Dave Ratcliffe Piano

Art Tatum
Keys of the Kingdom
by Don Asher, Jazzletter, March 1990

Come this November, he’ll have been gone 72 years, and no one’s ever got within shouting distance.

When I was 15 I dreamt one night that I was much older, playing the piano in a trio in a roadside outside Worcester, Massachusetts, one of those gutbucket saloons strung along the Worcester-Boston turnpike like dingy boxcars on a coal-littered siding. My daydream was to become a premier jazz pianist; I was eight months away from my first professional gig.

The tune I was playing in this dream, with bass and drum accompaniment, was Yesterdays—not the tepid Beatles Yesterday; it hadn’t been written yet—Jerome Kern’s Yesterdays, sweet sequestered days. As I ended on a tremolo D-minor chord I sensed looming behind me... a shadowy presence that made my skin creep, though I did not feel physically threatened. The sparse applause died. I turned and saw him emerge from the gloomy recesses of the bar, bloated, ponderous, walking with his hands slightly in front of him, sight only in a quarter of one eye, gleaming black face held at a rigid angle, single eye straining for light. Then he was saying in a deep gruff voice as he bent over me, hands spanning my shoulders, the beer-swollen paunch pressing gently into my back—a pudgy man’s inadvertent caress—“That was pretty, son, but try this chord in the second bar.”

The incredible flat spatulate fingers spread on the ivory, a Debussy-based chord resounding as if from a submerged cathedral (and ringing in my mind the next day). But the intervals were too irregular, beyond my harmonic ken. I couldn’t fix the configuration in my mind.

“Do that once more,” I said in my dream, but he was already off to the next bar and as I slipped out from under his arms he lowered his squat portly bulk onto the stool. The room grew very quiet, only the musicians knew who he was, but everyone seemed alert to an extraordinary transition, skinny journeyman white pianist giving way to the burly black man, face raised awkwardly to the light, the thrilling plangent godlike sound swelling to every corner, drums and bass awed, wisely laying out; no one plays with the High Commissioner.

*     *     *

At the time I was studying with Worcester’s foremost classical piano teacher, Martha Cantor. My Bach inventions and Chopin etudes were competent and respectful, but the music that was luring me sprang from contemporary revolutionary keyboards: Earl Hines, Fats Waller, Nat Cole, and most spectacularly, the blind virtuoso who had invaded my dream, Mr. Art Tatum from Toledo, Ohio.

“It’s cartwheels and magic,” an older pianist said, lending me a couple of Tatum’s records. “He puts us all in the deep shade.”

Soon after, Miss Cantor detected something course and alien infiltrating the texture of my playing. “Your legato lines are losing definition and clarity, Donald, and I can’t seem to put my finger on the difficulty.”

He was booked solo into Boston’s Hi Hat club. A half dozen fledgling musicians piled into my older brother’s jalopy and drove down the pike. The anticipation level was as high as if a carload of teenage baseball freaks were making their initial excursion to Fenway park in the days when Ted Williams ruled the pasture.

Our first sight of him was in the bar a floor below the main room. I recognized him from photos, which had been accurately reflected in my dream. I was surprised he was so short—five foot six or seven, gauging by my own comparable height; but broad, a dense low-gravity weight to him. The bartender was pouring bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer into a glass pitcher. When it was nearly brimful he handed it to Mr. Tatum. The pianist raised the pitcher to his mouth; he tilted his head, opened his gullet. Down the hatch in three or four stupendous swallows. Several of us were just starting to drink—glasses of beer and ale, swigs of Four Roses in back of the garage. But this was man’s work. What I had heard was true: he drank like he played, lustily, prodigiously. It was an auspicious introduction.

We followed him upstairs to a semi-dark two-thirds-filled room. He eased onto the bench, arms loose at his sides, head cocked as if sniffing something in the air. Only when the rustle and conversational hum subsided did he lift his hands. It was not a leisurely entry, no ruminative chording or testing-the-water arpeggio work. The hands plunged. And the music shouted and poured, wide as a river.

I can only convey image-flashes of that evening, a night landscape revealed in flares of bolt lightning.

