Some artists are born for their craft. Perhaps the greatest among musicians—whose very name has become synonymous with virtuosity and genius—is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This towering, Classical era composer demonstrated a capacity for musical genius at an extremely young age, and in a radical, almost supernatural way.
The legend regarding Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere runs something like this: at 14 years of age, young Mozart is taken to St. Peter’s cathedral at the Vatican for Easter Sunday. Mozart hears Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere for the first time—a sacred and closely guarded hymn reserved solely for performance during Easter. After hearing it only once, Mozart transcribes the entire piece by ear and from memory, making only minor corrections after hearing it once more a few days later.
Next to none have ever come close to the level of musical mastery that Mozart demonstrated at age 14. Still, there are many musicians who have risen above their contemporaries, who rest forever in their legacies and in their contributions to the history of music.
Art Tatum is one of these. His is most likely not the name that comes first in the mind, at least not before other, more memorable players like Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. Sitting humbly, squarely at the fore of prominent jazz piano players, Art Tatum is almost universally recognized by both critics and fellow musicians as the greatest jazz pianist to have ever lived.
Art Tatum – Born to Play
Not much is known about Art Tatum’s life, but one thing that we know for certain about Art Tatum is that he was blind for most of his life. This does not make him the first or last piano player to achieve fame and virtuosity despite being blind—Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles come easily to mind.
The cornerstone of Tatum’s abilities lies in another sensory augmentation. It is said that one day, while Tatum’s mother was cooking, hymns began drifting through the house on the Tatum’s old piano. Thinking that someone from the church had come over, she went into the parlor to greet them. She was stunned upon discovering that it was her son, a young Arthur Tatum, performing the hymns by ear, from memory.
About one in 10,000 people is born with the ability to discern and replicate pitches or lines of music without any external reference point. Even among those born with the ability—called absolute pitch, or perfect pitch—there are different levels of cultivation and ability.
Art Tatum is one of the gifted, a musical anomaly who could listen to a piece once and have it memorized forever, like Mozart before him. When Tatum went to school to study music, he would read braille sheet music with one hand, and play the piece from memory immediately thereafter. These abilities created the potential for musical achievement that the jazz world had not yet, and would not ever see again.
Striding Through Life
There are more legends surrounding Tatum’s character than almost any other jazz musician in history. Other players demonstrated a certain reverence for the Toledo based performer whenever he took the stage.
Tatum’s preferred style of play is known as stride piano, which borrowed structure from the form of ragtime, and then abandoning that structure in favor of improvisation and a wider range of motion. It is said even to this day that Tatum sounds like he is playing two pianos at once. He is known for having the fastest left hand of any pianist before or since.
Even the founding father of stride piano, James P. Johnson, said that he had never truly heard stride piano until the day he heard Art Tatum perform. Though Tatum’s style was stride first and foremost, he tried to encapsulate all areas of jazz into his performance, often resulting in wildly complicated, fast, and intelligent performances.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Tatum’s playing is in his performance. While playing faster than anyone else in the world, Tatum retained a calm and cool posture. He never made faces, and never made a show of performing. In this, he demonstrates the innate, born to play style of performance that makes jazz so interesting. It is a feeling that jazz, no matter where it comes from or where it goes, is directly of the soul.