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Art Tatum: Not for the Left Hand Alone

Author(s): Martin Williams


Source: American Music, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp. 36-40
Published by: University of Illinois Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3051572
Accessed: 06-11-2016 17:27 UTC
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American Music

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MARTIN WILLIAMS

Art Tatum:

Not for the Left Hand Alone

When Louis Armstrong first arrived in the early 1920s, the reaction of his fellow
musicians was generally positive. His elders, most of them, and particularly if they
were from New Orleans, heard him as a fulfillment of what they had been working
on. And younger players seem to have felt that here was someone who could serve
as an inspiration and guide, from whom they could take at least a part, if not all,
and develop something of their own.
When Art Tatum arrived about a decade later, the first reaction of many musicians seems to have been one of delight and despair. If that is where it's going, they
seemed to say, we can't follow. And some of them decided, perhaps temporarily,

to hang up their horns.


What they heard in Tatum was, first, an exceptional musical ear, and beyond

that, an unequalled capacity for speed and for musical embroidery. And those
things remained for years a source of frustration to many a musician. But not so
(one learns with gratification) to Coleman Hawkins, who heard something more,
perhaps even something else, and found inspiration in it.
The speed and the embroidery were dazzling, of course. Tatum played with
an array of ascending and descending arpeggio runs, octave slides and leaps, sudden modulations, double-third glissandos-a keyboard vocabulary in which swift,
interpolated triplets were a small matter. His left hand could walk and it could
stride; he also liked to use a kind of "reverse" stride, the chord at the bottom, the
note on top. And he could execute all these at tempos that most players could not
reach, much less sustain. Indeed, his early "Tea for Two" seemed to be a textbook
summary of what one could learn from Earl Hines; "Tiger Rag" all one could get
from Fats Waller; and by "Get Happy" in 1940, more than Waller was ever likely to
get to.
Martin Williams is a cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
This article is from The Art of Jazz, revised edition, by Martin Williams. Copyright @ 1959,
1983 by Oxford University Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Published by arrangement with
Oxford University Press, New York.
American Music Spring 1983
@1983 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
0734-4392/83/0001-0036 $00.50/0

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Art

Was

Tatum

37

Tatum
then
only
the
styles
of

borrowed

board

showmanship?

From
the
beginning
Ta
years
it
seemed
to
grow
late
1940s,
Tatum's
comm
rare
is

so

for

player

subtly

and

of

any

perfectly

find

himself
responding
feelings.
That
subtlety
of
evoking
endlessly
va

its
keys--and
this
on
a
struments
percussively.

Tatum's
repertory
tend
and
the
additions
were
m

ative.
heard

Also,
by
the
lat
less
often;
"Get

had

become

at

time.

The

succession
newer

pi

simplicity
of
"Caravan,
Miss
Jones?"
for
anoth
gie")
lay
relatively
negle
Tatum's
capacities
for
chorus
on
"Mop
Mop,"
w
to
work
with,
he
could
whose
dexterity
could
monic
imagination
was
tered
voicings,
unexpec
melodies-toward
the
en
ballads
with
whole
subs
An
Art
Tatum
bass
lin
sureness,
lightness,
and
rhythmic
adventure
an
gration
of
rhythm
and
inseparable,
an
identity

swing.
And
there
are
section--or
sometimes

"Tenderly"
or
"There'll
or
"I
Gotta
Right
to
Sin
such
ravishing
transitio
By
calling
Tatum's
mel
sustain
spontaneous,
inv
fying
aspects
of
his
wo
also
functioned
in
that

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38

Williams

where
fragments
of
t
form
allusive
structu

terse
transitional
phr
melodic
adornments
song;
his
invented,
p
Tatum's

after

after

maturity

the

cam

modernists

Tatum

had

lar

brought
him
the
only
solo
pianist,
inhibited
a
series
of
recordings
The
Capitol
perform
firm
confirmation
of
Stood
Still"
or
"Danci
"Willow
Weep
for
Me

command
of
tempo,
o
surprise
that
is
eviden

Blues" or "Someone to Watch over Me."

If there is a masterpiece of the series, it would have to be either "Willow Weep


for Me" or "Aunt Hagar's Blues." Both offer in abundance the Tatum paradox that

all surprises quickly assume an inevitability as one absorbs them. Indeed this Capitol recording of "Aunt Hagar's Blues" seems so perfect in its overall pattern and
pacing, with every short run and every ornament appropriate and in place, that it
may be the masterpiece of all his recorded work.
Pianist Dick Katz has written that Tatum approached each piece in his repertory through a kind of loose arrangement, and the general patterns of opening ad
lib (if there was one), of movement into and out of tempo, of certain ornaments and

frills tended to be there consistently--or, rather, versions of them did. (Even Ta-

tum's interpolated "quotes" tended to be consistent: "In a Sentimental Mood"


usually contained a fragment of "Swanee River" and ended on "My Old Kentucky
Home"; "Somebody Loves Me" glanced at "Pretty Baby"; "Indiana" ended wryly
with the traditional "Funky Butt"; "Blue Skies" with "In and Out the Window";
and over the years "Sweet Lorraine's" John Philip Sousa allusion was joined by a
fragment of Ignace Paderewski's minuet and a quote from "Narcissus.") But the
patterns were all loosely held, and, like the pieces themselves, always a basis for
spontaneous rephrasing and paraphrase, reharmonization, reaccentuation, and
elaboration. If the Capitol recordings are the best introduction to Tatum, the next
best might be a successive listening to all versions of one of his often-recorded
standards, for example, "Sweet Lorraine," "I Cover the Waterfront," or "Tenderly," or such widely separated, early-and-late pieces as "Sophisticated Lady,"
"Moon Glow," or "Ill Wind."
The series of 1953-56 extended solo recordings which Tatum did under Norman Granz's auspices (issued on Clef and Verve, and more recently collected on
Pablo) is a singular documentation of a remarkable musician. To expect each per-

