hailed for their technical proficiency and creativity, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, “Tatum’s quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries.”
All of Tatum’s studio recordings in 1944 were with the trio, and radio appearances continued. He recorded with the Barney Bigard Sextet and cut nine solo tracks the following year. He abandoned the trio, and did not record with one again until 1952. “In fact, from 1945 until 1952 he made very few studio recordings at all.” Although Tatum remained an admired figure, his popularity faded in the mid- to late 1940s with the advent of bebop – a movement that Tatum did not embrace.
Early in 1945, Billboard magazine reported that Tatum was being paid $1,150 a week as a soloist by the Downbeat club on 52nd Street to play four sets of twenty minutes each per night. This was described much later as an “unheard-of figure” for the time. The Billboard reviewer commented that “Tatum is given a broken-down instrument, some bad lights and nothing else”, and observed that he was almost inaudible beyond the front seating because of the audience noise. He continued to appear in radio broadcasts; and in 1947 he again appeared on film, this time in The Fabulous Dorseys. Tatum began to play in more formal jazz concert settings in the mid-1940s – appearing at “university and community concert halls all across the country”. These included appearances at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events. A 1949 concert recording at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles was released by Columbia Records. In the same year, he signed to Capitol Records and recorded 26 pieces for them.
Tatum’s trio – this time with Stewart and Everett Barksdale – recorded in 1952; this was the pianist’s only studio recordings between the Capitol session and late in 1953.
Granz, who owned a record label, decided to record Tatum’s solo playing in a way that was “unprecedented in the recording industry: invite him into the studio, start the tape, and let him play whatever he felt like playing. At the time this was an astonishing enterprise, the most extensive recording that had been done of any jazz figure.” Over several sessions starting late in 1953, Tatum recorded 124 solo tracks, all but three of which were released, spread over a total of 14 LPs. Granz also recorded him with a selection of other stars in 7 more recording sessions, which led to 59 tracks being released. The critical reception was mixed and partly contradictory. He was, variously, criticized for not playing real jazz, the choice of material, and that he was past his best, and praised for the enthralling intricacy and detail of his playing, and his technical perfection. The releases renewed attention on the pianist, including for a newer generation; he won the DownBeat critics’ poll for pianists three years in a row, from 1954.
This broadcast, made for the Armed Forces Radio series Enchanted Keyboard is from 1951, a period when Tatum wasn’t studio recording much but was broadcasting more. He isn’t with his customary Trio members; it’s just him.
To get an idea of just how popular and influential Art Tatum was, the legendary Dizzy Gillespie offered this assessment: “First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and then you speak of the other pianists.”
Pretty much sums it up.