Art Tatum’s Art

Today is the birthday of Jazz piano legend Art Tatum.

Tatum is one of those artists known mostly for the way he was admired by his fellow musicians. He didn’t achieve great popular success, but other players stood in awe of his talents and his influence is undeniable.

Need some evidence and a few accolades?
Here’s a clip from Ken Burns’ series, Jazz.

And here’s another sample of Tatum at work. I can’t tell you anything about the structure of this piece, but I recognize that there are a lot of notes in there. Without truly comprehending the significance of what he is doing, I can easily believe that Tatum is making something difficult appear to be quite easy.

We’d like to believe people who are the very best at what they do will be handsomely rewarded for their ability – that excellence will always be properly recognized.
Art Tatum’s life and his relative obscurity seem to argue the opposite – that artistic genius does not guarantee success.

Who is the most accomplished artist you’ve seen in person?

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60 thoughts on “Art Tatum’s Art”

  1. I suppose Van Cliburn. In about 1866 at Northrup. We were in the second to last row of the balcony near a corner. So with all that and my less than sensitive ear, I am naming him only by his reputation.

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      1. if you had a supersensative ear you wouldnt have been much better served in the back of northrup. its nice for ballet because you can see the stage well but the sound is atrocious. van cliburn is a great memory. 1866, 1966 whats a decade among friends. to bed at 430 is often a good idea.

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      2. I saw Van Cliburn with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in the S.I.U. arena in 1969. The performance was enhanced by vendors hawking popcorn and pop up and down the aisles during the performance just like at a football game. Incredible class; I was dumbfounded and a tad dismayed. Certainly a memorable performance for all the wrong reasons.

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  2. I think (although a memory this old is always suspect) that in the early to mid 70s, I heard E Power Biggs play the organ at Northrup. He played excellent Bach, but also a piece about (perhaps) the Revolutionary War, which he narrated as he played. (It may have been another war from the period. It was definitely a piece from the late 1700s.) It was amazing music and the war piece was extremely entertaining. Later we heard he had stopped giving concerts, and he died in 1977.

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  3. OT: I love this blog topic and want to think about it. Linda, Barb in Robbinsdale and I are headed for the cabin soon.

    First, a quick Liam update. A night ago my daughter was awakened at 2:30 AM by Liam (2 1/2 yrs old) calling from his bedroom. He sounded alert and clear-headed, which is rare at night.
    “Mommy! Mommy, I need you!”
    Molly found him sitting up and wide awake.
    “Here I am, Liam.”
    “Mommy, we need to talk.”
    “Sure, sweetheart. What do we need to talk about?”
    “Bears.”
    “What about bears?”
    “What do bears eat?”
    Molly explained that bears eat almost anything. She talked about how animals are usually carnivores–meat eaters–or eaters of vegetation. And bears eat almost everything or anything.
    “Mommy, do bears eat meat?”
    “Well, yes, sometimes. And they eat honey and berries and bugs and all kinds of stuff.”
    “Mommy . . . am I meat?”

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  4. Music has been one of my biggest interests since I was in high school. I’ve heard several musician who are legends and the top ones for me are John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. I like a wide range of music and have heard some great ones from various areas of music. I guess Coltrane and Ellington would top my list because it is by becoming a jazz fan that I developed my interest other kinds of music.

    I heard Ellington and his band toward the end of their playing days and they were not at their best. It was still an amazing performance. John Coltrane also did not play some of his best music when I heard him. He did play with enormous power and the rest of his famous band was barely able to keep up with him.

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    1. coltrane toured after miles before he died? must have been something.
      i saw duke in the late 60s and i dont know what he could have done better, he was old but man could that band swing. he had johnny hodges stand up and play a wonderful solo and talked about how trombonists are special breed of cat. what an outstanding memory
      thanks jim and thanks dale.