Passages of whomping way-back whorehouse stride merged into jaunty lambent measures: a well-bred slightly sassy girl promenading in a new satin dress... a locomotive giving way to a unicycle. The sly passage work and raffish embroidery suggested Debussy playing barrelhouse. It was a matter of how receptive a state you were in, how loose a rein you allowed your imagination.

Some pianists’ hands caress the keyboard, others prance, skip, sculpt, browbeat, or bluster. Tatum’s alternately tap danced and marched; the dance puckish, airy, fantastic, the march that of an assured boulevardier. The latter bravura mode conveyed a spectacular parade, a panorama of the music’s early history from the raunch and swagger of New Orleans levee and bagnio parlor, upriver by paddle wheel (deckside brass bands outfitted in spanking regalia) to Kansas City and Chicago, where gangster-run honky-tonks, purveying hot music, bootleg gin, and whores in silk dresses, jumped into the sunrise. Mundane pop songs were cloaked in symphonic array and dazzling filigree. Playful interpolations—Stars And Stripes Forever, Short’nin’ Bread—studded serious compositions.

He played Massenet’s Elegie, played it straight, shimmeringly, then turned on the engines, transforming it to a blazing, rag-inflected juggernaut of sound. A classmate beside me whispered, “Now I understand The Charge of the Light Brigade.

He seemed to be connected to a volcanic fount of energy and invention from which he painted endlessly vivid canvases, the hands chasing each other on breakneck up-hill down-dale runs. If you closed your eyes it sounded like two highly gifted players, four hands, nimbly frolicking on the same keyboard, having a hell of a time for themselves. (Look closely at a jazz musician’s face when he is soloing and is pleased by his inventions, and you’ll often spy behind the concentration and intensity an expression of pure child: that carefree abandoned look you see on the faces of kids racing across a field or climbing playground bars. A neural affinity links kids having fun and grown-ups making music: block out everything extraneous and jump for joy.)

Get Happy he played at an impossible rocketing tempo. Around the room mouths fell open. “My god, his hands are a blur,” a woman said behind me. But the music wasn’t. The driving left hand and breakaway arpeggios conjured a train walloping across prairie tracks, hellbent, lickety-split. My bug-eyed classmate was trying to beat his thumb in sync with the tempo; it was like trying to match a hummingbird’s wings. On the edge of my chair, tense with the rollicking charge, I found myself gradually relaxing, slipping into reverie—I had boarded the train at the last station and was giddily swaying now with its careening motion, watching power poles, occasional barns, and grazing animals flash by, able to appreciate the landscape because of my instinctive trust of the engineer. He might have been a wild man, half-crazed or stoned or just naturally exuberant, but trust him I did on this highballing trip. Besides, what choice did I have but to gut it out, ride the express down to the end of the line?

Two courses into Fine and Dandy, some boisterous partyers settled at a table near the piano. Tatum instantly dropped his hands to his sides, patiently waiting until the interlopers were glared into silence. Then he was off again, this antic engineer, throttle out, a mother superior on wheels, booting it home, running with the wind.

We were subdued driving back, our exhilaration tempered by incredulity and, ultimately, depression, the pianists in the crowd contemplating a goal that could never be reached, knowing that much of what we had heard could not be done. We were young, nowhere near the limits of our powers, but we suspected—taking a squint down the long road—that the best we’d manage would be to hold our hands at forbidding distance to his bright flame and to try to warm ourselves.

Before the year was out I was working my first jobs in the southside Worcester dives and turnpike road houses. I fessed up to Miss Cantor—the indelibly fixed notes of long-dead composers, glorious though they were, no longer did it for me—and terminated my lessons. She was devastated. One of her prize pupils jumping ship at such a tender age to vanish, perhaps forever, beneath the waves of vulgarity.

We tried like mad to mimic him and fell back gasping. The notes could be superficially duplicated, lifted with enormous difficulty from records and read off transcriptions, but the velocity and verve and soul were missing—that bedrock groove running down the center of his style big enough for an elk to swing in.

I asked a respected classical pianist-composer and critic for one of the Boston papers if he had listened to Tatum, and if he had an opinion.

