Tatum is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time and he was a major influence on later generations of jazz pianists. He was noted for the complexity and speed of his performances, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries ... Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists."
Tatum built upon stride and classical piano influences to develop a novel and unique piano style. He introduced a strong, swinging pulse to jazz piano, highlighted with spectacular cadenzas that swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated, grandiose and intricate. Jazz soloing in the 1930s had not yet evolved into the free-ranging extended improvisations that flowered in the bebop era of the 1940s, 1950s and beyond. But jazz musicians were beginning to incorporate improvisation while playing over the chord changes of tunes, and Tatum was a leader in that movement. He sometimes improvised lines that presaged bebop and later jazz genres, although generally not venturing far from the original melodic line. Tatum embellished melodic lines, however, with an array of signature devices and runs that appeared throughout his repertoire. As he matured, Tatum became more adventurous in abandoning the written melody and elongating his improvisations.
Tatum's unique sound was attributable to his harmonic inventiveness as well as technical prowess. He was an innovator in reharmonizing melodies by changing the supporting chord progressions or by altering the root movements of a piece. This technique casts a familiar theme in a fresh light and gives the music an unexpected quality. Many of his harmonic concepts and larger chord voicings (e.g., 13th chords with various flat or sharp intervals) were well ahead of their time in the 1930s (except for their partial emergence in popular songs of the jazz age) and they would be explored by bebop-era musicians a decade later. He worked some of the upper extensions of chords into his lines, a practice which was further developed by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, which in turn was an influence on the development of 'modern jazz'. Tatum also pioneered the use of dissonance in jazz piano, as can be heard, for example, on his recording of "Aunt Hagar's Blues", which uses extensive dissonance to achieve a bluesy effect. In addition to using major and minor seconds, dissonance was inherent in the complex chords that Tatum frequently used.
Tatum could also play the blues with authority.
My father saw all the great jazzman of his era. Art Tatum, Colman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, etc. He'd go up to Harlem & lose himself. What all else he might've done up there he took to the grave with him. Hope he had fun.
He helped educate me on the subject. Gave me a sense of the social history of the times.
Later, I caught Hampton with Sinatra at Carnegie Hall in NYC. That must've been sometime in the late 1980s.
Unfortunately Tatum died when I was only age 6. But his consummate keyboard skills serve to spur on younger jazz & blues musicians to this day.
Art Tatum (p), Benny Carter (as), Louis Bellson (d). From the album, "Art Tatum Group Masterpieces Vol. 1", Pablo.