Tatum is widely acknowledged as a virtuoso and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, and was a major influence on later generations of jazz pianists. He was hailed for the technical proficiency 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, at the Vogue Room, New York (between 1946 and 1948)
For a musician of such stature, there is little published information available about Tatum's life. Only one full-length biography has been published, Too Marvelous for Words, by James Lester. Lester interviewed many of Tatum's contemporaries for the book and drew from many articles published about him.
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother, Mildred Hoskins, played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts (of disputed cause) which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgical procedures improved his eye condition to a degree but some of the benefits were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930.
A child with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio and copying piano roll recordings his mother owned. In a Voice of America interview, he denied the widespread rumor that he learned to play by copying piano roll recordings made by two pianists. He developed a very fast playing style, without losing accuracy. As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often. While playing piano was the most obvious application of his mental and physical skills, he also had an encyclopedic memory for Major League Baseball statistics.
In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. He subsequently studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who was also visually impaired, probably taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist', during interludes in Ellen Kay's shopping chat program and soon had his own program.By the age of 19, Tatum was playing at the local Waiters' and Bellmens' Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington,Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson, would make it a point to drop in to hear the piano phenomenon.
In 1931, vocalist Adelaide Hall commenced a world tour that lasted almost two years. During the tour, (most probably in January 1932 when Adelaide was appearing at the Rivoli Theatre, Toledo)  Adelaide discovered Tatum in Toledo and employed him as one of her stage pianists. In 1932, Hall returned to New York with Tatum and introduced him to Harlem on stage at the Lafayette Theatre. In August 1932, Adelaide Hall made four recordings using Tatum as one of her pianists including the songs "Strange As It Seems" and "You Gave Me Everything But Love".
Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more "modern" Earl Hines, six years Tatum's senior. Tatum identified Waller as his main influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield, "Art Tatum's favorite jazz piano player was Earl Hines. He used to buy all of Earl's records and would improvise on them. He'd play the record but he'd improvise over what Earl was doing ... 'course, when you heard Art play you didn't hear nothing of anybody but Art. But he got his ideas from Earl's style of playing – but Earl never knew that." A major event in his meteoric rise to success was his appearance at a cutting contest in 1933 at Morgan's bar in New York City that included Waller, Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Standard contest pieces included Johnson's "Harlem Strut" and "Carolina Shout", and Waller's "Handful of Keys". Tatum performed his arrangements of "Tea for Two" and "Tiger Rag", in a performance that was considered to be the last word in stride piano. Johnson, reminiscing about Tatum's debut afterward, simply said, "When Tatum played Tea For Two that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played." Tatum's debut was historic because he outplayed the elite competition and heralded the demise of the stride era. He was not challenged further until stride specialist Donald Lambert initiated a half-serious rivalry with him.
Tatum worked first around Toledo and Cleveland and then later in New York at the Onyx Club for a few months. He recorded his first four solo sides on the Brunswick label in March 1933. Tatum returned to Ohio and played around the American midwest – Toledo, Cleveland, Detroit, Saint Louis and Chicago – in the mid-1930s and played on theFleischman Hour radio program hosted by Rudy Vallee in 1935. He also played stints at the Three Deuces in Chicago and in Los Angeles played at The Trocadero, the Paramount and the Club Alabam. In 1937, he returned to New York, where he appeared at clubs and played on national radio programs. The following year he embarked on the Queen Mary for England where he toured, playing for three months at Ciro's Club owned by bandleader Ambrose. In the late 1930s, he returned to play and record in Los Angeles and New York.
Art Tatum (on the right) at Downbeat Club, New York, N.Y., c. 1947
In 1941, Tatum recorded two sessions for Decca Records with singer Big Joe Turner, the first of which included "Wee Wee Baby Blues", which attained national popularity. Two years later Tatum won Esquire magazine's first jazz popularity poll. Perhaps believing there was a limited audience for solo piano, he was inspired by Nat King Cole's successful jazz trio to form his own trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart, whose perfect pitch enabled him to follow Tatum's excursions. Tatum recorded exclusively with the trio for almost two years. Grimes abandoned the group, however Tatum continually returned to this format. He also carried on his solo work. Although Tatum was admired by many jazz musicians, his popularity faded in the mid to late 1940s with the advent of bebop – a movement that Tatum did not embrace.
In the last two years of his life, Tatum regularly played at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, including his final public performance in April 1956. Earlier, Tatum had personally selected and purchased for Clarence Baker the Steinway piano at Baker's, finding it in a New York showroom, and shipping it to Detroit.