“There’s a demonic, almost diabolical quality to his playing,” he said. “The Furies must have gathered around his crib at birth, something infernal slipped into his mother’s milk.”

The overwrought references bewildered me. Why the sinister overtone? Can’t a comparable fervor and brilliance evolve from godliness? Wasn’t talent divine?

Tales arrived from New York that George Gershwin had brought luminaries from the classical world to his Seventy-second Street apartment and steered them to midtown clubs to hear the blind wizard. Horowitz, Godowski, Rachmaninoff, Gieseking, and Paderewski—a select fan club indeed—listened and were wowed. Horowitz particularly enjoyed the interpolations and endless variations on Gershwin’s songs. Rachmaninoff is said to have remarked to his colleagues, “If this man ever decides to play serious music we’re all in trouble.”

(Whatever Tatum’s inclinations, the path to “serious” music would have been a hard one for a black man in America in the 1930s and ‘40s.)

After Gershwin’s death the nightclub pilgrimages from the decorous world continued. Nightly the titan wrapped everything he played in the richest of harmonic and rhythmic raiment, displayed with a precision attack and ravishing tone. A story made the rounds that a music scholar recognized Arthur Rubenstein in the murky recesses of the Onyx Club. The scholar approached. “Maestro,” he said, “this is not your usual habitat.”

Rubinstein reportedly placed a finger to his lips. “Shhh, I am listening to the world’s greatest piano player.”

These surpassing musicians would not have been intimidated by the blazing technique and velocity; they too could fly. It must have been the audacious ex tempore improvisations forged at galloping tempos that floored them. Tatum would have been able to play—as can many jazz piano masters today—a very creditable Mozart sonata or Scriabin prelude. The classical recitalists, with very few exceptions (Andre Previn comes to mind), cannot begin to do what Tatum did. It’s mostly a one-way barrier between the two arenas.

I have heard distinguished classical pianists play flurries of wrong notes on pieces which the program informs us they have performed dozens of times. Jazz musicians are often bemused by this. We wonder how the superb artists, who have taken long months, a year, to master a piece, have turned it inside out and tucked it securely in their back pockets, can still flub during a performance. Spontaneity must be the key. They have time to get nervous. They think, uh-oh, here it comes, the string of sixty-fourth notes or the left-hand four-bar trill—maybe they had a late-afternoon snack that didn’t quite sit right, the stock market took a dive, the wife left a message just prior to the performance that Archie, the beloved Airedale, was taken to the vet—their concentration waivers for a split second, they blow it and there’s no recovering.

When jazz players solo, we’re inventing the notes at virtually the same time that we play them, so we don’t have time to get nervous. Even when we’re feeling frisky, forgoing familiar patterns and taking chances maybe we ought not to be taking—moving out to the edge and over, as we say—we can spot a potential fluff coming down the road and throw a hand up, so to speak, deflect it or pick it off in mid-air; then, in the same maneuver, keeping our wits about us, change course and shoot off in another direction, turning emergency to advantage like an adroit broken-field runner. The spontaneity and flexibility are all. We are not bound by the steel bars of written notes and have numerous escape routes. You’ll rarely hear—or at least be able to identify—a flawed passage from a first-rate jazz piano soloist; dull possibly, uninspired, but not defective.

*     *     *

There are few clues to Tatum’s wellspring. He was born in Toledo on October 13, 1910, and soon afterward contracted diphtheria, which damaged his eyes. Repeated surgery over the years restored much of his site, but a brutal mugging in his early teens left him permanently blind in the left eye and with a shadow of sight in the right.

His parents were amateur musicians. Early on he could play anything he heard on the radio or on piano rolls, but we’ve been told that about many a child prodigy. He mastered Braille music-reading at schools for the blind in Toledo and Columbus. At sixteen he played his first professional job with a local dance band, but soon veered from the combo direction taken by most pianists. He was hearing orchestral sounds in his head that paradoxically would be impeded by supporting instruments, and some of the kids coming up with him were scornful of his meager left hand; he vowed to show them. The solo format satisfied both urges.

