Dave Ratcliffe Piano

Fats Waller and Art Tatum, 1943
Art Tatum: God Is In The House

This album of Art Tatum is without equal presenting, as Dan Morgenstern describes in its liner notes, “for the first and only time, the after-hours Tatum, the relaxed, informal, completely at ease Tatum.... In almost everything that has been written about Tatum, the point is made that he played his best not in recording studios, night clubs or concert halls, but after hours. After hours was a very special term in jazz parlance in the days when Tatum flourished.”

Writing in “Keys of the Kingdom” (1990), Don Asher described meeting Earl Hines in 1992 and “asked him about his star progeny”:

He said, “to hear Art at his peak you had to be present at the after-hours sessions and house parties when he’d roll right through till nine, ten in the morning. That’s when he really turned it on.”

“You mean better than the records, the club performances? How could that be?”

“Ten times better, ten times!” Hines slapped his thigh. “He did things that were not possible on the piano. You had to be there.”

This from the undisputed patriarch of jazz piano recounted with boyish glee, a high remembering shine in the eyes.

In collaboration with Anthony Calabrese, Maurice Waller wrote a biography about his father titled simply, Fats Waller. He recounts the time in 1932 when Art Tatum first arrived in New York City and how the giants of stride piano learned there was a new king of the heap.

During Pop’s last days at the Hotfeet Club a rumor was spreading that a young accompanist for singer Adelaide Hall was the new king of the heap. When Pop knew the Hotfeet Club was closing, he made it a point to look up the young pianist, Art Tatum.

Art was born and raised in Toledo, and he picked up most of his early experience playing in and around northern Ohio and learning from James P.’s and Dad’s piano rolls. Tatum developed his own style from stride, a giant step in the evolution of jazz and its techniques. He used new and unusual harmonies, augmented with unbelievable arpeggios and multitime patterns played by both hands. While on tour, Reuben Harris heard Tatum play in an Ohio nightspot and urged him to go to New York. Art did so and soon landed his first job as Adelaide Hall’s accompanist. The people who heard his new style soon spread the word around that a new king of the keyboard had appeared on the scene.

Dad walked backstage at the Lafayette unannounced, and introduced himself to the eighteen-year-old Tatum. He arranged to show Art the town the next night and then sat backstage to listen to the new challenger. He only heard Art play background chords for Adelaide and was totally unimpressed with the newcomer. Confidently, he looked forward to the next night’s meeting.

The next day Dad showed up at the backstage entrance with Willie The Lion, James P. Johnson, and Lippy Boyette. Before leaving the theatre, Art wanted to pick up Reuben Harris, with whom he was staying while in New York. Dad didn’t mind—the more the merrier.

They roused Reuben out of bed and hit the town, stopping at a few speaks to quench their thirst. James P. and Dad were eager to do battle with Tatum at the piano, so they searched for a club with a suitable instrument, eventually choosing Morgan’s, a small Harlem bar. One of the entourage sat down at the piano and began warming up in anticipation of the main event. The crowd at Morgan’s must have felt the excitement in the air because the place took on the atmosphere of a rent-party competition.

Pop urged Art to take the stool and show off his stuff. Art played the main theme of Vincent Youmans’ big hit, “Tea for Two,” and introduced his inventive harmonies, slightly altering the melodic line. Good, but not very impressive. Then it happened. Tatum’s left hand worked a strong, regular beat while his right hand played dazzling arpeggios in chords loaded with flatted fifths and ninths. Both his hands then raced toward each other in skips and runs that seemed impossible to master. Then they crossed each other. Tatum played the main theme again and soared to an exciting climax.

Reuben Harris looked around at the opened-mouthed faces of Harlem’s Waller, Willie The Lion, and James P. Jimmy took the stool and played “Carolina Shout” as if his hands were possessed by a demon. But it wasn’t good enough. Next Dad took over and played his own specialty, “A Handful of Keys.” The crowd cheered when their hometown boy finished, but it appeared as if Tatum still had a slight lead. Tatum followed Dad and had the place jumping with “Tiger Rag.” James P. had one last trick up his sleeve, his brilliant version of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” Dad told me he never heard Jimmy play so remarkably, but the performance fell short. Tatum was the undisputed king. In comradeship, the four men threw their arms affectionately around each other and Tatum was duly toasted.

James P. remembered the occasion and commented, “When Tatum played “Tea for Two” that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.” Dad never forgot the event and always regarded Art Tatum with reverence. Years later Dad was playing at the Yacht Club, and one night Art stopped in to hear him. Pop stopped and introduced Tatum to the audience. “I just play the piano,” he said, “but God is in the house tonight.” Just before his death Dad granted an impromptu interview to the New York Times, and commented about Art and James P. Johnson. Remembering that night at Morgan’s, Dad said:

That Tatum, he was just too good and it looked like they were running him out of the city. He had too much technique. When that man turns on the powerhouse don’t no one play him down. He sounds like a brass band....

