Too Marvelous For Words
by James Lester
Oxford University Press (New York, 1994)"
Too Marvelous For Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum" by James Lester; published by Oxford University Press (New York, 1994). The man behind those extraordinary pianistic flourishes was a somewhat shadowy figure, but James Lester has brought him into the light with a wealth of research and reminiscences. The many small stories which make up this telling of this life, which was largely successful on its own terms, make a fascinating tapestry, reanimating not just the pianist but also the milieu in which he flourished. In addition, Lester, a musician as well as a writer, is able to provide musical analysis in addition to biographical data.
Tatum was a musician of astonishing capabilities. Early in his book the author quotes the musical polymath Gunther Schuller: "...almost every one of Tatum's performances is from a pianistic-technical point of view a marvel of perfection... his playing must be heard to be believed, and in its technical perfection it is something beyond verbal description, at least this author's verbal capacities." Lester comments: "Listening to a really good pianist one might say, 'I could never do that.' But confronted with Tatum most musicians have said to themselves, 'Nobody can do that!'"
Lester's book is full of stories of musicians' encounters with Tatum. According to trumpeter Rex Stewart, later a fixture in the Ellington orchestra, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins heard Tatum playing in Toledo, still only a local legend, when Stewart and Hawkins were both in the Fletcher Henderson orchestra. "Stewart maintains that Hawkins was so taken by Tatum's playing" that he changed his style to the one which eventually led to the saxophone's dominance in jazz. Charlie Parker's encounter with Tatum, a more familiar story, led directly to all those musical quotations in bebop which Tatum had long slipped into his solos.
But it's Tatum himself coming to life in Lester's telling that makes for the most fascinating reading. Although he was dazzling them in Toledo, he kept himself from making the big move to New York, saying "I'm not ready." What he meant was, he didn't feel assured of coming out on top in the after-hours competitions that musicians of the period loved to stage for their own entertainment. When he finally got there, accompanying the singer Adelaide Hall, Fats Waller picked him backstage and got him to an after work meeting with Willie The Lion and James P. Johnson; they couldn't surpass his dazzling arpeggios, his crossing hands, his inventive harmonies. After this he was the king of pianists, working all the time, drinking vast quantities of beer, staying out all night at after hours sessions where he always insisted that everyone else play first because once he started, no one wanted to stop him.
"Tatum, I think, found a real soul-mate in Fats Waller," writes Lester. "They lived alike (namely, as high as their income would allow), drank alike (almost constantly), and shared similar attitudes toward the piano (both had impeccable technique and a leaning toward more serious music that was largely surpressed by their need to make a career in jazz)." Waller's death at 39 from an excess of high life didn't slow Tatum down; he continued to tour, perform, drink vast quantities of alcohol, and play after hours until long after day broke. A younger pianist who enjoyed spending time with the master found his marriage in jeopardy, as few were prepared to countenance the hours they were keeping. Tatum's health broke in the '50's after a critical reconsideration brought on by Norman Granz's unprecedented project of recording several hours of Tatum's playing. In fact, Tatum's work had improved over time, with form, expressiveness and ever greater harmonic sophistication taking their place beside his accustomed pyrotechnics.
For a pianist, one of the pleasures of reading about this peerless musician is Lester's discussion of Tatum's methods. Tatum and a friend practiced impromptu reharmonizations, playing the same popular melody again and again while spontaneously varying the accompanying chord progression. Tatum restructured the tunes in his repertoire as real pieces, each with its characteristic musical architecture. He varied the steady rhythms of jazz by seemingly abandoning the pulse, only to return to it with metronomic precision.
"Too Marvelous For Words" includes a wealth of information about someone who had preferred to let his playing speak for him. As a reconstruction of the life and music of a unique instrumentalist, it is valuable, well-written and thoroughly entertaining.
This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg