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“I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house” — Fats Waller, on Art Tatum
Tatum grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he began playing piano professionally and had his own radio program, rebroadcast nationwide, while still in his teens. He left Toledo in 1932 and had residencies as a solo pianist at clubs in major urban centers including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Throughout his career, Tatum also played in after-hours venues at which he was said to be more spontaneous and creative than in his regular paid performances. Tatum drank large quantities of alcohol when performing; although it did not negatively affect his playing, it damaged his health. In the 1940s, Tatum led a commercially successful trio for a short time and began playing in more formal jazz concert settings, including at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events. Granz recorded Tatum extensively in solo and small group formats in the mid-1950s, with the last session occurring only two months before the pianist’s death from uremia at the age of 47.
His playing encompassed the styles of earlier musicians, while adding harmonic and rhythmic imagination and complexity. Acclaimed for his virtuoso technique, Tatum extended the vocabulary and boundaries of jazz piano. Saxophonist Benny Green wrote that Tatum was the only jazz musician to “attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools, and then synthesize those into something personal”. Tatum was able to transform the styles of preceding jazz piano through virtuosity: where other pianists had employed repetitive rhythmic patterns and relatively simple decoration, he created “harmonic sweeps of colour […and] unpredictable and ever-changing shifts of rhythm.”
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