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.