Too Marvelous for Words

Art Tatum has occupied a unique place in the history of jazz ever since he rose to prominence as a young man in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio. His remarkable musical gift seemed to come out of nowhere. Although he had some musical training, it is clear that he surpassed his teacher at the Toledo School of Music in a very short time on the strength of his innate ability. His technical skill rivaled that of the greatest classical pianists of his day, and his ability to utilize complex harmonic structures in his improvisation was unmatched by even the finest jazz improvisers of his time.

Tatum was admired by such classical musicians as Arturo Toscanini, Vladimir Horowitz, and Ignacy Paderewski. He had some influence on the jazz musicians of his day, but he was not widely imitated; the fact was that only a few musicians could attempt to do even a small percentage of what he was able to do. Among jazz pianists, only Oscar Peterson has truly followed in Tatum’s footsteps, and even he would be the first to say that he could never match Tatum’s sheer technical virtuosity and improvisational skill.

James Lester has made a valiant effort to unearth the story of Tatum’s life, but he has been unable to answer many questions about Tatum. In many cases—as, for example, in that of the cause of Tatum’s almost complete blindness—he is able only to relate the various versions of the story that he heard from those who knew Tatum. He does not hesitate...

(The entire section is 514 words.)