‘This book is THE work for the study of Art Tatum.’

Written by Mark Lehmstedt


583 pages

ISBN 978-3-95593-260-2

Additional: Find our review of Jewels in the Treasure Box: The 1953 Chicago Blue Note Jazz Club Recordings here.

A man recognised as the greatest jazz pianist and yet this is only the second major biography. Lehmstedt’s work is intensively researched and scrupulous in its coverage. Lehmstsedt is a historian and it shows. The book is eloquent and passionate, following Tatum through his life, his travels, his playing and his impact.

Lehmstedt loves Tatum and he feels embattled throughout the book in his support for the pianist. You have the sense that although Tatum received the approbation of every major pianist, he has still not received his due. Lehmstedt points out that Tatum ‘treated his listeners with great courtesy; he neither broke the furniture nor made funny antics; he was not a clown and never carried a big cigar in the corner of his mouth during a performance; his records sold well at times, but not a single one ever came close to reaching the charts; he did not have exciting affairs with mysterious women, and he was not homosexual; not even the only potentially ‘interesting’ colour is extraordinary consumption of alcohol made him special because drinking was plentiful in Tatum’s circle anyway, but he neither rampaged around nor finally ended up in delirium.’

As Lehmstedt shows, Tatum did not fit. Tatum uncompromisingly made music for listening.

Jazz was in its early phase was a collectively played music and it took Louis Armstrong to make it a soloist’s music. Tatum was just as important in that regard. Where Tatum learnt how to play and develop such an amazing technique is not satisfactorily explained in this book or in any book. He toured the country as an accompanist with singer Adelaide Hall before arriving in New York to make his first solo record in 1933.

In this period (1928 to 1932) Tatum was taking solo jobs in clubs, and playing all night in after-hours joints outside of Toledo as well, in Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Cincinnati. During the years of Prohibition, after-hours clubs provided lots of employment for musicians.

Cutting contests or combative jam sessions were an important part of jazz in the twenties and thirties. When Tatum arrived in New York he was encountering the stride school of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Lee Sims, Donald Lambert. Although Tatum loved to play, he did not have much appetite for the challenges. Nevertheless, it was soon obvious that Tatum had arrived from Toledo with an extraordinary talent. It was Waller who noted when Tatum arrived in one club: ‘I play piano, but God is in the house.’

Tatum’s extraordinary technique was soon acknowledged as he waded through the jazz world of the twenties and thirties. Not everyone appreciated Tatum. There are numerous examples throughout the book of pianists being intimidated by Tatum. He did not set out to exaggerate his gifts but neither could he deny them and there are numerous accounts of his thoughtfulness and generosity.

Lehmstedt does not hide from the critics of Tatum. He faces them head on. The most vehement critic was Andre Hodier who criticised every aspect of Tatum’s playing. Lehmstedt details Hodier’s views and then demolishes them. Other critics are treated in the same way. Lehmstedt is very partisan

Tatum’s love of playing is emphasised throughout. Tatum could not walk past a piano without wanting to play it. Throughout his life he would have a contract to play in a club but as soon as that work was done Tatum would search for a bar where he could play. All he needed was a piano and large quantities of whisky and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.

Lehmstedt points out that Tatum played at two levels. He played to the audiences who paid for sets at the clubs and he played more extensively for friends in the afterhours places. Tatum loved to play and lived to play. His private life was secondary. Few people, if any, felt as though they knew Tatum so absorbed he was in the actual playing.

A number of potent myths attached themselves to Tatum. One was about Charlie Parker. The story that has been spread for years is that Parker when he came to New York from Kansas City in 1939 Initially found work at Jimmie’s Chicken Shack in Harlem to wash dishes so that he could listen and learn from Tatum. The idea that Parker was entranced by the harmonic skills of Tatum was inspired to change his own playing. Lehmstedt’s punctilious research has found that it couldn’t have happened. However, Parker was entranced by the playing and stated that he wished that he could play like Tatum’s right hand.

Tatum was never taken under the control of an impresario in the way that Oscar Peterson was with Norman Granz. Tatum was a modest loner. He did not really become a concert artist like Peterson although Norman Granz had the ambition to feature Tatum.

Norman Granz is one of the crucial figures in Jazz. Apart from setting up JATP (Jazz in the Philharmonic) and touring the music across the world, he managed artists like Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. He set up recording companies Clef, Verve and Pablo. He was adamant that jazz musicians should be treated as artists. Many jazz musicians such as Lester Young and Roy Eldridge whose careers were in decline were given recording contracts and supported by Granz.

Granz decided that he would remedy the neglect of Tatum and produce a series of sessions. Tatum was given complete freedom to play whatever he wanted. In December 1953, in two days, Tatum recorded 70 solos and at two more sessions he completed a total of 124 solos, Granz also persuaded Tatum to record with Buddy Rich, Benny Carter, Louis Bellson, Roy Eldridge, Harry Edison, Buddy DeFranco and Ben Webster. In less than 3 years, he produced 121 solo and 80 combo recordings including several multiple takes which correspond to 13 densely packed audio CDs with a running time of more than 15 hours almost double the number of recordings he made between the summer of 1932 and December 1953.

Stan Kenton in 1954 organised a tour for his own band and ‘A festival Of Modern American Jazz’ which featured Charlie Ventura, Shorty Rogers, Candido and guitarist Johnny Smith. Tatum had an aversion to flying and the journeys between venues were exhausting. It also revealed the state of race relations, they did seventy-one nighters in a row. The description of the tour showed that little had changed especially in the Southern states, the Jim Crow laws were still in force and Johnnie Smith reported that Kenton or he himself had to take the food for Tatum from the restaurants to the bus. Tatum was allowed to perform in front of a white audience, he was not welcome as a customer.

One of the untold stories is the travel that Tatum did throughout his life. Jack Kerouac made his name crossing America a couple of times in ‘On The Road’. Tatum travelled ceaselessly across the continent, between the two coasts, mostly by train. The road network in the thirties, forties and fifties was not good. Most people preferred flying but not Tatum. The partially sighted (legally blind) pianist moved between Alabama, San Diego, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington DC, Portland, Chicago, Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Montreal, Los Angeles, Boston, Denver, Indianapolis. He even played in London in 1938, crossing the Atlantic by ship, of course.

Finally, Lehmstedt asks: ‘What place in the history of jazz does Tatum occupy?’ Lehmstedt argues that Tatum has been awarded a marginal place. He notes that some

people have queried whether Tatum even plays jazz. In spite of the approbation of many jazz pianists, Tatum was different. He did not serve the audience; he served the music as you can hear from the newly discovered sessions from the Chicago Blue Note club, he would remonstrate with the audience to ask them to listen to the music.

Tatum is unique, a piano giant who cannot and should not be ignored. Lehmstedt’s scholarly book with the discography, bibliography, lists of people and venues is THE work for the study of Tatum: a man who had a generosity of spirit, a richness of technique, a beautiful imagination, an orchestral approach and fierce desire to play.

There is no pianist like Tatum: the virtuosic runs, the bewildering arpeggios, the reharmonising and chordal voicings, the key transitions, the eternal exuberance, the baroque grace and the sumptuous harmonies give a richness to the improvisations that is both beautiful and daunting.

You can find our review of Jewels in the Treasure Box: The 1953 Chicago Blue Note Jazz Club Recordings here.