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  5. I’ve only known one great artist well by seeing him perform up close and personal. In the late 1960s I attended several hundred Leo Kottke coffee house performances. I knew him well enough to talk to him, but I mostly chose not to violate his privacy. I’ve seen other great guitarists in action, including John Fahey and Doc Watson. At some level it doesn’t seem possible to say that one is better than another, but the best guitarists I’ve known personally all agreed that Leo at his best was so wonderful they just shook their heads in amazement as they watched his fingers fly.

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    1. leos at the guthrie in a couple weeks for his holiday ditty. i sure like his stuff
      enjoy the cabin on a beautiful october weekend

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  6. i have been fortunate to have seen a bunch of wowsers. yo yo ma, itzack pearlman, count basie, duke ellingotn, miles davis, tommy makum, james taylor, randy newman, john denver bb king, bob dylan, bobby mcferrin, andre segovia, carlos montoyaa, carlos santana, lang lang, accomplished artist, maybe mick jagger, he sure is an artist, im going to see salmon rushde next week, i loved billy collins, how about garrison keilor, edward albee was a kick, amy tan was interesting, loudan wainright must have taken the cure and is fantastic to watch. i saw a ted clip by elizabeth gilbert about the inspiration that possesses you as a creative vessel . here:

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    1. Love this talk despite the fact that I really didn’t like “Eat, Pray, Love” at all. Love TED Talks. Didn’t read “Commitment.”

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  7. “My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.” Harry Truman
    “The piano has been drinking, not me.” Tom Waits

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  8. Maya Angelou – got to hear her speak, and read her poetry, several years ago. So so so fabulous. Not only a wonderful writer and creative spirit, but also very smart and willing to share her wisdom (also one of the most engaging speakers I’ve ever heard).

    Also Bonnie Raitt, James Galway, Walter Mosley, Jasper Fforde, The Who…

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  9. a weekend of memories to work on thanks dale.
    and oh yeah i love art tatum. lots of notes for sure, but the way he strings them together is like nobody else.
    yo yo was the first to pop into mind ( i would have bet dylan but no it was yo yo) i have sen him 4 `times i think. first in the schubert club at the ordway from the center tipppy top of the third balcony and it was wonderful ( there is a place with outstanding accoustics in all corners.orchestra hall even more so) the next time was in the cathedral in st paul where he played all of bachs cello concertos and blew me away. next time at the bibe college northern suburb with silk road. wow wow wow then back to schubert club where he shines again, i cant remember if he has an accompanist or not but its a one man show that takes your breath away.

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  10. Morning–

    I wish I could have seen some of those big band type performers; Duke or Benny Goodman. Or Cab Calloway. I am not familiar with Art Tatum.
    I have seen Leo Kottke. John Prine was sure fun too.
    But boy, “most” accomplished?
    I watched my friend Paul paint a fake marble floor last week. It’s pretty cool and he makes it look so easy. And wood grain: Paul does wood grain better than anyone else I’ve seen.

    I wont talk about Freddie Mercury this time.

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    1. ive got a friend like that with stucco and plaster and drywall stuff. takes impossible stuff and makes it look easy and perfect. you never think about it and thats the idea. until someone looks up at the ceiling and says how the heck would you ever do that?

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    2. If you saw Freddie Mercury live ever, I will have to be jealous of you the remainder of my living (and lucid) days. Such an amazing talent. And your pal Paul sounds like he’s not a slouch either – I am lousy at marbling.

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  11. anyone who plays jazz piano (i dabble) knows how insane Art Tatum’s playing is. really, no jazz pianist has come close to having his chops. (nobody since then, either.) i think he had a pretty happy life. not ‘nat king cole’ successful, but good considering the racial landscape of the time. his records were pretty widely available… i love the ’20th century piano genius’ recordings, particularly b/c they seem to have been taped in somebody’s house and you can hear people talking in the background, expressing reverence.

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  12. I’ve had the good fortune to meet very many accomplished musicians. I’ve met so many well-known folk musicians that I’m sure if I tried to list them, I’d leave someone out. I’m not able to say which of them is the ‘most accomplished,’ mostly because all of them are more accomplished than I am. So, I’ll just mention a few who’ve stood out for me.

