Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
The night Art Tatum dazzled Harlem pianists Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, as told by Waller’s personal manager, Ed Kirkeby
In 1931 a pretty definite pattern of jazz in New York had come into being. Big and small bands held sway at countless nightspots, and most of the big names were in the Big City to stay. Not a lot of new talent was coming along, though bandsmen such as Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and John Kirby — even if not yet in their full stride — were fast becoming known in and around New York music circles. The original crop of jazzmen who nursed the art from its swaddling clothes and made it into a lusty and productive business were mostly still around. Some, unhappily, were dead — Bolden, Keppard, Rappolo, Tony Jackson, Bubber Miley — and some had left the scene: King Oliver, Jelly Roll, etc. But this year brought a totally new man to the fore. A pianist hit the town like a clap of thunder. His name was Art Tatum.
Tatum grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and received his early professional experience in the local area around Toledo and Northern Ohio generally. Reuben Harris and Bernard Addison heard the 18-year-old kid in Toledo and told him to pack his bags and get to New York. He did, and got his first chance when he came East as accompanist for Adelaide Hall. He played the Lafayette Theatre with Miss Hall, and in a few days his name was being noised up and down Seventh Avenue as the greatest new jazzman to hit the street for many years. Most people in those days who heard his phenomenal technique were at first unbelieving and then completely dazzled. Tatum brought a new trend to jazz. A fertile brain guided nimble fingers in miraculous runs and odd harmonies, and broken time-patterns were his stock-in-trade. Like James P. Johnson before him, he fathered a new school of piano players. His ideas in harmonic progression have come, in recent times, to be taken for granted, but one has only to listen to his early piano records to realize the impact this man had upon jazz piano playing.
Naturally, such a bombshell could not go unnoticed by Tatum’s competitors, and the piano-playing hierarchy, represented by James P. Johnson, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, and Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller were not long in seeking out the newcomer. Fats arrived backstage one night before the midnight show at the Lafayette Theatre and extended his hand. Art, who knew full well the prowess of this young fellow before him, was reserved in his manner, not feeling fully on a par, professionally speaking, with Fats. He didn’t realize that in a couple of earlier shows that day his playing had so amazed certain spectators that they had headed for where Fats might be found and spread the word.
‘Say, man, they’re all talkin’ ’bout you around here. Where’s you come from so sudden?’ Fats wanted to know.
‘Oh, I just came in from Ohio Toledo.’ Tatum was warmed by the welcome.
‘Mind if I stay back here and catch the show?’ Fats raised his eyebrows. ‘What’re you doin’ tomorrow night after you’re through?’
‘Oh, I don’t know — just fool around, I guess.’
‘Okay — you’re comin’ out with us guys. We’ll show you all the spots around here.’
So it was agreed. The next day’s show over, Tatum was greeted as he left the stage by his new acquaintance and an older man whom Fats introduced as James P. Johnson. Others also hovered around in the background, and were duly introduced — Seminole, Earl Wiley, Lippy. The Harlem boys were out in force. They were to need force, too.
‘Where’ll we go first?’ Fats wanted to know.
Tatum quietly interjected, ‘Listen, fellows, I’m staying with Reuben Harris while I’m in New York — can you wait till I pick him up?’
‘Reuben? You stayin’ with him? Swell, man! We play at his place all the time.’ They set off.
A couple of stopping places for a drink, and they finally reached Reuben’s and routed him out of bed. Next stop was a place called Morgan’s, a bootleg joint that kept late hours, and boasted a good piano. This was a special event, and the New York contingent seethed with excitement as they thought what they were going to show this fellow from Ohio. But as they walked along, chatting merrily and joking about the beauties they jostled on the sidewalk, Fats was a little dubious. Although, when backstage, he had not really heard Tatum play anything excepting backgrounds for Adelaide’s singing, something in what he heard even in that subdued performance had hit him hard. He had told James P. the following day that this Tatum guy was terrific. James had laughed it off.
