Tatum biography illuminates jazz era

March 16, 1994|By Lawrence Freeny | Lawrence Freeny,Special to The Sun

Soon after pianist Art Tatum began playing professionally in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, jazz musicians whose tours included that area heard on their grapevine that he deserved a hearing.

So after trumpeter Rex Stewart, along with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and others in Fletcher Henderson's band, first heard Tatum at age 17 or 18 in a small club in 1926 or 1927, Stewart wrote:

"To a man, we were astonished, gassed, and just couldn't believe our eyes and ears. How could this nearly blind young fellow extract so much beauty out of an old beat-up upright piano that looked like a relic from the Civil War?"

Stewart, who later joined Duke Ellington's orchestra, quoted Henderson: "I am pretty sure that we are in the presence of one of the greatest talents that you or I will ever hear."

There are numerous other tributes -- from pianists Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson and bandleaders Red Norvo and Count Basie -- in "Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum."

Author James Lester, a retired psychologist, is a musician, writer and photographer who lives in Annapolis.

("Too Marvelous for Words" is also a song by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting; and Ira Gitler in his book "Jazz Masters of the '40s" writes: "It is very likely that 'Too Marvelous' is the greatest single Tatum performance we are fortunate to have.")

Many appraisals, Mr. Lester says, emphasize "the sense of hearing piano playing that is totally off the scale normally used to rate pianists . . . Tatum had bounded out of the normal frame of reference, not only for pianists but for jazz musicians on any instrument."

In producing the first full-length Tatum biography, Mr. Lester has written not only a detailed study of his subject's career and musical influence but a vivid portrayal of the American jazz ferment of the 1930s and '40s -- when New York City was the mecca and its jazz clubs were at their height.

Tatum was 47 years old when he died in 1956, only three years after his close friend, the exuberant pianist-composer Thomas (Fats) Waller, had died at age 39.

The book is well-organized and written with clarity, sensitivity and humor. While it may primarily attract jazz devotees, it should also interest readers who wish to learn more about that time and its influence on subsequent developments in poplar music.

"Too Marvelous" traces Tatum's early years, his classical training and the racial barriers that diverted him to jazz.

He was apparently little given to easy conversation and left no written self-observations. Interviewers reported finding him difficult to approach, and the responses generally meager.

There are reminiscences from such people as guitarist Les Paul and pianists Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, George Shearing, Ellis Larkins and Jimmy Rowles.

Shearing tells of meeting him in 1946 during a club performance: " 'Mr. Tatum, I've been listening to you for years, I have a lot of your records . . .' -- and he let me talk for about three minutes, and then he said: 'Glad to meet your sir, you gonna buy me a beer?' "

He was a devoted drinker, as was his friend Fats Waller, although he kept scheduled appearances and his playing ability was seemingly undiminished. By all accounts, he must have played more than he slept.

His career-long routine, until illness in the final year, was to visit after-hours spots, upon finishing his night's work about 2 a.m., to relax with other musicians in jam sessions until dawn or later. Observers said he challenged other pianists by waiting until all had taken turns, then played so brilliantly that none attempted to outdo him.

Many people may be surprised to learn that Leopold Stokowski, the symphony conductor, used to hear Tatum perform; that the concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz often heard him play, and that "he and Horowitz were good friends," according to Bernice Lawson, a classical pianist in Los Angeles.

The late Teddy Wilson, long praised for the elegance of his playing, is quoted by Mr. Lester: "Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano, then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play . . . everyone there will sound like an amateur. Pianists with regular styles will sound like beginners. Art Tatum played with such superiority that he was above style . . ."

Mr. Freeny is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum"

Author: James Lester

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Length, price: 219 pages, $25

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