    I got drunk one night in1993 with Rosalie Sorrels. She’s a really great lady with wonderful stories to tell; I do wish I hadn’t consumed so much wine.

    Tom Paxton and his wife are two of the nicest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. Tom is very down-to-earth and his kindness and generosity really shine through.

    Eliza Gilkyson is also nice and down-to-earth. I admire her gift for songwriting and her quiet, self-possessed style.

    Back in ’77, when I sang with the Manitou Singers at St. Olaf, I was thrilled to participate in the Christmas Festival. Ken Jennings was the director of the St. Olaf Choir in those days, and I think he is possibly one of the most accomplished musicians I’ve ever met. The experience of singing with that massed choir in front of this slight, energetic, white-haired man who used his quiet presence to instill vision in students, blew me away. My whole body trembled with the thrill and I broke out into a sweat. I stood there, trembling, singing, holding the sweating hands of the young women on either side of me, and wondering if I would ever have a greater thrill. So far, no – no greater thrill.

    I’ll think more about this and come back tomorrow.

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    1. Rosalie is really a wonderful story teller, isn’t she? So was Dave van Ronk. I never saw Rosalie drink before a performance, but she’d really kick back afterwards. Dave on the other hand, could and did perform after imbibing enough hard liquor that it would have put me out of commission. Don’t know how the heck he did it.

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  13. Like tim, I’ve been fortunate to see and hear lots of top notch talent. I’d have a pretty hard time picking the most accomplished. Most accomplished by what measure?

    I’ve seen Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in concert together in a relatively small hall in Copenhagen; was that ever fun. I’ve heard Mahalia Jackson sing in a church, also in Copenhagen. During my year in Switzerland in 1961 I attended a jazz festival and saw Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Miles Davis. Of those, I thought Oscar Peterson and Lionel Hampton were the most fun to watch, and I loved their music.

    Perhaps my most memorable performances were Aaron Copland conducting his own music on the 4th of July at Orchestra Hall two consecutive years back in the mid 70s.

    I was blown away, perhaps partly because of the occasion, but it’s undeniably powerful and stirring music.

    Having been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, John Steinbeck surely must rank among the most accomplished of writers; I was fortunate enough to meet him when I was the au pair for the American family in Moscow when he was their houseguest. Sitting across the breakfast and dinner table from a writer I had read extensively (in Danish translation) was truly amazing. I still can’t believe I had such luck.

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        1. Beethoven. Love Beethoven. Gimme a big Beethoven symphony and I’m a happy girl. (And unlike Copland, I manage to get the right number of e’s in his name every time.)

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        2. Gershwin is a very close third (said the woman who couldn’t leave her daughter’s room long after Miss Thing was asleep because there was a Gershwin suite playing on KSJN…).

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    1. Makes me sad to think that I arranged probably the smallest concert he has given in this area. Only about 20 people showed up to hear him at the Friends’ Meeting House on Grand Ave. about 10 years ago, this despite the concert having received wonderful press notices ahead of time as well as an interview with Dale on TLGMS. I know I was terribly disappointed, but being the consummate professional that he is, he put on a wonderful concert anyway. Afterward he said, it didn’t make sense to punish the people who showed up for all the ones who stayed away, and, of course, he was right. He couldn’t have been kinder or nicer.

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    2. We had him at Rock Bend a few years back. He’s an interesting guy. I didn’t get to hear much of him playing because of my duties on the other stage, but I did get to meet him and talk to him backstage.

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    3. Holly, do you know that the guy who arranges the MSU concert series is the keyboard player in City Mouse – Dale Haefner? Was this concert a few years back in early September? Dale sometimes gets one of the musicians who play at Rock Bend to play for the MSU concert series.

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  14. I haven’t been to nearly as many concerts as other baboons but I’ll have to vote for Bobby McFerrin. Saw him at orchestra hall and his range (vocal range and repertoire range) was fantastic and his interactions with the audience were warm and genuine.

