One of the greatest jazz improvisers in history, Art Tatum also set the standard for technical dexterity with his classic 1933 recording of “Tea for Two.”
Nearly blind, Tatum’s artistic vision and ability made him an icon of jazz piano, a musician whose impact will be felt for generations to come.
Full name, Arthur Tatum, Jr.; born October 13, 1909, in Toledo, OH; died November 5, 1956, in Los Angeles, CA; father was a factory worker/mechanic and played some amateur piano; mother was an amateur pianist, violinist; son, Orlando, born 1933; married Ruby Arnold August 1, 1935; divorced, February, 1955; married Geraldine Williamson, November, 1955.
Listen to Art Tatum Play Crazy Rhythm
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.
By 19, Tatum he was playing with vocalist Jon Hendricks at Toledo’s Waiters & Bellman’s Club, a popular local jazz club that hosted national acts as well. A few of those national acts — Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Andy Kirk among them — took notice of the young house pianist, often stunned by his speed and dexterity.
In 1932, Tatum traveled to New York with vocalist Adelaide Hall (left). His reputation had arrived earlier and some of New York’s finest jazz musicians were eagerly awaiting his arrival. The following year, Tatum cut his first sides, for the Brunswick label. The first song was aforementioned “Tea for Two,” which became his signature tune.
Listen to Art Tatum and Roy Eldridge play Tea for Two
Tatum’s stay in New York was brief, and he returned to the Midwest, playing in Cleveland and Chicago for the mid-1930s. He made a triumphant return to New York in 1937, playing at several clubs and appearing on national radio shows.
The following year, Tatum toured England and he began appearing regularly in New York and Los Angeles in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Taking Nat “King” Cole’s successful jazz trio as a model, Tatum founded his own influential trio with Slam Stewart (double bass) and Tiny Grimes (electric guitar) in 1943. Grimes left the following year, but Tatum continually returned to this format, playing with guitarist Everett Barksdale in particular.
Tatum was not only made a favorite among jazz musicians, but also European classical musicians like Conductor Leopold Stokowski, composer Sergei Rachmaninov and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. But as Tatum’s virtuosity continued to awe his fellow musicians, many music critics vilified his playing as being overbearing.
As bebop began to take control of jazz in the early 1950s, Tatum continued playing variations of the stride piano style, mostly at small clubs throughout the country. In in 1953, Tatum tracked a record 124 solos for noted producer Norman Granz and while the sessions were hasty, they yielded material for 13 albums.As bebop began to take control of jazz in the early 1950s, Tatum continued playing variations of the stride piano style, mostly at small clubs throughout the country. In in 1953, Tatum tracked a record 124 solos for noted producer Norman Granz and while the sessions were hasty, they yielded material for 13 albums.
Soon after, Granz assembled an all-star group of jazz musicians like vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, drummer Buddy Rich, saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco to record with Tatum. During these sessions many musicians were just as amazed at the amount of beer Tatum drank as they were about the amount of musical virtuosity continued to stream out of Tatum’s hands.
Although his excessive drinking didn’t affect his playing, it did unfortunately affect his health. By 1952, Tatum began showing evidence of uremia, a toxic blood condition resulting from a severe kidney disease. On November 5, Tatum died at age 47, and although his career was relatively short, Tatum’s brilliant playing still remains unparalleled and highly influential.
- Art Tatum Piano Impressesions, ARA (Boris Morros Music Company) A-1, c.1945
- Art Tatum Piano Solos, Asch 356, c.1945
- Footnotes to Jazz, Vol. 2: Jazz Rehearsal, II- Art Tatum Trio, Folkways, 1952
- The Genius of Art Tatum, 1953-4
- Makin’ Whoopee, Verve, 1954
- The Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1954
- Genius of Keyboard 1954–56, Giants of Jazz
- Still More of the Greatest Piano Hits of Them All, Verve, 1955
- “The Lionel Hampton, Art Tatum, Buddy Rich Trio,” Clef Records MG C-709 1956
- More of the Greatest Piano Hits of All Time, Verve, 1955
- The Art Tatum–Ben Webster Quartet, Verve, 1956, reissued as The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume Eight, Pablo, 1975
- The Essential Art Tatum, Verve, 1956
- Capitol Jazz Classics – Volume 3 Solo Piano, Capitol M-11028, 1972
- Masterpieces, Leonard Feather Series MCA2-4019, MCA, 1973
- God is in the House, Onyx, 1973 [re-released on High Note, 1998]
- Piano Starts Here, Columbia, 1987
- The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 1, Capitol, 1989
- The Complete Capitol Recordings, Vol. 2, Capitol, 1989
- Solos 1940, Decca/MCA, 1989
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1990
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1990
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1990
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1990
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1990 (The Lionel Hampton Art Tatum Buddy Rich Trio)
- The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1990
- Art Tatum at His Piano, Vol. 1, Crescendo, 1990
- The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces, Pablo, 1990
- Classic Early Solos (1934–37), Decca Records, 1991
- The Complete Pablo Solo Masterpieces, Pablo, 1991
- The Best of Art Tatum, Pablo, 1992
- Standards, Black Lion, 1992
- The V-Discs, Black Lion, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 1, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 3, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 4, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 5, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 6, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 7, Pablo, 1992
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 8, Pablo, 1992
- I Got Rhythm: Art Tatum, Vol. 3 (1935–44), Decca Records, 1993
- Fine Art & Dandy, Drive Archive, 1994
- The Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces, Vol. 2, Pablo, 1994
- Marvelous Art, Star Line Records, 1994
- House Party, Star Line Records, 1994
- Masters of Jazz, Vol. 8, Storyville (Denmark), 1994
- California Melodies, Memphis Archives, 1994
- 1934–40, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1994
- 1932–44 (3-CD Box Set), Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
- The Rococo Piano of Art Tatum, Pearl Flapper, 1995
- I Know That You Know, Jazz Club, 1995
- Piano Solo Private Sessions October 1952, New York, Musidisc (France), 1995
- The Art of Tatum, ASV Living Era, 1995
- Trio Days, Le Jazz, 1995
- 1933–44, Best of Jazz (France), 1995
- 1940–44, Jazz Chronological Classics, 1995
- Vol. 16-Masterpieces, Jazz Archives Masterpieces, 1996
- 20th Century Piano Genius (20th Century/Verve), 1996
- Body & Soul, Jazz Hour (Netherlands), 1996
- Solos (1937) and Classic Piano, Forlane, 1996
- Complete Capitol Recordings, Blue Note, 1997
- Memories Of You (3-CD Set) Black Lion, 1997
- On The Sunny Side Topaz Jazz, 1997
- 1944, Giants of Jazz, 1998
- Standard Sessions (2-CD Set), Music & Arts, 1996 & 2002/Storyville 1999
- Piano Starts Here – Live at The Shrine (Zenph Re-Performance), Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008
- Art Tatum – Ben Webster: The Album (Essential Jazz Classics) 2009