One of my earliest memories is of listening to my parents’ LP record collection, which featured some of the greatest jazz pianists of the day.I was a complete failure at piano lessons as a kid, and never mastered reading music. Though I couldn’t play, I could always spin records, and I became a fan of jazz at around age 3. At 73, I’m still playing those records. For this #BlackMusicSunday, join me in a celebration of two of the early greats who sat down to tickle the ivories and make music history.
Many people who are not necessarily avid jazz fans still listen to pianists, since the piano is one of the most popular instruments to learn to play. For the next few weeks (or more), I plan to look at instruments we associate with jazz and jazz extensions, and the musicians who mastered them. I’m kicking this sub-series off with the ebony and ivory magic we’ve been gifted with from two phenomenal Black jazz keyboardists; Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.
Before we get started, for those of you who may not play the piano, or know much about jazz piano, who need a review or want to learn more, this amusing and insightful piano lesson, given by the late Oscar Peterson on The Dick Cavett Show in 1975, is a delight, and an education on a variety of styles of jazz piano play. He demonstrates the styles of Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Erroll Garner, and George Shearing—and even sings a bar or two.
Though I’ll also be talking about Peterson later, the man at the top of my greatest jazz pianists list, in agreement with many jazz musicians, is the late great Art Tatum. There is an oft-repeated story about Tatum; here’s how NPR tells it.
The great stride pianist Fats Waller famously announced one night when Tatum walked into the club where Waller was playing, "I only play the piano, but tonight, God is in the house."
This legend is responsible for one of Tatum’s many albums being named God is in the House. Here is Tatum’s rousing rendition of “Lady Be Good” from that album, with bassist Ebenezer Paul and trumpet player Frankie Newton.
Tatum’s story is one of triumph over physical adversity: He was born legally blind.
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. From birth he suffered from cataracts which left him blind in one eye, and with only very limited vision in the other. He played piano from his youth (after switching from the violin) and received some formal training before developing his amazing technique on his own.
A remarkable prodigy, Tatum learned to play by copying piano roll recordings his mother owned, playing by ear by the age of three. Tatum would learn both parts of a piece for four hands by feeling the keys depressed on the piano. By the age of six he was able to play songs originally performed as duets, unaware that there were supposed to be two players. In this way, he developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing any of his accuracy. As a child Tatum was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation, and insisted it be tuned often.
WGTE-TV produced this short documentary on Tatum in 1983, for their “Toledo Stories” series. They describe the world of Toledo during prohibition, with a thriving nightlife in speakeasy’s and after-hours joints—where young Art got his start.
Musicians who came through Toledo—like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller—encouraged him to leave and head to New York, but it didn’t happen until Tatum was ready to go.
In “Art Tatum, Greatest Jazz Pianist Who Ever Lived,” Avil Beckford writes about Tatum’s eventual exit from Ohio.
In 1932, jazz singer Adelaide Hall heard Tatum perform and brought him to New York as her second accompanist. He made most of the opportunity – that same year he made his first record as her accompanist and the next year he made his first solo record. Tatum would stay with Hall for two years and during that time she gave him increasingly more demanding roles.
In New York, Tatum spent the time needed to discover after-hours clubs, and sought out the very best players. Tatum had a very competitive and combative nature, always wanting to show off his superior talent. He would wait until all the players had performed and shown their best, then he would simply outplay them. He would play what they played then added to it with inventive and creative variations.
According to Tatum’s biographer James Lester, “The reigning kings of jazz piano, Fats Waller, Willie “the Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson, “invited” Tatum to a session the following night [the night after his first appearance with Adelaide Hall]. By all accounts, the Toledo youngster ascended to the pinnacle that evening, never to be dethroned. As writer Robert Doerschuk reported mentor Waller’s words: “That Tatum, he was just too good…. 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.””
As a side-note, if you’ve never heard of Adelaide Hall, who was a major star, and is thought to have initiated scat singing, here’s a link to a 1989 special on her life and career.
In the WGTE-TV documentary, classical violin virtuoso Itzak Perlman—who was wowed by Tatum—talks about Tatum’s facility with the classical genre. Here’s Tatum styling Dvorak.
For a deeper exploration of Tatum, his music and his impact on jazz, I suggest you read his biography by James Lester: Too Marvelous for Words: The Life & Genius of Art Tatum.
Art Tatum defined the limits of the possible in jazz piano. Gunther Schuller called Tatum's playing "a marvel of perfection.... His deep-in-the-keys full piano sonority, the tone and touch control in pyrotechnical passages...are miracles of performance." Whitney Balliett wrote "no pianist has ever hit notes more beautifully. Each one--no matter how fast the tempo--was light and complete and resonant, like the letters on a finely printed page." His famous runs have been compared to the arc left against the night sky by a Fourth-of-July sparkler. And to have heard him play, one musician said, "was as awe-inspiring as to have seen the Grand Canyon or Halley's Comet."
Now, in Too Marvelous For Words, James Lester provides the first full-length biography of the greatest virtuoso performer in the history of jazz. Before this volume, little was known about Tatum, even among jazz afficionados. What were his origins, who taught him and who provided early pianistic influences, how did he break into the jazz field, what role did he play in the development of other jazz players, and what was he like when he wasn't playing? To answer these questions, Lester has conducted almost a hundred interviews for this book, with surviving family, childhood friends, schoolteachers, and the famous jazz musicians who played with him or knew him.
Lester creates a memorable portrait of this unique musician and of the vibrant jazz world of the 1930s and 1940s, capturing the complexity and vitality of this remarkable performer. Tatum, who was virtually blind, suffering between 70% and 90% visual impairment, emerges as cheerful, fun-loving, energetic and out-going, with none of the demonic self-destructiveness that seemed to haunt such jazz greats as Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday. He often joked about his blindness, but did not like it mentioned as a handicap and preferred to pre-plan his entrance to the piano in a club, rather than have someone lead him there. He was simply inexhaustible and had a life-long habit of staying up all night after a gig, usually seeking an after-hours club in which to listen and play until daybreak. Lester also reveals that Tatum was generous with younger players, but his extraordinary technical brilliance often devastated them. No less a talent than Oscar Peterson remembers that after first hearing Tatum, "I gave up the piano for two solid months, and I had crying fits at night."
Peterson builds on the power Tatum held over him in this often humorous conversation with Count Basie; they share memories of Tatum in this 1975 BBC show. As Peterson states, “Art Tatum used to literally intimidate pianists.”
Still struggling to wrap your head around Tatum’s sheer virtuosity? Here are three very different versions of him playing “Tea for Two.” (3 versions in comparison: 1: 00:00, 1933. 2: 03:15, 1939. 3: 05:54,1953.
Which one do you prefer?
Sadly, there isn’t much video footage available of Tatum playing. Though you can hear his mastery, watching his fingers float over the keys is, in and of itself, a magical experience.
Oscar Peterson—mentioned above—was and still is considered to be one of the towering giants of the jazz keyboards from his era. When he passed on, he had a must-read, lengthy obituary,
written by Steve Voce
for UK’s The Independent.
Much beloved in England, Peterson was born in Montreal, Canada.
Following Oscar Peterson on stage at a concert in 1967, Duke Ellington remarked: "When I was a small boy my music teacher was Mrs Clinkscales. The first thing she ever said to me was, 'Edward, always remember, whatever you do, don't sit down at the piano after Oscar Peterson'."
In 1953, Nat King Cole said to Peterson, "I'll make a deal with you, Oscar. You don't sing and I won't play the piano." Peterson had just recorded his first album of vocals, accompanying himself on the piano. His voice sounded remarkably like Cole's and his piano style had also evolved so that it sounded close to Cole's work with Cole's own trio. The two jazz musicians agreed, and Oscar Peterson gave up singing, while Nat King Cole recorded piano-less vocals backed by huge orchestras.
Earlier, in 1945, a 16-year-old John Williams, later to be Stan Getz's pianist, was on tour in Canada with the Mal Hallett band and was playing in Montreal. "All the talk in the crowd was of a brilliant local pianist," said Williams, "and as we played, suddenly, between numbers, the packed audience in the dance hall parted like the Red Sea and this huge guy came up towards the bandstand. With some insight, I vacated that piano bench quick and he sat down. He played, and we were stunned. I had never heard anyone play like that."
Peterson was a child prodigy, and he’d been playing “like that” for most of his life.
Oscar Peterson was the fourth of five children. He was raised in the poor St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal, also known as Little Burgundy. His parents hailed from St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands. His mother, Kathleen, was a domestic worker. His father, Daniel, was a boatswain in the Merchant Marines who became a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway. A self-taught amateur organist and strict disciplinarian, he led the family band in concerts at churches and community halls. He insisted that all of the Peterson children learn piano and a brass instrument. Each in turn taught the next youngest child.
