Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Tatum was a largely self-taught Child Prodigy, and legally blind for most of his life. He developed a technique of stride style with lightning-fast cadenzas, runs, and flourishes that are still awe-inspiring today.
He was regarded with awe by his contemporaries, including jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Teddy Wilson, and classical pianists including Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
His music was featured in the TV series Everwood, and he was portrayed briefly by Johnny O'Neill in the movie Ray. He was also a major influence on Johnny Costa, the accompanist for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, on whom he bestowed the nickname "the white Tatum."
As usual, you can find the basics at The Other Wiki.
- Blasphemous Praise: Fats Waller famously said when Tatum entered a club to play, "Tonight, God is in the house!"
- Blind Musician: He had partial sight in one eye but was legally blind and unable to read music notation.
- Child Prodigy: Taught himself to play piano at a young age.
- Improv: As is typical for Jazz, most of Tatum's arrangements were at least partly made up in the moment. What's not typical is for any mere mortal to improvise with his level of speed, technical accuracy, and harmonic complexity all at once.
- Let's See YOU Do Better!: Bud Powell once tried to one-up Tatum's speed and technique. Tatum laughingly replied, "Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I'll do with my left."
- One-Man Army: More specifically, a one-man band. Once, five bass players, Ray Brown included, tried to play with him all at once. They eventually fell down "one by one by the wayside" to the floor like a "nice bunch of little kids."
- The Piano Player: Tatum spent most of his life playing at jazz clubs rather than concerts. Though he was extremely talented, he didn't earn the recognition of the more respected classical players. Those who met him, however, couldn't do anything else but marvel at his ability. In one of these clubs, he met famous classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who is said to have remarked, "I can play as fast as you, but I can't keep up with you!"
- Short-Lived, Big Impact: He died at just 47 from renal failure, yet is still regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time.
- Spirited Competitor: Tatum loved to compete with the other renowned players of his era, though he quickly blew away those at the top and considered it all quite of a joke afterwards. He is said to have competed with another pianist 24-7. A little more believable story recounts a boastful drummer who thought he could keep playing longer than any pianist, until he gave up playing for 5 hours against Art.
- Art once passed by Madison Square Garden, then a famous site where contests were held between ragtime piano players. Jokingly, he remarked,You know, I'd like to rent that place, I'd like to rent Madison Square Garden, and I'd like to take on all the piano players and for once and for all settle it. Rather than me go around from nightclub to nightclub to beat these guys, I'd like to get 'em all in one place and knock 'em all off.
- Art once passed by Madison Square Garden, then a famous site where contests were held between ragtime piano players. Jokingly, he remarked,
- Urban Legend: The story goes that Tatum learned to play the piano by listening to player piano rolls that later turned out to be pieces for two pianists. It's not actually true, but you can definitely see how it would have gotten started.