Born on October 13, 1909, in Toledo, Ohio, Art Tatum was largely self-taught as a pianist despite being legally blind. He became a star in New York City in the 1930s, winning fans with his versions of pop favorites and wowing peers with his technique. After cutting a series of solo and group recordings late in his career, Tatum died from kidney disease in Los Angeles, California, on November 5, 1956.
Tatum arrived in New York City in 1932 as the accompanist for vocalist Adelaide Hall. There, he made his first recordings for the Brunswick label, including his famed version of "Tea for Two."
Tatum played in Cleveland and Chicago in the mid-1930s, but his return to New York in 1937, which led to high-profile club and radio appearances, made him a full-fledged star. The following year, he introduced his act to an international audience with a tour of England.
Tatum became known for his rapturous reworking of pop standards like "Begin the Beguine" and "Stormy Weather," as well as his improvisational ability and delicate, multi-layered arrangements. Some critics dismissed his style for being overly ornate, but his peers were overwhelmed by the magnitude of his talents. The great Waller once stepped aside to let Tatum take over the piano at a club, noting, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house." Earl Hines, another legend idolized by Tatum, reportedly refused to share a stage with him out of fear of being eclipsed.
After years of primarily performing as a soloist, Tatum formed a trio with Tiny Grimes on electric guitar and Slam Stewart on double bass in 1943. He went on to play in a jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House the following year, and made a cameo appearance in the film The Fabulous Dorseys in 1947.
Despite being legally blind—he had only partial sight in one eye—Tatum learned to read sheet music via the Braille method and memorized piano rolls and phonograph recordings. He received some classical training at the Toledo School of Music, but otherwise was mostly self-taught as a pianist.
Influenced by jazz innovator Fats Waller and the stride sound, Tatum began making a name for himself on the local music scene as a teenager. By 19, he was playing with vocalist Jon Hendricks at Toledo's Waiters & Bellman's Club, where jazz heavyweights Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie first took note of the skilled young pianist.
Later Years and Legacy
Tatum's popularity waned as jazz shifted to the bebop sound in the late 1940s, but he continued to play at clubs throughout the country.
Teaming up with record producer Norman Granz in 1953, Tatum recorded more than 100 solo tracks and several sessions with such musicians as Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster. However, by that point the revered pianist had begun showing signs of uremia, a kidney disease brought on by his prodigious drinking.
Tatum was just 47 when he died from complications from the disease on November 5, 1956, in Los Angeles, California. Despite his short life, he is considered one of jazz's most important and influential figures, and was honored as such with a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.
Clay Corley Sr.
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