Tatum’s artistic lineage can be broadly traced. He listened to Bach and Chopin and Scriabin. The James P. Johnson piano rolls intrigued him. He loved Fats Waller and was informed by the piston-drive of Fats’ left hand and the arrhythmic breaks and jubilant horn-like excursions of Earl Hines’ innovative right. At some point the heroic scope of the talent catapulted him into another realm.

He also admired and listened carefully to Lee Sims. As a teenager I had been spellbound by late-night fifteen-minute radio shots of Lee Sims’ solo work. He had Tatum’s facility for making an undistinguished pop ballad sound like a Chopin nocturne, transforming the material with bewitching harmonies and a satiny touch.

Hardly anyone remembers Sims today. I was startled recently by a spry woman in her seventies who approached me at the Cafe Majestic in San Francisco, where I play piano music nightly. She said, “You played that ballad in a way that reminds me of someone. Does the name Lee Sims mean anything to you?”

I stared. “He meant the world to me at fifteen. I would have given anything to play like that. Where did you hear him?”

“I not only heard him, I knew him, shall we say, intimately,” she answered with a coy smile. “That sweet man was one fine roll in the hay.”

I took a moment to digest this stunning, gratuitous intelligence.

*     *     *

In the late ‘40s I was leading a quintet on the fraternity house party circuit at Cornell in upstate New York. During Christmas and Easter breaks, if I knew Tatum was working on Fifty-second Street, I hopped the Lackawanna Railway into Manhattan, holed up in a fleabag hotel for one or two dollars a night, and camped out on the street of dreams. By now the bebop revolution was in full throttle; it did not interest or deter Tatum. His renown was international and his artistry had reached supernal heights. He performed heart-stopping high-wire acts nightly, climbed Mount Olympus, erected glistening Taj Mahals of sound. I thought of a placard on the wall of the McGraw Tower Library on campus: Architecture Is Frozen Music—Goethe.

Cavalier critics launched flea-bite attacks on the fortress of his style: the music could not breathe, he inundated the keyboard with florid geysers of notes. Never! Not for my money! I was thirst-crazed, insatiable. You play what you hear, and he heard more than any of us, a universe of sound, purls and shouts. The last time I ever heard him live—he would be leaving New York for an extended stay on the west coast—I wanted terribly to speak to him, to tell him, without fawning, that he had filled my life to brimming with his magic; hear his voice (the other voice, suspecting it would be as earthbound as the music was ethereal); to look at the hands close-up (I had heard he sensitized his fingers by constantly working through them a particular-sized filbert). I could not capture the nerve.

How do you approach a deity? It was two in the morning, the final set just finished. As I was agonizing, he rose wearily from the bench and turned toward the back room. The girl at the table behind me was suddenly galvanized. She was about my age, nineteen, curls under a beret, her face flushed with the joy of what she’d heard. She was pushing toward the bandstand against the flow of departing customers.

“Mr. Art... Mr. Tatum,” she called, her eyes pinwheeling with excitement. I imagined her an aspiring concert pianist, studying at Juilliard, making her pilgrimage from that other world. He turned slowly, gazing around, the heavy face gleaming with sweat. The girl stopped a few feet from him. She caught her breath. She said, “I want you to know... You do it better than anyone does it!”

Yes, that was what I had wanted to say.

I never made it to the benches of the premier jazz clubs. But in my travels I linked up with a Tatum disciple, the pianist Hampton Hawes, one of the keepers of the flame. I would later help him write his autobiography.

He told me of an incident that took place a few months before Tatum’s sudden death from uremia in 1956.

“I was working with Stan Getz at the Tiffany club in L.A.,” he said, “when Art Tatum showed up at the bar. Didn’t even know he was in the club till he came lumbering out of the shadows, head turned to the side and up—like Bela Lugosi coming at you, scare you if you didn’t know who it was. Moved right up to me and said, ‘Son, you hot. I came down to hear you.’”

(This set my scalp tingling. Son, as he had addressed me in my dream decades earlier.)

“Well, I knew I was playing good, getting there, but in the overall rundown of players I considered myself comparatively lukewarm at the time. And here’s Art Tatum looking weird at me out of the corner of one eye, saying, ‘Son, you hot.’

“I said, ‘I’m glad you came in and I wish you’d show me some of that stuff you do with your left hand.’