‘Listen, Fats,’ he had said. ‘How you goin’ to tell how good he is if you haven’t heard him play out on his own? Any guy can make it look good when the singer’s got the crowd jumpin’ already.’
‘You wait, Jackanapes,’ Fats had said, unconvinced. ‘Maybe this guy’s goin’ to surprise us all.’
‘I sure hope he does, man.’ James had smiled. ‘We ain’t had much excitement around here for a long time.’
On their arrival at Morgan’s, they were greeted and treated by the few inside, but quickly headed right through for the piano.
Drinks were ordered, and Seminole sat down at the keyboard. The little man was in rare form and his rock-steady beat brought shouts of encouragement from the rest of the musicians present. Reuben Harris, sitting next to Art Tatum, smiled confidently. His boy from Toledo was really going to spring it on them, he told himself.
Lippy, eyes sparkling, began to chatter encouragement: ‘Beat it out there, now. Beat it out!’
‘C’mon Art, you take over now!’ Fats called from behind a glass of gin. ‘They got the thing warmed for you.’
Tatum looked over at the piano, and Seminole looked around questioningly. He arose from the stool, and Tatum, nodding his assent, proceeded to the instrument. Everybody was laughing and talking, but as soon as they saw the newcomer make for the piano the chatter ceased. They waited expectantly.
Tatum spread his hands out over the keyboard, feeling out the instrument. Finding the tension of the keys to his liking, he nodded ever so slightly and rippled a short series of runs. He played around with effortless grace for a short time, gaining speed and tempo. A breathtaking run that seemed to use up every note on the piano, led into a familiar theme — Tea For Two. But something strange had happened to the tune. Just as suddenly as he gave them the melody he was out of it again, but never far enough away from it to render it unrecognizable. Then he was back on it again. The right hand was playing phrases which none of the listeners imagined existed, while the left hand alternated between a rock solid beat and a series of fantastic arpeggios which sounded like two hands in one. His hands would start at opposite ends of the keyboard and then proceed towards each other at a paralysing rate; one hand picking up the other’s progression and then carrying it on itself, only to break off with another series of incredible arpeggios. Just when it seemed that he had surely lost his way, Tatum came in again with a series of quick-changing harmonies that brought him back smack on the beat. His technique was astounding. Reuben Harris stole a look around the room. Everyone was exactly as they were when Tatum first sat down. Fats’ drink halted on its way to his lips, Fats sat as if turned to stone. A wrinkle had appeared between his eyes as he half frowned, half smiled at what he had heard. Nearby, James P. was likewise transfixed, small beads of perspiration showing on his forehead.
Art finished and quietly got up. He smiled and offered the stool to the next man. For a minute nobody moved, then James P. figured that it was his turn. He got up quickly and lost no time in starting in on one of his own specialties. There was no relaxing now. He tried the old reliables Shoutand Keep Off the Grassand he played his best. Fats followed with Handful of Keys which drew a few cheers, but nothing could take away the feeling that Tatum had the edge. Art returned to the piano and played a version of Tiger Rag which left the audience limp. James P. tried his best to save the day for Harlem with a brilliant rendition of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude. It was the last stop James could pull out, and Tatum appreciated the performance with warm praise.
None the less, the locals had been cut and they knew it. It was an established fact that they had been beaten at their own game by the boy from Ohio and they wanted to make the most of it. James, Art and Fats rolled out on to the Avenue, arms around one another’s shoulders, looking for audiences. All down Seventh Avenue they roamed, then turned off on West 133rd Street, visiting in turn Pod and Jerry’s, Brownie’s, and the Nest. At every stop delighted crowds applauded the new top pianist — it was a long night remembered by all concerned. James P., reminiscing about it afterwards, simply said, ‘When Tatum played Tea For Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.’
Art’s stay in New York that first time was all too brief, and it was only on odd occasions that he was seen for some time after that. But it wasn’t very long before he made his first records and so became known to a much wider public.
Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Story of Fats Waller, by Ed Kirkeby. Copyright 1966 by W.T. Ed Kirkeby