Art Tatum died on November 5, 1956 at Queen of Angels Medical Center in Los Angeles, from the complications of uremia (as a result of kidney failure). He was originally interred at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but was moved by his wife, Geraldine Tatum, to the Great Mausoleum of Glendale's Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1991, so she could ultimately be buried next to him, although his headstone was left at Rosedale to commemorate where he was first laid to rest. Geraldine died on May 4, 2010 in Los Angeles, and was interred beside Art at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
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 cadenzasthat swept across the entire keyboard. His interpretations of popular songs were exuberant, sophisticated 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 expanding his improvisations.
Tatum's sound was attributable to both his harmonic inventiveness and technical prowess. 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. Pianist Jay McShann, not known for showering compliments on his rivals, said "Art could really play the blues. To me, he was the world's greatest blues player, and I think few people realized that." Tatum's repertoire, however, was predominantly Broadway and popular standards, whose chord progressions and variety better suited his talents.
His protean style was elaborate, pyrotechnic, dramatic and joyous, combining stride, jazz, swing, boogie-woogie and classical elements, while the musical ideas flowed in rapid-fire fashion. Benny Green wrote in his collected work of essays, The Reluctant Art, that "Tatum has been the only jazz musician to date who has made an attempt to conceive a style based upon all styles, to master the mannerisms of all schools and then synthesize those into something personal." He was playful, spontaneous and often inserted quotes from other songs into his improvisations.
Tatum was not inclined toward understatement or expansive use of space. He seldom played in a simplified way, preferring interpretations that displayed his great technique and clever harmonizations. When jazz pianist Stanley Cowell was growing up in Toledo, his father prevailed upon Tatum to play piano at the Cowell home. Stanley described the scene as, "Tatum played so brilliantly and so much ... that I thought the piano was gonna break. My mother left the room ... so I said 'What's wrong, Mama?' And she said 'Oh, that man plays too much piano.'" A handful of critics, notably Keith Jarrett, have complained that Tatum played too many notes or was too ornamental or was even 'unjazzlike'. Jazz critic Gary Giddins opined, "That is the essence of Tatum. If you don't like his ornament, you should be listening to someone else. That's where his genius is."
Screen capture of the pianist Art Tatum from the film The Fabulous Dorseys (1947)
From the foundation of stride, Tatum made great leaps forward in technique and harmony and he honed a groundbreaking improvisational style that extended the limits of what was possible in jazz piano. His innovations were to greatly influence later jazz pianists, such as Powell, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Tete Montoliu and Chick Corea. One of Tatum's innovations was his extensive use of the pentatonic scale, which may have inspired later pianists to further mine its possibilities as a device for soloing. Herbie Hancock described Tatum's unique tone as "majestic" and devoted some time to unlocking this sound and to noting Tatum's harmonic arsenal.Yet much of Tatum's keyboard vocabulary remains unassimilated by today’s crop of players.
The sounds that Tatum produced with the piano were also distinctive. Billy Taylor has said that he could make a bad piano sound good. Generally playing at mezzoforte volume, he employed the entire keyboard from deep bass tones to sonorous mid-register chords to sparkling upper register runs. He used the sustain pedal sparingly so that each note was clearly articulated, chords were cleanly sounded and the melodic line would not be blurred. He played with boundless energy and occasionally his speedy and precise delivery produced an almost mechanical effect, compared by jazz critic Ted Gioia to "a player piano on steroids."
Oscar Peterson cited Tatum as one of the most "intimidating" pianists, and said that "there wasn't a jazz pianist of the era who wasn't influenced by him". Critic Gunther Schuller declared, "On one point there is universal agreement: Tatum's awesome technique." That technique was marked by a calm physical demeanor and efficiency. Tatum did not indulge in theatrical physical or facial expression. The effortless gliding of his hands over difficult passages baffled most who witnessed the phenomenon. He especially astonished other pianists to whom Tatum appeared to be "playing the impossible." Even when playing scintillating runs at high velocity, it appeared that his fingers hardly moved. Hank Jones said:
When I finally met him and got a chance to hear him play in person, it seemed as if he wasn't really exerting much effort, he had an effortless way of playing. It was deceptive. You'd watch him and you couldn't believe what was coming out, what was reaching your ears. He didn't have that much motion at the piano. He didn’t make a big show of moving around and waving his hands and going through all sorts of physical gyrations to produce the music that he produced, so that in itself is amazing. There had to be intense concentration there, but you couldn’t tell by just looking at him play.
Using self-taught fingering, including an array of two-fingered runs, he executed the pyrotechnics with meticulous accuracy and timing. His execution was all the more remarkable considering that he drank prodigious amounts of alcohol when performing, yet his recordings are never sloppy. Tatum also displayed phenomenal independence of the hands and ambidexterity, which was particularly evident while improvising counterpoint.
Jazz historian and commentator Ira Gitler declared that Tatum's "left hand was the equal of his right."  When Powell was opening for Tatum at Birdland around 1950, the end of an era when musicians engaged in overt competition and so-called cutting sessions, Powell reportedly said to Tatum, "Man, I'm going to really show you about tempo and playing fast. Anytime you're ready." Tatum laughed and replied, "Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I'll do with my left." Powell never took up the challenge.
