Tatum's impact on the world of jazz has been
immense, not only as a piano stylist to future generations,
from Peterson to Hancock,
but as an early sower of the bebop seed.
He remains to many the parlour stride pianist par excellence
replete with virtuosic embellishments, a heavy swing, a delightful
touch, much decorative aplomb and a supreme sense of musical time.
And yet his affect on the early bebop stars
was profound. His use of substitute and passing chords,
an ability to work his way out of any harmonic jungle he found himself
entangled in, helped to open new musical doors; and his inventive
voicings, endlessly enriched chords with 9th, 11th and 13ths, intrigued
the likes of Charlie Parker, just as
they had done with Coleman Hawkins a
generation before. Parker, in his years of musical apprenticeship,
sought him out whenever he could. Tatum, it is said, was in private
an inventive improvisor, yet his public recitals very often had an
air of pre-conception and he often repeated his recorded solos in
performance. But this was Tatum's style: he was more an arranger on
the hoof - always keeping the melody line in earshot underneath his
ornate decoration - and less a hard-core jazz improvisor. He rarely
departed from the standard popular repertory.
Tatum is born in Toledo, all but blind.
He receives some formal training, and is able to read sheet music
using strong glasses for one eye or braille; otherwise he is self-taught.
His influences are Fats Waller and
the popular pianist Lee Sims.
Norman Granz records Tatum extensively, both as soloist and with
other acclaimed soloists, such as Ben
Webster and Lionel Hampton.
Tatum moves to
New York as accompaniest to Adelaide Hall, and is first recorded the
following year. His early recordings and radio braodcasts announce
a new, exciting talent: he is much lauded
by fellow pianists, although he never attains great following
with the public at large. He records with a trio, using bass and drums
or, following Nat 'King' Cole, bass and
guitar. He also records as a solo pianist.