207

Art Tatum Goes To College

Art Tatum Goes To College
Nick Catalano By

Sign in to view read count
After teaching jazz studies at my university for over 30 years, I have amended many original pedagogical goals and done a great deal of revisionist thinking. Although some of my students are part-time musicians, mostly with perfunctory training, most of them like the pop music of the day and take my course because they have heard that jazz music might be "cool."

The course is taught chronologically, and it is always gratifying to see them respond enthusiastically when we get to Art Tatum. By then they have heard Robert Johnson's country blues, Leadbelly's work songs, Bessie Smith's city blues and a variety of ragtime, boogie-woogie and stride pianists. They are always impressed with Scott Joplin's prescience and are genuinely pleased when they hear his rags.

I find that some of the students have real problems with up-tempo improvisations. If there are too many notes being played, some get turned off. Real difficulties are encountered when they hear the collective improvisations of Dixieland bands, and more resistance arises with intricate bebop recordings. {{Charlie Parker}'s} "Ko-Ko," for example, presents a real challenge. The heads of most of his compositions cannot be hummed when the students leave the class, and as for his improvisations, most of the class simply cannot handle all those notes.

Although Art Tatum has recorded music at speeds that have broken many metronomes, like "Tiger Rag," his improvisations follow the classical formula of theme and variations, and the students seem to be able to follow them. Tatum stuck to standards from Tin Pan Alley, for the most part, and those melodies are much more accessible for the college set. The rhythmically complex head of "Ornithology" may be exciting for the professor, but the lugubrious strains of "Willow Weep for Me" are more digestible for the students. Because they "know" the melodies that Tatum chooses, they can then concentrate on his improvisations, and it is here that they become really excited; Tatum's speed blows them away.

After listening with them for awhile, and watching them shake their heads impressively at Tatum's rapid fire delivery, I try to show them that it is not the speed alone that marks his genius, but the wonderful improvisational designs that emanate from those masterful hands that they need to focus on. When I push on this point, I get resistance. Most don't want to hear about that kind of creativity. It is the speed and that's that.

After years of feeling frustrated at being unable to move them beyond this, I have relented somewhat. Last semester, one student brought me some CDs that he made from Tatum recordings which he had run out and spent a fortune on. He was so awed by Tatum's chops that he couldn't resist listening at every opportunity.

I thanked him for the CDs and watched him walk out of class whistling "Humoresque." I smiled to myself. He had entered the class weeks earlier glued to an MP3 player, with some innocuous club music. His excitement over Tatum was as much progress as I had any right to expect.

Photo Credit

Photo Courtest of Concord Music Group

Shop

More Articles

Read John Pizzarelli Soars at Birdland New York Beat John Pizzarelli Soars at Birdland
by Nick Catalano
Published: September 16, 2016
Read Joey DeFrancesco at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola New York Beat Joey DeFrancesco at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola
by Nick Catalano
Published: August 18, 2016
Read Clifford Brown and Max Roach in 1954: New Research New York Beat Clifford Brown and Max Roach in 1954: New Research
by Nick Catalano
Published: June 13, 2016
Read Pat Martino at The Jazz Standard New York Beat Pat Martino at The Jazz Standard
by Nick Catalano
Published: February 9, 2016
Read Carol Fredette at Jazz at Kitano New York Beat Carol Fredette at Jazz at Kitano
by Nick Catalano
Published: November 23, 2015
Read "John Pizzarelli Soars at Birdland" New York Beat John Pizzarelli Soars at Birdland
by Nick Catalano
Published: September 16, 2016
Read "Joey DeFrancesco at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola" New York Beat Joey DeFrancesco at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola
by Nick Catalano
Published: August 18, 2016
Read "Clifford Brown and Max Roach in 1954: New Research" New York Beat Clifford Brown and Max Roach in 1954: New Research
by Nick Catalano
Published: June 13, 2016
Read "Meet Sal Capozucca" Out and About: The Super Fans Meet Sal Capozucca
by Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper
Published: June 27, 2016
Read "Ian Shaw With The Phil Ware Trio at The Workmans Club" Live Reviews Ian Shaw With The Phil Ware Trio at The Workmans Club
by Ian Patterson
Published: January 28, 2017
Read "U2: Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris" DVD/Film Reviews U2: Innocence + Experience: Live in Paris
by Nenad Georgievski
Published: July 17, 2016
Read "Russell Malone: Guitar Master" Interviews Russell Malone: Guitar Master
by R.J. DeLuke
Published: February 29, 2016
Read "The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1965" Book Reviews The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1965
by C. Michael Bailey
Published: February 11, 2017
Read "Meet "Mr. Saturday Night" Joe France" Out and About: The Super Fans Meet "Mr. Saturday Night" Joe France
by Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper
Published: November 4, 2016

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!