In 1931 Tatum’s style, especially his harmonic progressions, was revolutionary. My father, James P., and Willie The Lion had led a revolution that changed the rhythms and patterns of piano playing, but Tatum was changing the way music itself was structured. (pp. 96-98)

Another account of a magic-infused Harlem after-hours session is described in James Lester’s Too Marvelous for Words: The Life & Genius of Art Tatum (1994).

Les Paul, the highly influential jazz guitarist, still playing once a week in New York at this writing, has a vivid memory of another one of those Harlem after-hours session, in what would have to be described as the ultimate after-hours place. The story goes a long way to explain how Tatum was able to make a hopeless piano sound acceptable.
I’ll never forget this night, we were playing up in Harlem, and we took him up there, and he says, “What is that I smell?” I says, “We’re in a mortuary.” And we were down there and they had a guy on the drainboard. And we hadda walk through this, you know—where they do the work, go by him while he’s being drained, and go in the next room where there’s a jam session. And they had a washtub of beer. When you wanted a beer you threw a dime in the ice in the washtub and took a beer. And we had a can opener there, and you opened the beer, and that was it. So this night Tatum was playing the piano, Marlowe [Morris] was playing the piano, Billy Kyle, he was playing the piano, Teddy Wilson was there, there must have been about five piano players there, down in that funeral parlor. And when they were playing Art says to me, “Is that F# key stuck?” I says, “Yeah.” And he says, “Is that E stuck?” I said, “Yeah, it’s down, too.” He said, “Any others down?” I said, “No, those are the only two.” He says, “OK, get me another beer.” So I got him another beer, and finally he says, “Well, I’m ready to go up there.” So when he got up there, boy, he blew everybody away, and whenever he’d make a run down, he’d have those two keys pulled up. So with his other hand he’d pull those two keys up so they were ready to go down. And when he hit ’em and they were down, why, he’d pull ’em up again with his other hand. Which just stunned everybody, that this guy had it all worked out before he went up there, and he had two detours that he had to make sure were taken care of. (pp. 79-80)

In this paean to the unique spirit of after-hours, two favorite gems are Fine and Dandy and Begin The Beguine. Tatum’s seemingly effortless rhythmic fluidity underpinning and supporting the swinging melodic lines—interwoven with Reubin Harris “discreetly, moving two whiskbrooms over a folded newspaper placed on a chair” (!)—is truly out of this world.

ONYX 205

This is the first in a series of albums culled from the Jerry Newman Collection—a unique archive of location recordings made in New York City in the early 1940s.

Jerry Newman was then a student at Columbia University, a dedicated jazz fan, and the proud owner of portable disc recording equipment. At first, he recorded only private sessions held at his home; then he began to take his recorder uptown to Harlem clubs and after-hour spots. He soon found that the musicians didn’t object to his recording them—on the contrary, they were pleased to hear their spontaneous creations played back.

In time, Newman accumulated a fascinating treasury of “field recordings”. He was in the right places at the right time, and what had begun as a lark turned out to be a momentous contribution to the recorded literature of jazz.

This series is dedicated to the memory of Jerry Newman and the musicians he recorded, and made possible by special arrangement with the Jerry Newman Estate and the estates of the artists.

*      *      *

Genius is inexplicable, but Art Tatum, when asked, usually cited Fats Waller as his main inspiration. “Fats, man. That’s where I come from. And quite a place to come from,” he once told an interviewer.

Waller, in turn idolized Tatum. Once, when Tatum entered a club where Fats was performing, he stopped the music and announced “Ladies and gentleman, I play piano, but God is in the house tonight!”

Tatum was a sort of deity to his fellow musicians—not just to pianists, but players of any instrument. No practitioner of the music called jazz had (or has) such perfect technical command, in the traditional sense, as did Art Tatum. But it wasn’t just his astonishing facility that inspired awe in his colleagues. It was his phenomenal harmonic sense, his equally uncanny rhythmic gift, and his boundless imagination. Technique was merely the vehicle through which he expressed himself. What others could imagine, Tatum could execute, and what he could imagine went beyond the wildest dreams of mere musical mortals.

In almost everything that has been written about Tatum, the point is made that he played his best not in recording studios, night clubs or concert halls, but after hours.

After hours was a very special term in jazz parlance in the days when Tatum flourished. Sadly, one has to use it in the past tense today, for there is no real after hours scene anymore.

But in the ’30s and ’40s, after hours was a way of life for the creative jazz musician. An outgrowth of prohibition (when liquor became legal, many speakeasies turned into places serving it after the prescribed hours), after hours places sprung up especially in the black urban communities throughout the land. Kansas City under Pendergast was one long after-hours party, but Harlem was the place where jazz legends were made after Kansas City shut down.

