2009-08-01

A little Tatum-credo

A few weeks ago, while doing some research through the Afro-American archives (Baltimore edition), I came across an article by Franklyn Frank, published May 23, 1936, where Frank picks a sixteen-piece all-afroamerican jazz band and his choice for piano is Teddy Weatherford:

"Weatherford is the only person closing the door to young Teddy Wilson, who is way ahead of Earl Hines (...) and Art Tatum, who generally sounds as if he is using twenty fingers trying to play ten symphonies in five minutes".

This negative comment on Art Tatum prompted me to post a message in the Stride Piano Yahoo Group, asking for any other contemporary published sources (30's-40's) with such kind of humorous criticism on Tatum's overwhelming technique.

I got several replies from some respected pianists and critics, almost unanimously praising Tatum and, in one of them, George Croll wrote a succint but, in my opinion, very accurate description of Tatum's pianism, which he called his "little Tatum-credo". Under his permission, I'm reproducing it here:

"Talking about speed and virtuosity is missing the essence of Tatum completely. Of course most people, especially Tatum-novices, are overwhelmed or dumbfounded by Tatum's dexterity, but the wonder of Art Tatum is his tremendous musicality.

Some of his assets are:

- Unique "sound" and incredible touch: no one else had/has that "contact" to the keys that sounds like playing legato and staccato at the same time.

- "Inaudible" pedal work, if he used the pedal at all.

- Absolutely infallible time and great swing-feeling.

- Unique, new way of playing with voicings.

- Ability to "compose spontaneously" (highly complex, but always musical).

- Endless inventive talent concerning melodies.

... He just had the "complete package" like no one else!

Even with Tatum there are shortcomings, too:

- His often mentioned inability to comp/to submit in a group-context.

- Quite un-original repertoire.

- Sometimes lack of taste.

Nobody is perfect, even God Tatum!"

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