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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: T (Part 2 — TATUM, Art)

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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: T (Part 2 — TATUM, Art)

October 15, 2020 by Gilbert Busch


The late Oscar Peterson used to talk about the first time he heard a recording of Art Tatum. He was amazed by the speed and polish of his playing. Only later did Peterson learn that Tatum was blind. This is very much like my own first experience of Tatum when an FM station in Pittsburgh played some of his recordings. The notes whizzed by so fast that I could hardly comprehend what was being played.

Art Tatum, 1910-1956. Head and shoulders, facing right. Jazz pianist. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Art Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio, on October 13, 1909. His vision was poor, probably due to cataracts, so after a few years in the Jefferson School in Toledo, he attended the school for the blind in Columbus. He then went to the Toledo School of Music, where he learned about jazz pianists Earl Hines and James P. Johnson, and he also studied the harmonies of Debussy and Ravel.

From 1927-37 he was on radio station WSBD in Toledo. And from 1928-29 his show was heard nationwide on the Blue network. Later he moved to New York, performed at clubs on 52nd Street, and became known as “the king of jazz piano players.”

The magic fingers of Art Tatum perform nightly at Ralph Watkins’ hit East-side music rendezvous, “The Embers” / James J. Kreigsmann, N.Y. From the collection New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress).

Many people are surprised to learn that Tatum’s light, fast notes came from enormous hands—capable of stretching to reach the interval of a twelfth. He played with straight fingers instead of curved. He was capable of playing a melody with thumb and little finger, while playing something else with the other three fingers.

Tatum’s playing appealed to more than pianists. Tony Bennett recalls, “I’d listen to his recordings almost daily, and try to imitate his phrasing.”

Tatum died in Los Angeles on November 5, 1956.

Below are some materials in the NLS Music Section that will give you more information about Art Tatum:



Lester, James. Too Marvelous for Words: the Life and Genius of Art Tatum. The freelance musician and retired psychologist bases this first biography of the 1930s and 1940s jazz great on interviews with Tatum’s surviving associates. They describe the blind piano player’s intimidating virtuosity and fun-loving lifestyle and provide details of his life. Tatum, who loved alcohol and ignored his diabetes, died in 1956 at age forty-seven. (DB4227)

McPartland, Marian. Mulgrew Miller. In an interview with Marian McPartland, Miller and McPartland take turns on Art Tatum tunes, and the two combine forces on Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (DBM01243)

Parker, Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: the Young Art Tatum. An inspiring portrait of a young boy who became one of the piano jazz greats. (DBC08576)


Braille books

Edstrom, Brent. The Art Tatum Collection: Artist Transcriptions – piano. Art Tatum solos transcribed by Brent Edstrom in bar over bar format. Includes “After You’ve Gone,” “St. Louis Blues,” and others. (BRM36131)

The Giants of Jazz Piano. Piano solos as performed by Dave Brubeck, Art Tatum, George Shearing, Duke Ellington, Marian McPartland, Matt Dennis, David Benoit, and Bill Evans. Bar over bar format. (BRM35937)

Roden, Terry. The Songs of Blind Folk: African American Musicians and the Cultures of Blindness. Explores ways the lives of nineteenth- and twentieth-century blind black musicians reflected mainstream changes in perceptions of blindness and images of the black community. Discusses prodigy Blind Tom Bethune, bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Art Tatum, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. (BR19079)

Scivales, Riccardo. The Right Hand According to Tatum: a Guide to Tatum’s Improvisational Techniques Plus 10 Transcribed Piano Solos. Line by line, short form scoring, and bar over bar formats. (BRM36375)


To borrow any materials, you can download them from BARD, call us at 1-800-424-8567, extension 2, or email us at [email protected]. You can visit our website at any time to learn more about the services that NLS provides.


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