Tonight, I’m featuring a comparison between two versions of the song, Georgia On My Mind. The same song played by Fats Waller and then by Art Tatum.
Art Tatum was blind. He played piano exclusively by ear, and what an ear he had. Many people have written about him, music critics, but I suggest, if you are interested, ignore all that and just listen to his music.
Tatum learned to play piano on player pianos and from listening to piano rolls. Fats Waller and James P. Johnson were his primary influences on the piano. The Stride Bass piano was fundamental to all his playing. But, he listened to other piano players and learned their harmonic and stylistic ideas.
There are very few videos available where you can watch him play. For piano players, they are worth seeing. He moved his hands up and down the piano horizontally dropping his fingers down to play the keys. He did not use the standard Thumb-to-Four Four-to-Thumb hand pivots for his incredible runs. He knew and remembered where every key was on that piano! How?
My late friend Ron Hadaway taught basic skills like using public transportation to blind children. He said the blind develop a kind of muscle memory. Sighted people look with their eyes to find the keys; the blind remember with their fingers. With Tatum’s “disability” he spent much more of his time at the piano learning and playing the piano and using his other senses to develop extraordinary abilities at the piano.
Throughout his career, he played the popular music of the 1930’s and 40’s, but with a virtuosity comparable to the great Classical pianists. I recall some have criticized his choice of materials as not being serious music, but what he did was no different than Classical composers who wrote “variations” on themes from folk music.
Fats Waller was reported to have once said, upon Tatum’s arrival at a club where he was playing, “I play piano, but God just walked into the house.” It was meant as a compliment, but music critics used it to denigrate Waller. My view is that Fats Waller was among the greatest musicians, composers, and entertainers this country has ever produced. What Waller acknowledged was that Art Tatum was unique and in a league of his own.
Thanks to gullvior