Arthur Tatum Jr. (/ˈteɪtəm/, October 13, 1909 – November 5, 1956) was an American jazz pianist who is widely regarded as one of the greatest in his field. From early in his career, Tatum's technical ability was regarded by fellow musicians as extraordinary. Many pianists attempted to copy him; others questioned their own skills after encountering him, and some even switched instruments in response. In addition to being acclaimed for his virtuoso technique, Tatum extended the vocabulary and boundaries of jazz piano far beyond his initial stride influences, and established new ground in jazz through innovative use of reharmonization, voicing, and bitonality.
Tatum grew up in Toledo, Ohio, where he began playing piano professionally and had his own radio program, rebroadcast nationwide, while still in his teens. He left Toledo in 1932 and had residencies as a solo pianist at clubs in major urban centers including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In that decade, he settled into a pattern that he followed for most of his career – paid performances followed by long after-hours playing, all accompanied by prodigious consumption of alcohol. He was said to be more spontaneous and creative in these after-hours venues, and although the drinking did not negatively affect his playing, it did damage his health.
In the 1940s, Tatum led a commercially successful trio for a short time and began playing in more formal jazz concert settings, including at Norman Granz-produced Jazz at the Philharmonic events. His popularity diminished towards the end of the decade, as he continued to play in his own style, ignoring the rise of bebop. Granz recorded Tatum extensively in solo and small group formats in the mid-1950s, with the last session occurring only two months before the pianist's death from uremia at the age of 47.
In 1927, after winning an amateur competition, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD during interludes in a morning shopping program and soon had his own daily program. After regular club dates, Tatum often visited after-hours clubs to be with other musicians; he enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play after all the others had finished. He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn; his radio show was scheduled for noon, allowing him time to rest before evening performances. During 1928–29, the radio program was re-broadcast nationwide by the Blue Network. Tatum also began to play in larger Midwestern cities outside his home town, including Cleveland, Columbus, and Detroit.
As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, visited clubs where he was playing. They were impressed by what they heard: from near the start of the pianist's career, "his accomplishment [...] was of a different order from what most people, from what even musicians, had ever heard. It made musicians reconsider their definitions of excellence, of what was possible", his biographer reported. Although Tatum was encouraged by comments from these and other established musicians, he felt that he was not yet, in the late 1920s, musically ready to relocate to New York City, which was the center of the jazz world and was home to many of the pianists he had listened to while growing up.
This had changed by the time that vocalist Adelaide Hall, touring the United States with two pianists, heard Tatum play in Toledo in 1932 and recruited him: he took the opportunity to go to New York as part of her band. On August 5 that year, Hall and her band recorded two sides ("I'll Never Be the Same" and "Strange as It Seems") that were Tatum's first studio recordings. Two more sides with Hall followed five days later, as did a solo piano test-pressing of "Tea for Two" that was not released for several decades.
After his arrival in New York, Tatum participated in a cutting contest at Morgan's bar in Harlem, with the established stride piano masters – Johnson, Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout" and Waller's "Handful of Keys". Tatum played his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag". Reminiscing about Tatum's debut, Johnson said, "When Tatum played 'Tea for Two' that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played." Tatum thus became the pre-eminent piano player in jazz. He and Waller became good friends, with similar lifestyles – both drank prodigiously and lived as lavishly as their incomes permitted.