Art Tatum

Okay, today’s post is all about being disheartened. See, I like playing some piano, but I don’t think I have any illusions about my abilities. Sure, every once in a while, I’ll see a band with a keyboard player who’s pure window dressing, just some four-on-the-floor chord crunching machine, and smirk to myself “yeah, I could eat that guy up.” But those flirtations with arrogance don’t last. For two reasons. One, any reasonably intelligent person knows that they probably just have to walk three blocks to get schooled by some lady or dude they’ve never met before; it’s deluded to think otherwise. Two, Art Tatum.

Born in 1910 and almost entirely blind his entire life, Tatum pretty much mastered jazz piano way back in the thirties, to the point where it almost seems like no one could really add anything new. When he recorded his first four sides, people refused to believe that just one person could play all that stride, but that it must’ve been a recording trick (and this was decades before overdubs and other modern studio trickery). But isn’t just about speed. Take a listen to his version of “Yesterdays.”

While matching his dexterity is outta my reach, and probably outta most peoples’ reaches, he also kicks our asses in harmonies. He modulates the song so much, brings so much invention to the voicings of the chords, that he leaves the original written harmony at home an Saturday night and doesn’t see it again until Sunday morning… the following week. Basically, all I’m saying is, whenever I think I’m doing well on the piano, I remind myself that it’s all been done before, by Art Tatum, better than I’ll ever do it no matter how hard I try. Take a look at this clip too. This player piano is essentially rolling what Tatum played on his recording of “Tiger Rag” way back in 1933, when everyone doubted that it was the work of a single pair of hands.

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