After hours spots ran the gamut from big and fancy to small and plain. Most went into action after the legitimate clubs and bars closed, but others opened when the regular after hours spots closed (these were known as after after hours places). All of them had a piano, even if it was just an old upright with some keys, hammers or strings missing.

No jazzman with the spirit of the music didn’t frequent after hours spots, but a few were specialists in the field. These included Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page and Art Tatum.

Tatum loved after hours. His very first jobs in his native Toledo were at house rent parties, where he would play solo, back all manner of singers, or visiting instrumentalists.

It was in such environments, perhaps, that Tatum developed his tolerance for modestly gifted or entirely untalented singers or players, whom he would supply with the most ravishing backdrops. But perhaps not—as Charlie Parker, Tatum was interested in everything he could hear, and he could hear everything ... a limited blues pianist, who might have a certain feeling; a third-rate cocktail lounge tickler, who might have a special run—anything at all within the vast spectrum of music, popular or serious, was grist for his ears.

And Tatum relished competition. Working in a club might offer an occasional opportunity for combat, but that was rare. After hours, on the other hand, or on Monday nights, when musicians gathered somewhere to exchange ideas and socialize, such opportunities were almost unlimited. Tatum was conscious of his superiority yet had a need to sharpen his wits and chops against all comers.

This unique record reveals, for the first and only time, the after-hours Tatum, the relaxed, informal, completely at ease Tatum. (Yes, I know, there’s a marvelous two-record set of stuff recorded at a private party in Hollywood in ’56, but Hollywood parties aren’t Harlem after hours, and ’56 wasn’t ’41....)

ART TATUM, piano
(Recorded November 11, 1940)
Side A
1. GEORGIA ON MY MIND . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  2:15
2. BEAUTIFUL LOVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  1:43
3. LAUGHING AT LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  1:00
ART TATUM, piano; REUBEN HARRIS, whiskbrooms
(Recorded May 7, 1941)
4. SWEET LORRAINE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3:01
5. FINE AND DANDY . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  4:03
6. BEGIN THE BEGUINE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3:52
ART TATUM, piano, vocal*
(Recorded July 26, 1941)
7. MIGHTY LAK A ROSE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3:36
8. KNOCKIN’ MYSELF OUT. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  4:03
Side B
1. TOLEDO BLUES. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3:30
2. BODY AND SOUL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  3:32
ART TATUM, piano; OLLIE POTTER, vocal;
(Recorded July 27, 1941)
3. THERE’LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE . . . . . . . . .  3:29
ART TATUM, piano; FRANK NEWTON, trumpet;
(Recorded Sept. 16, 1941)
4. LADY BE GOOD . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  4:30
5. SWEET GEORGIA BROWN . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  7:19

The earliest recordings here were made at Jerry Newman’s apartment on November 11, 1940. Tatum liked the enthusiastic young fan and was intrigued by on-the-spot recording, so he allowed Newman to follow him on his tours of Harlem and set up his portable machine.

Many years ago, Newman played some of his Tatum material on a New York FM station, and I recall a few things he said about the circumstances. For instance, Reuben’s at 242 W. 130th St. was a small place frequented by piano players, and the owner, Reuben Harris, liked to play along with them, discreetly, moving two whiskbrooms over a folded newspaper placed on a chair. The piano, if I recall correctly, was not a full-keyboard instrument. But Tatum liked the place, and dropped in often.

The Gee-Haw Stables on W. 132nd St., so called because a sculpted horses’ head graced the entrance, was an after-after hours place where the action started around 7 a.m. and would often go until noon the next day. Bassist Chocolate Williams, heard on some tracks here, had the house band.

Near the Gee-Haw was Clark Monroe’s Uptown House (198 W. 34th St.), a spot that rivaled Mintons in attracting major league jazzmen for after hours jamming. It was on the premises that had once held Barron Wilkens’ Exclusive Club. In 1943, Monroe moved to 52nd St. where, as operator of The Spotlight, he became the Street’s first black club owner.

Though all these were good-time spots where the noise of partying often got pretty loud, Newman seems to have had little trouble in persuading the customers to maintain a minimum of decorum but the occasional shouts or sighs of approbation that grace these tracks are a natural complement to the music.

There is no need here to go into detailed analysis of Tatum’s style—for the best work in this genre, I recommend Dick Katz’ essay on some Tatum records, published in Jazz Panorama [original: The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, No. 8 (Sept. 1959), pp.28-30], edited by Martin Williams—but it seems worthwhile to make a few points.

