Art Tatum

1 May 2014

1909 — 1956

The legends and the anecdotes
are only half of it;
Charlie Parker early on,

night-club kitchen, washing plates
just to hear the sound
then saying as saxophonist

‘I wish I could play like
Tatum’s right hand’;
the story too when Heifetz brought

Sergei Rachmaninoff to listen,
the pianist and composer saying,
‘My God, it’s hot in here’;

then Heifetz, with a grin:
‘Only for pianists’.
A big man, almost blind,

Art Tatum sat there on a stool,
addressing the piano,
two hands floating on the keys

(‘hardly touching,’ people said)
and not a trace of histrionics,
just the smile, convivial,

as if he were no more involved
than any other listener,
loving just the repertoire,

the Broadway / Tin Pan Alley stalwarts,
lyrics drifting in the air.
Whether or not the audience

had managed five grades with the nuns
or never hit a note,
the man’s arpeggios

would always leave them gasping —
not just the speed but all that
detail of articulation,

the heady soar of mathematics
threatening abandonment
but not, at last, the tonic.

Each two bar rest became
a sort of short sonata
hinting at a future

he’d finally abjure.
At times, to offer variation,
there’d be some counterpoint,

left hand glancing at the right,
right hand nodding back.
Behind it all was ‘Harlem Stride’,

Fats Waller, James P. Johnson,
the bar room and the barrelhouse
but that was just an inside joke,

a smile from time to time.
Who can say what technique ‘means’,
apart from all those scales + talent?

Of course, it is a miracle
but what is left to say
when all the options are supplied

in one man’s summary of hands?
Sometimes, they’d have him play with rhythm,
a back-up of guitar and drums,

even add a horn or two
but they could never be the point.
The orchestra was there already,

black and white, all eighty-eight.
‘That man plays way too much piano,’
the mother of a friend declared

and briskly left the room.

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