Tatum played chords with a relatively flat-fingered technique compared to the curvature taught in classical training. Composer/pianist Mary Lou Williams told Whitney Balliett, "Tatum taught me how to hit my notes, how to control them without using pedals. And he showed me how to keep my fingers flat on the keys to get that clean tone." Jimmy Rowles said, "Most of the stuff he played was clear over my head. There was too much going on—both hands were impossible to believe. You couldn't pick out what he was doing because his fingers were so smooth and soft, and the way he did it—it was like camouflage." When his fastest tracks of "Tiger Rag" are slowed down, they still reveal a coherent, syncopated rhythm.
After regular club dates, Tatum would decamp to after-hours clubs to hang out with other musicians who would play for each other. Biographer James Lester notes that Tatum enjoyed listening to other pianists and preferred to play last when several pianists played. He frequently played for hours on end into the dawn, to the detriment of his marriages. Tatum was said to be more spontaneous and creative in those free-form nocturnal sessions than in his scheduled performances. Evidence of this can be found in the set entitled 20th Century Piano Genius which consists of 40 tunes recorded at private parties at the home of Hollywood music director Ray Heindorf in 1950 and 1955. According to the review by Marc Greilsamer, "All of the trademark Tatum elements are here: the grand melodic flourishes, the harmonic magic tricks, the flirtations with various tempos and musical styles. But what also emerges is Tatum's effervescence, his joy, and his humor. He seems to celebrate and mock these timeless melodies all at once."
Art Tatum headlining at the Famous Door nightclub on 52nd Street, May 1948
Tatum tended to work and to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep pace with his fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. Other musicians expressed amazed bewilderment at performing with Tatum. Drummer Jo Jones, who recorded a 1956 trio session with Tatum and bassist Red Callender, is quoted as quipping, "I didn't even play on that session [...] all I did was listen. I mean, what could I add? [...] I felt like setting my damn drums on fire."Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco said that playing with Tatum was "like chasing a train." Tatum said of himself, "A band hampers me."
Tatum did not readily adapt or defer to other musicians in ensemble settings. Early in his career he was required to restrain himself when he worked as accompanist for vocalist Adelaide Hall in 1932–33. Perhaps because Tatum believed there was a limited audience for solo piano, he formed a trio in 1943 with guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart. He later recorded with other musicians, including a notable session with the 1944 Esquire Jazz All-Stars, which included Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and other jazz greats, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He also recorded group sessions for Norman Granz in the mid-1950s.
Tatum's repertoire mainly consisted of music from the Great American Songbook—Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and other popular music of the 20s, 30s and 40s. He played his own arrangements of a few classical piano pieces as well, most famously Dvo?ák's Humoresque No. 7 and Massenet's "Élégie".  Tatum composed a handful of original compositions.
Mainstream jazz piano has gone in a different direction from that pioneered by Tatum. Nevertheless, transcriptions of Tatum are popular and are often practiced assiduously.But perhaps because his playing was so difficult to copy, only a small number of musicians – such as Oscar Peterson, Johnny Costa, Johnny Guarnieri, Adam Makowicz, Luther G. Williams, Steven Mayer and Christopher Jordan, and, outside of the usual roster of jazz pianists, André Previn – have attempted to seriously emulate or challenge Tatum. Although Bud Powell was of the bebop movement, his prolific and exciting style showed Tatum influence.
Tatum recorded commercially from 1932 until near his death. Although recording opportunities were somewhat intermittent for most of his career due to his solo style, he left copious recordings. He recorded for Brunswick (1933), Decca (1934–41), Capitol (1949, 1952) and for the labels associated with Norman Granz (1953–56). Tatum demonstrated remarkable memory when he recorded 68 solo tracks for Granz in two days, all but three of the tracks in one take. He also recorded a series of group recordings for Granz with, among others, Ben Webster, Jo Jones, Buddy DeFranco, Benny Carter, Harry Sweets Edison, Roy Eldridge and Lionel Hampton.
Although only a small amount of film showing Tatum playing exists today, several minutes of professionally-shot archival footage can be found in Martin Scorsese's documentaryThe Blues. Footage also appears in Ken Burns' documentary Jazz, which includes a short passage on Tatum's life and work, including comments from Jimmy Rowles and Gary Giddins. Tatum appeared in the 1947 movie The Fabulous Dorseys, first playing a solo and then accompanying Dorsey's band in an impromptu song.
Tatum appeared on Steve Allen's Tonight Show in the early 1950s, and on other television shows from this era. However, all of the kinescopes of the Allen shows, which were stored in a warehouse along with other now defunct shows, were thrown into a local rubbish dump to make room for new studios. However, the soundtracks were recorded off-air by Tatum enthusiasts at the time, and many are included in Storyville Records' extensive series of rare Tatum recordings.