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Art

formance

of

Tatum

each

39

piece

to

the improviser's art and t


let us say, thirty excellen
provide
I

will

the

listener

single

out

with

th

"Jitterbug

and movement, and for i


bass line. I will cite "Have
tory

risk

and

daring

and

fo

in-tempo

sections. And th
phant climax to his sever
most be defined through
The series does have its f
wasting his time on puz
and of his finding relativ
dust"). And I cannot say t
ornaments always avoids
To be sure, to raise the q
and the question of oppos
important question of Ta
when we fear he is reach
exaggerated ornament wi
inviting us to share the jo

traditions to which he alludes.

Opposing one's own taste to Tatum's is ultimately the critic's business, of


course. But raising the issue here can also serve to remind us of the aesthetic miracle that was Art Tatum. For somewhere among the melodies he chose, the ornaments with which he enhanced them, the lines he altered, the phrases he added,
the sense of musical time and momentum he evoked in us, the unique harmonic

adventure he brought us each time, and each time differently, somewhere among
all these, the alchemy of a great jazzman brought his performances to the highest
levels of compositional solidity, integrity, and strength.
As with many other major jazz artists, the revelation of broadcast and privately recorded material enlarges our image of Tatum. The so-called "discoveries"
recordings, taped at an informal evening in the home of a prominent Hollywood
musician, offer a generally heightened Tatum, and "Too Marvelous for Words" is

probably the supreme example of Tatum's wending his adventurous way into an
absolutely "impossible" harmonic corner, and then dancing free on his bass line,
while executing a fluid treble line to ornament the feat.

Was Tatum, as a master of ornament and paraphrase, out of the mainstream in


a music whose emphasis fell increasingly to harmonically oriented invention? I
think that Tatum's influence, although it may have been somewhat indirect, has
been crucial. I have mentioned Coleman Hawkins, and Tatum was Hawkins's
most important influence after Armstrong. What Hawkins heard in Tatum was the
core concern, the harmonic impetus, and Hawkins, probably helped by his own

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40

Williams

early

training

on

growing
vocabulary
o
were
confirmed
and

Similarly,

Charlie

kitchen
job
in
a
club
Parker
proved
to
be
t
ophonist
proved
to
b

knowledge

the

clear

accents,
and
his
spee
The
final
effect
of
T
can
return
to
a
famil
something
previously
knew
still
seems
sur
Tatum
standard
and
d
new.

For the listener, the Tatum adventure seems unending.


DISCOGRAPHICAL NOTES

Tatum's 1933 "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag" are included in Columbia CS-9655-E.
MCA 4019 was drawn from Tatum's 1934-40 Decca recordings and included the 1940
Happy" and the earliest "Sweet Lorraine."

Tatum's "Mop Mop" solo, a feature of an all-star recording date, was recorded

Commodore and was included in Commodore XFX14936.

The Tatum Capitol collection with the classic treatments of "Willow Weep for Me" and
"Aunt Hagar's Blues" is M-11028, and it also has versions of "Someone to Watch over Me,"
"Sweet Lorraine," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," and "Dancing in the Dark."
The 1953-55 Tatum sessions, first released on Clef and Verve, were collected in a boxed set
of thirteen discs as Pablo 2625 703. In addition to the cited "Jitterbug Waltz," "Have You Met

Miss Jones?," and "Tenderly," there are exceptional versions of "Love for Sale," "Just a'
Sittin' and a' Rockin'," "This Can't Be Love," "There'll Never Be Another You," "Ill Wind,"

"That Old Feeling," "What's New," "Blue Moon," "Stars Fell on Alabama," "I've Got a
Crush on You," "You're Blase," "Dancing in the Dark," "In a Sentimental Mood," "She's
Funny That Way," "Sweet Lorraine," "Everything I Have Is Yours," "I Didn't Know What
Time It Was," "Tea for Two," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "I

Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "S'posin," "Someone to Watch over Me," "Out of
Nowhere," "Over the Rainbow," "Somebody Loves Me," "Wrap Your Troubles in

Dreams," "Isn't it Romantic," and "Caravan." More recently, the Pablo discs have begun to
appear singly, and, as this is written, the issues are up to record no. 9.

The "discoveries" sessions with "Too Marvelous for Words" appeared on the 20th
Century Fox two-record set TCF 102-2, which also included versions of "Tenderly,"

"Someone to Watch over Me," "Yesterdays," "My Heart Stood Still," "In a Sentimental
Mood," and "Sweet Lorraine." Some of these (including "Too Marvelous for Words") were

included in Movietone 72021.

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