Listening to Art Tatum

19th June 2009 | Daily Life, Inspirations, Musings | 1 comment

Bob has been writing about Art Tatum, the great American jazz pianist of the 1930s and 40s. Bob managed to find some transcriptions of Tatum’s piano solos in the library, and has been listening to Tatum’s recordings of those very pieces, comparing the recording with the transcription. I listened too because I’ve long been a fan of Tatum’s.

Tatum was blind, or virtually blind. One might think that this made it harder to play the piano fast and accurately. Yet his piano technique is defined by something very rare: a sense of absolute security in the way he moves about the keys. I’ve often wondered whether his sureness of touch was because of, and not despite, his blindness. Most pianists occasionally stumble over notes, and it may be because their faculty of sight is mis-applied for a split second. They forget to look at the keys and miss a jump, or they look in the wrong direction at a moment when they’re used to locating a particular note by sight before they play it. They know where notes are partly by sight and partly by ear. When they take their eyes off the keys, one of these steering devices is lost, leaving them momentarily rudderless.

Art Tatum, on the other hand, couldn’t use sight to find his way about the keyboard. He seemed to possess an exact and detailed internal map of the piano’s geography. Everyone who saw him play said that he moved very little, keeping his body still and just moving his hands about the keyboard, so fast that even high-flying pianists were bemused. His fast runs are still dazzling to listen to, and not just because we know they were improvised; it’s because of the mesmerising assurance of his touch. When you hear Tatum play, you get the feeling that he doesn’t have to calculate or measure where the notes are; he just knows. His technique is fundamentally different to that of most sighted pianists.

An interesting comparison can be made with the 20-year-old blind Japanese pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii who has just won joint first prize in the Van Cliburn piano competition. At the piano, he too has a rare security which is stunning to watch.

1 Comment

  1. Steve

    Yes I think your analysis is spot on. My sight is ok, but being an improving pianist (I hope) I would compare the skill with that of a good sight reader who never looks at the keys something I have never quite managed. I think it is no coincidence that blind poeple often become good instumental musicians. Another example being the jazz pianist George Shearing.


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