How Art Tatum found something interesting in everybody’s piano playing

After reading yesterday’s blog post, Howard Goldman reminded me of another facet of the the great jazz pianist Art Tatum: he could find something interesting in just about anyone’s piano playing.

It’s tempting to think that the “greats” are so far above the rest of us that they look down on our playing, but in fact it’s often the reverse: the reason they are great is because they hear possibilities where the rest of us don’t. Art Tatum was like this.

My former piano teacher, Billy Taylor, told me that he and Tatum were once hanging out in a jazz club, listening to a very mediocre jazz pianist. (At least Billy thought the guy was mediocre.) He kept saying to Tatum, “C’mon Art, let’s get out of here. This guy’s no good.” But Tatum wanted to stay and listen. He said that there was something in the guy’s playing that he liked. Something that intrigued him. Billy, as good as he was, couldn’t hear it himself and just shrugged it off.

But the next night, as Tatum played piano on his own gig, he looked over at Taylor and started playing something that was based on what the guy had played the night before. Tatum had learned from him!

Here’s a wonderful video of Dr. Billy Taylor reminiscing about his friend and mentor, Art Tatum.

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