“He said, ‘I will if you’ll show be some of your right-hand stuff. Why don’t you come by my house?’ Gave me the address and we shook hands on it. I kept thinking, Son, you hot. From Tatum—that’s like the king telling you you’re one of the most loyal and courageous subjects of the land. Man came down to hear me play, shook my hand, said I was hot. It messed up my mind....”

“I kept meaning to go by his house, but by the time I got my head together and said, Tomorrow I’ll go by Art Tatum’s house, I heard on the car radio he was dead. Forty-six years old. On November 5, 1956. There should be a federal proclamation of that day, like Labor Day, ‘cause he sure must have worked his ass to the bone to play the way he did.”

*     *     *

In the spring of 1977, not long after Hawes had told me that story, I was a pall bearer at his funeral in Los Angeles. He was forty-eight; he had lived two years longer than Tatum, both of them barely into the summertime of their lives.

What is there about the music that strikes so early and exacts such a terrible toll? Our brothers on the other side, the Horowitzes, Heifetzes, and Rubinsteins, seem to endure into their ninth and tenth decades. Is it the tensions implicit in the more spontaneous, “less serious” craft—those perilous swings out to the edge— that dictate a baleful lifestyle? Something pernicious slipped into our mother’s milk? Or simply the saloon’s stamping grounds offering temptations not afforded by the concert hall?

On a beautiful May morning I gazed down at Hampton Hawes in his coffin, the hands still as stone by his sides, the fire cold. The hands that used leap and crackle like high-tension wires. I remembered asking him one afternoon—we were taking turns at the piano—why his version of the same up-tempo tune, using nearly identical chord changes, jumped and burned while mine simply lay there, correct but quiet. His humorous righteous answer contained, I’m convinced, a core of truth:

“When you went to church or temple as a kid you probably sang stuff like Rock of Ages and God Bless America. When I attended my daddy’s church—he was a faith-dealing Presbyterian minister—I was picking up on “You got shoes, I got shoes, all God’s children got shoes.”

My thoughts swung to Tatum, how he could drop his hands loosely to his sides, waiting for the silence so he could continue to dance. Now, for both of them, the silence was forever.

And you know you would give the keys to the kingdom to have them back and play it just one more time.

*     *     *

In 1982 I met Earl Fatha Hines, the daddy of us all. He was then in his 77th year—a biblical span for a jazz musician—working the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco, having outlived many of his children. I 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.

Tatum’s sister Arline Taylor, informed critic-historian Whitney Balliett that moments before she received the phone call that told her her brother had just died in Los Angeles, she heard the screen door of her house in Milwaukee open and close. She asked her husband if he’d heard it. “He said yes and went to the door, which was latched, as always.”

Why should I doubt Arline Taylor’s word when the reverberations from her brother’s hands and heart, first heard a half century ago, still sing in my mind like a carillon?

I was in Boston the night the news broke. Knots of musicians gathered outside the clubs and cafes with soft downcast looks, rueful shakes of the head, exhalations of breath—the futile gestures of an inexpressible regard. Remembrances of recorded gems were exchanged: the uncanny interior voices on The Way You Look Tonight (which sounded, a guitarist said, “like it was recorded in 2029 by some harmonic genius we haven’t heard from yet”), the high-stepping stride and get-out-of-my-way runs on Cherokee.

*     *     *

We keep trying to capture the elusive pulse, simulate the daring trapeze work, tune into the grave. We weep at his early departure and are joyous he came our way. He led us a merry chase, this lion-heart roaring down the Route 66 of American classical music (luring us onto strange byways, uncharted back roads), and has now put permanent distance between us.

But there are rare moments during the rendering of compositions associated with him—Yesterdays, Sweet Lorraine—when a curious vibrancy charges us, and for a half chorus or so we take wing, soaring above our landbound selves. A new dimension, an altered emotional and rhythmic edge enter our playing. We interpret pieces in a way and with a spirit we never have before. We can’t explain it, even to ourselves. It’s as if there is the breath of someone else in us.

That was pretty, son, I keep remembering from my dream. How would I not?

An unsolicited accolade from Mr. Tatum of Toledo.

In Memoriam,