Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 14, 2011

Art Tatum

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 10:26 pm

People who saw him play were heard to exclaim, “My God! His hands are a blur!”

When Vladimir Horowitz, the famed classical pianist, was asked who the best pianist was, he responded with Art Tatum’s name.

Even Fats Waller, a very accomplished pianist in his own right and one of Tatum’s favorites, was reported to have said, “I’m just a piano player. But God is in the house tonight,” when he spotted Art Tatum in the audience.

Arthur Fiedler, conductor of the Boston Pops, once said, “There’s a demonic, almost diabolical quality to his playing. The Furies must have gathered around his crib at birth, something infernal slipped into his mother’s milk.”

Top musicians in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would trek to Harlem clubs to hear him play — Gershwin, Horowitz, Godowski, Rachmaninoff, Geseking, Paderewski… Rachmaninoff told the press, “If this man ever decides to play serious music we’re all in trouble.”

Tatum did play serious music, it happened to be jazz. But Tatum was black in an era when the top concert draws were white.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini would always seek out Tatum whenever he came to New York to conduct. Toscanini was one of the fiercest and most strict conductors to have ever lived. He held his musicians to the highest of standards. (One time when he tapped his baton on his music stand for a rehearsal he noticed that the first-chair clarinetist’s chair was empty. “Where’s the first clarinetist?” he immediately demanded of the clarinetist in the next chair. The second clarinetist meekly replied, “Um, he died yesterday, sir.” Toscanini immediately shot back, “That’s no excuse!”)

Full article


  1. Nice article. It’s funny, even with the proliferation of academic jazz conservancies, Tatum still reigns as the most virtuosic jazz pianist ever. Wouldn’t say he’s my favorite, though, even for the era. That would be Nat King Cole. No doubt, after a single listen, Art could play anything Nat played…but he didn’t.

    Comment by godoggo — January 16, 2011 @ 7:18 am

  2. conservatories

    Comment by godoggo — January 16, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  3. I heard Oscar Peterson once — a fair imitation of Tatum — and found him a little irritating. His virtuosity overwhelmed the music, disdained it. The culture of Cool made me unable to appreciate the earlier players. My choice for the most virtuosic player would have been Bill Evans — a totally different player, as different as Picasso from Rubens.

    Comment by senecal — January 16, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

  4. I booked Bill Evans for a concert at Bard in 1965. An amazing talent. One of my favorite musicians of all time.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 16, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  5. I wonder if those conductors who said Tatum was the most prodigious talent ever, really meant it. After all, they knew Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter and Rachmaninoff too.

    Comment by senecal — January 17, 2011 @ 3:27 am

  6. Cole was a big influence on Evans. I hear a lot of Evans in this, for example (or really vice versa). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6MPG7YsOc-w

    Comment by godoggo — January 17, 2011 @ 8:35 am

  7. thanks, Godoggo, I missed your reply earlier.

    Comment by senecal — January 19, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

  8. godoggo: that was a real nice track. I didn’t hear Bill Evans in there, but echoes and intimations of a lot of players on the American jazz superhighway, including George Shearing and Errol Garner. The first half reminded me that Lennie Tristano was once my favorite player, who I would have, maybe, put ahead of Evans. Maybe.

    Comment by senecal — January 20, 2011 @ 6:12 am

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