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Spotlight on Jazz-Art Tatum

June 15, 2011

Arthur “Art” Tatum, Jr. (October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist and virtuoso. He was nearly blind.
Tatum is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, “Tatum’s quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries … Art Tatum’s recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists.”Tatum built upon stride and classical piano influences to develop a novel and unique piano style. He introduced a strong, swinging pulse to jazz piano, highlighted with spectacular cadenzas that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated, grandiose and intricate. He sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres but generally he did not venture far from the original melodic lines of songs. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s and 1950s and beyond. But Tatum embellished those melodic lines with an array of signature devices and runs that appeared throughout his repertoire. As he matured, Tatum became more adventurous in abandoning the melodies and elongating those improvisations.
Tatum was an innovator in reharmonizing melodies by changing the supporting chord progressions or by altering the root movements of a piece. This technique casts a familiar theme in a fresh light and gives the music an unexpected quality. Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the jazz age) and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of ‘modern jazz’. Tatum also pioneered the use of dissonance in jazz piano, as can be heard, for example, on his recording of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues”, which uses extensive dissonance to achieve a bluesy effect. In addition to using major and minor seconds, dissonance was inherent in the complex chords that Tatum frequently used. Here is Mr. Tatum with Yesterdays.

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