Art Tatum was among the most extraordinary of all jazz musicians, a pianist with wondrous technique who could not only play ridiculously rapid lines with both hands, but was harmonically 30 years ahead of his time; all pianists have to deal to a certain extent with Tatum’s innovations in order to be taken seriously. Able to play stride, swing, and boogie-woogie with speed and complexity that could only previously be imagined, 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.
Tatum was really known for the way that he explored harmonic complexities and unusual chord progressions. When improvising, Tatum would often insert totally new chord sequences (occasionally with a chord on each beat) into one or two measures. He also developed the habit of quoting from other melodies, something that became a standard practice among modern jazz musicians. What really set Tatum apart was his amazing technical abilities which combined with his willingness to explore the imagined limitations of the orthodox keyboard which produced astonishing rhythmic and harmonic complexities.
Many would say that he inspired the bebop revolution in jazz. When Oscar Peterson first heard him play he thought it was two people and he considered Tatum the best jazz instrumentalist of all time. Legend has it that classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz was so awed by Tatum’s wizardry that it brought him to tears. Fittingly, his strongest support comes from one of his early influences, Fats Waller. One time in 1938 Tatum dropped in to hear Waller play at a club. By way of introduction Waller told the audience, “I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.”