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All jazz pianists have roots somewhere. Even the great originators have arisen out of the ashes of the past. Styles are evolved from earlier starting points; jazz heroes are studied, copied, absorbed and discarded leaving perhaps a new style, a kind of amalgam of various players, sounding different yet owing a debt to what had gone before.
Art Tatum entered jazz history at a time when Earl Hines and Fats Waller were firmly established jazzmen. Tatum’s style was clearly based in Fats Waller and Lee Sims although certain elements of Hines were noticeable as he developed and refined his playing. The complicated runs and arpeggios were inspired by Lee Sims, a pianist with a florid style and considerable harmonic inventiveness.
Although Tatum grew from these beginnings he soon created a unique personal approach. He, in turn, became a pioneer of a much more musically ambitious way of playing jazz which required a technical command of the piano beyond the standards normally expected of jazzmen. Art Tatum had few competitors and even fewer imitators. It is interesting to examine how much Art Tatum has left his mark on the way jazz pianists play and whether the traditions he established are being perpetuated in contemporary styles.
The earliest pianists to be influenced by Tatum were Herman Chittison and Gene Rodgers. Chittison very cleverly followed Art’s approach and although many of his runs were undoubtedly Tatum-like he did not borrow more than was necessary to integrate this Tatum characteristic into his own style. Gene Rodger’s reproduction of Tatum’s style seemed to be confined to one solo of “Three Minutes of Blues”. A recent recording of Rodgers proves that he did not take this groundwork any further whereas Chittison retained his Tatum roots up to his death in 1967.
Joe Turner, who played with Francis Carter as a duo accompaniment to Adelaide Hall in the early thirties was replaced by Art Tatum. Turner evidently studied his successor because in later years he developed a kind of harmonic voicing very much related to Tatum’s which he used when playing the kind of numbers Art liked to perform. Joe must have a very good ear as well as nice feeling because in his earlier recordings his Tatum-like passages sounded like the earlier style Tatum showed in his first recordings, yet twenty odd years later the more sophisticated Tatum harmonies also revealed themselves in Joe Turner’s solos.
Other pianists influenced by the master were Mel Powell, Joe Bushkin, George Shearing, Andre’ Previn, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, John Guarnieri and Dick Hyman. Even Thelonious Monk has paid tribute to Tatum in brief, rather oversimplified, runs in the Art Tatum manner. There have been other pianists with great technical skill who have compared with Tatum, but it has been more related to technique than to style or manner. Pianists like Phineas Newborn, Martial Solal, Bernard Peiffer and Don Shirley come into this category.
Two pianists, Paul Smith and Lou Stein, recently recorded almost completely in the style of Art Tatum. Lou Stein even went to the extent of replaying famous Tatum solos, note for note, as Tatum recorded them. I can see little virtue in this when the originals are readily available, however in the last Camden Jazz Festival in London, a Polish pianist, Adam Makowicz, displayed an incredible piano virtuosity echoing all kinds of Tatum attributes from fast complicated single note passages to up tempo run throughs of stride.
Andre’ Previn, in his earlier jazz piano recordings, showed that he could imitate Art Tatum. However, his later modern jazz soloing revealed that he had not developed this any further. Oscar Peterson, on the other hand, uses a lot of Tatum styling in his solos, especially in ballads, and although his roots are in Nat “King” Cole he frequently plays with great insight showing a profound understanding of Art Tatum’s methods. The titles on this record make up a very interesting programme. She’s Funny That Way is performed with a captivating lilting swing interspersed with crystal clear runs and arpeggios. Gershwin Medley is a popular selection which Tatum played frequently, refining its contents over many performances. We hear, The Man I Love, Summertime, I Got Plenty Of Nothin’ and It Ain’t Necessarily So finishing as it starts with The Man I Love.
Body and Soul is skilfully performed and is one of his best versions of this perennial. We are treated to a virtuoso performance of Lover - what a wonderful left hand - if only some of our contemporary pianists had left hand - if only some of our contemporary pianists had left hand excellence like this!
Begin The Beguine is another Art Tatum speciality and is played with unerring skill. How pleasant to hear Indiana played played at a more leisurely tempo. Poor Butterfly, the attractive standard, follows Where Or When shows off more of Tatum’s marvellous left hand. After an unhurried start, Song Of The Vagabonds breaks into a tour de force performance of unequalled technical skill and rhythmic perfection. The stunning speed of some passages of this version must surely make this the fastest piano ever recorded.
I’m Beginning To See The Light is Tatum’s only recorded version of the Ellington classic which he plays with a great variety of feeling. Earl Warren composed 9.20 Special when he was playing with the great Count Basie Band in the forties. It is an unusual number for an Art Tatum solo and his treatment of the tune has many echoes of his earlier style of playing.
The Sweet Lorraine on this recording comes from a mint single sided test pressing of an unissued V-Disc* and is without doubt Art’s greatest solo on this lovely ballad. It is my personal favourite although the trio version of Liza is a close runner-up. Ray Spencer
* V-Discs were 12” 78 r.p.m. records issued to the American Forces during World War II between 1942 and through to 1948. They were sent to PX Centres and Radio Stations for the recreation of all G.I.’s. The records were a mixture of classical, vocals, popular and jazz. Just over 900 different records were issued. Many titles were unique to V-Disc, like the Art Tatum selections included here.
Although pressed in their thousands V-Discs subsequently have become extremely rare collectors items. Consequently the quality of reproduction on this record varies according to the availability of the originals.
(a)Recorded at the 1st Esquire Concert, Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, 18th January 1944
(b)Recorded for 16” World Transcriptions, 26th October 1945
(c)Recorded in 1945/6
(d)Recorded in Los Angeles 21st January 1946
Art Tatum (piano); Oscar Pettiford (bass) (a); Sid Catlett (drums) (a); Tiny Grimes (guitar) (b); Slam Stewart (bass) (b)
Sweet Lorraine (3.43) (unissued) (a); Cocktails For Two (2.38) (b); Liza (1.55) (b); She’s Funny That Way (4.11) (c); Gershwin Medley - The Man I Love/Summertime, I’ve Got Plenty Of Nothin’, It Ain’
Necessarily So (4.21) (c); Body And Soul (3.30); Lover (3.57); Begin The Beguine (3.17); Indiana (2.31); Poor Butterfly (3.27); Where or When (3.58); Song Of The Vagabonds (2.17); I’m Beginning To See The Light (3.15); 9.20 Special (2.30)