A bold chord voicing choice from Art Tatum

Here’s a true story that may surprise you:

In the 1980s, my jazz piano teacher Billy Taylor told me that when he studied with the great Art Tatum back in the 1950s, Tatum would sit down at the piano and gladly show him all kinds of wonderful chord voicings. But if Tatum heard Billy use any of these voicings on a gig, he’d stop showing him anything else. In other words, Billy was required to instantly assimilate Art’s concept and use it in his own way. And from what Billy said to me, this wasn’t unusual at that time. All of the older musicians had this attitude. Jazz was an expression of individuality within the broad parameters of the style. And this individuality was to be expressed at all times.

Billy adapted this approach as a teacher in his own way. He would show us chord voicings and approaches to improvisation and while he wasn’t as strict with this attitude as Tatum had been, he did share this story with us. It was a gentle invitation to go deeper.

Case in point: It’s great to learn all the “A and B” voicings we see in the jazz books these days, but at the same time, we need to continually connect with that we’re hearing with our inner ear. After all, are we always hearing the same thing every time we sit down at our piano to play “All The Things You Are?” Of course not. Some days we may be hearing dense harmonies, while on other days we may be hearing purer sounds.

Here’s a recording and transcription of Art Tatum listening to his inner musical ear. Although Tatum bases his interpretation on some wonderfully complex voicings and pianistic textures, he begins with a simple Ab major triad. Are we bold enough to do the same?

Art Tatum: All The Things You Are

Here’s my latest Real Book video:

502 Blues: Journey Through The Real Book #119

As always, enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”


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