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  15. How could I have not mentioned this: back in the early 90s, I saw Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger together in concert at the state fair. Seeing Arlo was cool, but hearing Seeger was like listening to and experiencing history: musical history, labor and social agitation history, the tumultuous parts of post-war America that I was too young to have experienced first hand. Plus the cool music. Amazing. Arlo’ed sing a tune and Pete would stretch out on his Persian rug. Then he’d clamber back up and sing something and then relax again when it was Arlo’s turn. A memorable bit: getting everyone in the audience to sing along with Wimoweh – each section had its part to sing.

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    1. I saw those two together many, many moons ago at Northrup Auditorium. Same sort of interaction. It was very evident that Pete and Arlo have a great deal of affection for each other and that the audience loved and revered Pete.

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    1. Very difficult to understand that kind of religious zeal, isn’t it? I know I don’t, just can’t comprehend it, although I know several people who share those views.

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  16. Oh, I mis-answered the question! Who is the most accomplished artist you have SEEN? (NOT, who is the most accomplished artist you ever shared a bottle of wine with!) So, to answer Dale’s question: Michael Hedges. I started listening to his music in the mid-’80s and I saw him twice at Orchestra Hall. Why does it seem that geniuses are taken at the peak of their creativity?

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    1. those windham hill guys were fantastic. george winston set the company up to loose money he could afford to loose after all the money he made from winter and the seasons music he struck gold on and instead they all made money and they were acknowledged as wonderful misicians that george brought to us. his other loves of vince guaraldi music and slack key guitar stuff may have finally succeeded in making all his money go away. but i think selling the lable took that out of the the equation but what a wonderful stable he had, guitarists ackerman, degrassi, hedges, pianists michael jones ,,george winston and the transformation to new age mellow soulful tunes. i loved many of those windham guys, kind of like blue note and a few others but not near enough. i saw michael hedges at the guthrie years ago and loved his plying too krista. amazing stuff

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      1. I saw Andreas Vollenweider once. Don’t remember a lot about it. Always liked George Winston and Windam Hill musicians– IF I was in the right mood. Wasn’t always conducive to working. Usually I need something with a better beat to keep me moving.

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    2. Before I read your comment I also recalled how Michael Hedges was the most amazing performer I have ever seen in person, when he came to play in a small club in Ames, Iowa in the late 1980s and I was fortunate enough to have a seat right next to the stage. I have never seen anyone perform with such possession of spirit.

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    1. When I saw him do this at Orchestra Hall, he did not have a drummer. He doesn’t need one – he pulls rhythm right out of the guitar. It was breathtaking!

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  17. OT – On Friday, November 9th. English singer/songwriter Pete Morton will be performing at the Claddagh coffee house on W. 7th street in St. Paul. An intimate venue with wonderful acoustics. I can supply more information to anyone who is interested in more details.

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  18. Great topic today, Dale. So many to choose from, most who have been mentioned already, mostly jazz players. The one that comes to mind as one of my finalists would be Maurice Andre, world renown trumpet player of the mid-20th century. I saw him at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis in the 70s when I was an aspiring trumpet player (jazz). He did a recital with organ. It was the first time I ever heard what I consider absolute perfection in a live performance.

    90 minutes or so of the most challenging trumpet pieces known to classical music. Most of the pieces I knew well enough to know if he missed any notes, cracked, wavered, or was slightly off pitch. EVERY high note was hit dead on, pitch perfect, every run was effortless, every octave leap was from a perfect C to a perfect high C, every held note was in perfect tune from pianissimo to fortissimo or vice versa.

    I left absolutely astounded that anyone could play trumpet perfectly. That happened almost 40 years ago and I still remember the feelings.

    My two cents, confirming what others have said: Art Tatum had no equal in jazz piano. The only one I ever heard in person who came even close was Oscar Peterson, brilliant in his own right, and head and shoulders above almost everyone else, but a distant second to Tatum’s sheer effortless genius.

    The only other artist I regret not hearing live other than Art Tatum is Eva Cassidy (Who to me was the “Art Tatum” of the female voice.

    Chris in Owatonna

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