Oscar began playing trumpet and piano at age five. He focused solely on piano at age eight following a year-long battle with tuberculosis. (The disease claimed the life of his eldest brother, Fred, at age 16.) Oscar’s first instructor was his sister, Daisy. She became a respected piano teacher in Montreal’s Black community. Her later pupils included the jazz musicians Oliver Jones, Joe Sealy and Reg Wilson. Peterson’s brother, Chuck, became a professional trumpet player. His other sister, May, taught piano. She also worked for a time as Oscar’s personal assistant.
Peterson studied piano during his youth and teens with teachers of widely different backgrounds. At the age of 12, he briefly took piano lessons from Louis Hooper, a classically trained Canadian veteran of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s. Later, Peterson attended the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal. At 14, he studied with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist in the 19th-century tradition of Franz Liszt. Peterson was also a classmate of trumpet player Maynard Ferguson. They played together in a dance band led by Maynard’s brother, Percy.
The virtuoso tells his own story, and a lot of jazz history along with it, in A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson.
Oscar Peterson's career as a jazz pianist has spanned over five decades. During that time, he has recorded nearly 90 albums, won seven Grammys, and earned lifetime achievement awards from the Black Theatre Workshop, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. He has played with, and come to know, many of the genre's greatest contributors, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington[...]
Peterson guides readers through the turbulent 1940s, when he was playing with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra in Montreal, and first met Norman Granz - the jazz producer who would launch his career. With Granz, he joined Jazz at the Philharmonic, playing at Carnegie Hall and touring all over North America. A Jazz Odyssey also brings readers to the birth of the Oscar Peterson Trio - where Peterson would hone his trademark arrangement of piano, guitar, and bass and work with the likes of Ray Brown, Barney Kessel, and Herb Ellis. Peterson describes the endless practice sessions and tireless work ethic that earned the group the reputation of the hardest working trio in the business. He also describes meeting his idol Art Tatum during the 1950s and touring with him in Jazz at the Philharmonic.
2003’s Oscar Peterson: Keeping the Groove Alive also tackles his story. Along the way, Peterson and other musicians, like Herbie Hancock and Diana Krall, paint a portrait of the rigors, perils, and rewards of life on the road and in the music business.
Peterson and his wife also talk about his major stroke in 1993, which took the use of his left hand. With the help of friends and family, he fought back and played again.
This is the trailer.
For those of you who need to cleanse your palates of all the ugly that is swirling around us, creating a miasma of unease and discontent, here’s a heavy dose of Oscar love to brighten your day, spanning several different performances with his Trio, from 1963-1965.
If you’d like even more insight into Peterson’s life, a second documentary, from 1995’s Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar, is jam-packed with performances and interviews with “a Who’s Who of jazz legends,” including Quincy Jones and Ella Fitzgerald.
It’s difficult for me to select a favorite Peterson tune, but I‘ll leave you with one of my faves: “Nigerian Marketplace,” which he debuted at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival. This 1985 performance was recorded live in Berlin.
Though Peterson has passed, he’s still making waves; new efforts to name a key Montreal plaza in his honor ramped up just this month!
With his magical tunes so masterfully executed, it is little wonder why people call Oscar Peterson the greatest jazz pianist ever. His talent has been celebrated by the world with a multitude of awards and accolades, including eight Grammys, the Order of Canada, and a statue unveiled in Ottawa by Queen Elizabeth II in 2010.
But some say something is missing: recognition from his hometown of Montreal. “Although a small park has been named in Little Burgundy, we don’t think it rises to the stature and the legend that he was,” said municipal opposition leader Lionel Perez. Perez says his party will introduce a motion at Montreal City Hall to rename Place des Festivals “Place Oscar Peterson.”Place des Festivals is located in downtown Montreal and hosts the world’s largest jazz festival.
Oscar Peterson’s widow, Kelly Peterson said the initiative would be a “wonderful” way to honour her late husband’s jazz legacy.“I also think that because it’s the place where the Montreal Jazz International Festival, that it is appropriate,” Peterson said.
I hope it happens.
I had planned to cover Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk, and perhaps to squeeze in McCoy Tyner as well, but alas, dear readers, that just didn’t happen, because I ran out of space. So tune in next week, same time, same place.
You can post and cast votes for your favorites in comments, and while the ivories tickle, let the sound of the piano guide you down to the polls as early voting continues.
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