On the recommendation of Oscar Peterson, Tatum is portrayed by Johnny O'Neal in Ray, a 2004 biopic about R&B artist Ray Charles. When Charles enters a nightclub he remarks, "Are my ears deceiving me or is that Art Tatum?" O'Neal's own playing on Yesterday's captures Tatum's genius and spirit at the keyboard.
Tatum posthumously received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.
Numerous stories exist about other musicians' respect for Tatum. Perhaps the most famous is the story about the time Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, and Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house." Fats Waller's son confirmed the statement.
Charlie Parker (who helped develop bebop) was highly influenced by Tatum. When newly arrived in New York, Parker briefly worked as a dishwasher in a Manhattan restaurant where Tatum was performing and often listened to the legendary pianist. Parker once said, "I wish I could play like Tatum’s right hand!"
When Oscar Peterson was still a boy, his father played him a recording of Art Tatum performing "Tiger Rag". Once the young Peterson was finally persuaded that it was performed by a single person, Peterson was so intimidated that he did not touch the piano for weeks. Interviewing Oscar Peterson in 1962, Les Tompkins asked, "Is there one musician you regard as the greatest?" Peterson replied, "I'm an Art Tatum–ite. If you speak of pianists, the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know, from what I've heard to date, is Art Tatum." "Musically speaking, he was and is my musical God, and I feel honored to remain one of his humbly devoted disciples."
"Here's something new..." pianist Hank Jones remembers thinking when he first heard Art Tatum on radio in 1935, "they have devised this trick to make people believe that one man is playing the piano, when I know at least three people are playing."
The jazz pianist and educator Kenny Barron commented, "I have every record [Tatum] ever made—and I try never to listen to them ... If I did, I'd throw up my hands and give up!"Jean Cocteau dubbed Tatum "a crazed Chopin". Count Basie called him the eighth wonder of the world. Dave Brubeck observed, "I don't think there's any more chance of another Tatum turning up than another Mozart." Pianist Mulgrew Miller, a noted fan of Tatum, commented on personal growth by saying, "When I talk to the people I admire, they're always talking about continuous growth and development and I look at them and say, 'Well... what are YOU going to do?' But, as Harold Mabern says, 'There's always Art Tatum records around'".Dizzy Gillespie said, "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."
The pianist Teddy Wilson observed, "Maybe this will explain Art Tatum. If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play ... everyone there will sound like an amateur."
In 1993, J. A. Bilmes, an MIT student, invented a term that is now in common usage in the field of computational musicology: the Tatum. It means "the smallest perceptual time unit in music" and is a tribute to Tatum's pianistic velocity.
Tatum's work was used and referenced heavily in the WB TV series Everwood (2002–2006), with some actual sound recordings used and compositions being performed in concerts by Ephram Brown (portrayed by Gregory Smith) in select episodes. James Earl Jones' character Will Cleveland introduced these works to young Ephram, who was an aspiring pianist, in the second season episode "Three Miners From Everwood".
Zenph Studios, a software company focused on precisely understanding how musicians perform, recorded a new album of Tatum's playing with Sony Masterworks in 2007. Using computer equipment coupled with a high-resolution player piano, they created re-performances of Tatum's first four commercial tracks, from March 21, 1933, and the nine tracks from the April 2, 1949 live concert at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. Sony recorded these anew in the same venue, in front of a live audience. These 13 tracks are on the album,Piano Starts Here: Live from The Shrine, which was recorded in SACD surround-sound and in binaural, as well as regular stereo CD. The binaural recording, when played via headphones, allows one to hear what Tatum may have heard as he played on stage, with the piano spatially in front (bass on the left, treble on the right) and the live audience clearly downstage on the righthand side. Zenph’s re-performances have been performed live in numerous venues, including the Toronto Jazz Festival and New York’s Apollo Theater. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson requested a live presentation, which he heard in an emotional re-performance in his home in March 2007.
For his 2008 album Act Your Age, Gordon Goodwin wrote a new big band arrangement to accompany Zenph’s re-performance of "Yesterdays", and the track was recognized with a Grammy Nomination for Best Instrumental Arrangement.
At the Lucas County Arena in his home town of Toledo, Ohio, a memorial was dedicated to Art Tatum in 2009, the "Art Tatum Celebration Column".
Non-pianist musicians influenced by Tatum's improvisational virtuosity include Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who was quoted in the June 1985 edition of Frets Magazine as saying: "Art Tatum is my all-time favorite. Yeah, he's my all-time favorite. He's the guy I put on when I want to feel really small [laughs]. When I want to feel really insignificant [laughs]. He's a good guy to play for any musician, you know. He'll make them want to go home and burn their instruments. [Laughs.] Art Tatum is absolutely the most incredible musician – what can you say?"