First, Tatum doesn’t seem bothered or inhibited by the condition of the instruments he has to play here. In fact, he seems to adapt himself so well to their various shortcomings that one gets the feeling he enjoyed the challenge—circumventing dead keys or adapting himself to different kinds of out-of-tuneness might well have played a major role in sharpening his harmonic wits and manual dexterity. In any case, he was a wizard, and the relaxed convivial atmosphere no doubt made up for such handicaps.

Second, Tatum, who has been called the soloist par excellence, the man who needed no others to play with or for, seems inspired by the presence of audiences and other music-makers, be they singers or instrumentalists. Certainly, the level of inspiration he reaches on the two tracks with trumpeter Frank Newton and bassist Ebenezer Paul is as high if not higher than in any solo performance here (or elsewhere, for that matter). And the goodnatured jive of Chocolate Williams as well as the singing of Ollie Potter brings forth some tremendous playing. Could it be that Tatum, sometimes criticized for not being a “real” jazz musician, in fact was very much that—so much so that he functioned best when he had company?

That may be exaggeration, but it certainly seems that he did function most completely when he had an audience he knew he liked. A performance such as the wonderful Toledo Blues would have been impossible in the concert hall. When Tatum was granted the too-rare privilege of playing there, he cast himself, quite logically, in the role of a concert artist—which he played better than any other jazzman, it must be said. And when he played nightclubs, he usually was too annoyed by the inattention of babbling drinkers-sightseers to really relax and enjoy himself. Toledo Blues was for his good friends, and we are privileged to partake of it. But we can also be sure that this wasn’t the first or only time that Tatum sang the blues, as witness his surprise chorus on Knockin’ Myself Out.

Two of the three first tracks are little sketches—fascinating fragments. But the third, Georgia On My Mind, is a full-fledged on-the-spot interpretation of a standard, the kind of thing at which Tatum has no equals. And don’t miss his breaks in the second chorus ... what equilibrium!

The three pieces from Reuben’s (May 7, 1941) are utterly relaxed. Sweet Lorraine, was one of the pianist’s favorites, and this version surpasses, I think, any others. The final chorus is a compendium of Tatum’s improvisatory, harmonic, rhythmic and technical genius. Fine and Dandy is a masterpiece—how he sustains the swing of the fine medium tempo—and, good friend that he is, he gives Reuben a few little breaks at the end. Begin the Beguine is a set piece, and Tatum seems to want to play it pretty much as he did on the record. (This was the “arrangement” which Eddie Heywood simplified and became famous for.)

Mighty Lak A Rose (from the Gee-Haw) is the kind of piece serious critics didn’t like Tatum to play—Coleman Hawkins played it, too. Maybe it is 19th Century “salon” (as opposed to saloon) music, and pretty shallow, but what Tatum does with it shows that he didn’t exactly revere it. It’s when he goes into tempo that things begin to happen—and what a tempo! What chops! The opening sounds to me as if Tatum is feeling out the piano to see where its deficiencies lie. He adapts himself to them almost instantly.

Lil Green’s Knockin’ Myself Out is a charming bit of period jive ... or maybe not so “period”—getting high on grass has hardly become passe. Chocolate Williams has nice time, and what Tatum does in the cracks shouldn’t be legal. He sings a humorous chorus of his own, in that veiled voice we hear more clearly on Toledo Blues, and then, in response to Williams’ “Tatum!”, plays a chorus of inspired blues piano. (In his wrapup verse, Williams calls him Mr. Tatum.) Body and Soul was a piece Tatum played often; this version is very fanciful (the second bridge!) and full of little humorous touches—Tatum had fun when he played; he enjoyed his own virtuosity and enjoyed others enjoying it. This aspect of his art doesn’t sit well with intellectual critics. There’ll Be Some Changes Made also from the Gee-Haw shows Tatum’s complete harmonic and rhythmic freedom, at a fine tempo. He accompanies the singer helpfully and backs the pleasant bass solo with some startling inventions.

The two final performances from Clark Monroe’s Uptown House are sensational. Newton is up to playing with Tatum—his ear is sure enough not to be thrown by the unorthodox backing, especially on Sweet Georgia Brown. On Lady Be Good, Newton shows us where Sweets Edison comes from. A master of mutes (including the almost whispery one he plays here), he was one of the three great post-Armstrong trumpeters, along with Roy Eldridge and Lips Page. It’s good to have these indications of his worth; he was under-recorded throughout his career.

The complexities of Tatum’s accompaniments and solos are such that it is impossible to take these two performances in at even several hearings. You’ll find yourself listening first to Art, then to Frank, then to both, again and again. Sweet Georgia Brown, I humbly submit, is one of the most remarkable pieces of spontaneously improvised jazz music ever captured by a recording device.

Notes: Dan Morgenstern
Cover Photo: Courtesy Don Schlitten
Recording: Jerry Newman
Remastering: Paul Goodman (RCA)