How to beat Art Tatum in a piano contest

My jazz piano teacher, Billy Taylor, used to tell me about the “cutting contests” that the old time jazz pianists used to have back in the 1930s and 40s. A small group of pianists would gather around a piano and take turns playing, trying to outdo each other in a friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) manner. Sometimes they would pick up where the previous pianist had left off, with a continuous flow of music between each player. (In this case, Taylor told me, a pianist might decide to modulate to a difficult key right at the end of his turn, so the next pianist would have to start in a key with 5 or 6 flats!)

At these events, no pianist was more feared than Art Tatum.

Imagine having to follow THIS! (Start listening at 0:16):

Art Tatum: Tiger Rag

As you can imagine, Tatum would always “wipe the floor” with the other pianists, even those as accomplished as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. They simply couldn’t compete with his astonishing technique and inventiveness.

Or could they have?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m sure we’ve all felt this at some point or other. We’re following a more accomplished musician in a concert and we feel intimidated because we aren’t as experienced, or technically-accomplished, or musical. We feel inferior.

Ironically this feeling will hinder our playing more than anything else.

And the overwhelming tendency is to play the same way as the previous pianist played. To try to outdo them at their own game.

But this will doom us to failure. It’s like following a very funny public speaker by trying to tell a lot of jokes. It won’t work.

A far better approach is to embrace what we ourselves have to offer. If they’re funny, we can be serious, or thoughtful, or tell a good story. As soon as we start, the audience will go along with us wherever we choose to take them, provided we are authentic and fully committed to what we are doing. After all they want to go along.

So how do we follow someone as overwhelmingly fast and inventive as the great Art Tatum?

Simple, like this:
Keith Jarrett: Over The Rainbow

Simply put:
If they play fast, we play slow.
If they’re tender, we’re exciting.
If they stick to the melody, we embellish it.
If they play a million notes, we play much less, and make every note count.
If they’re flashy, we’re heartfelt.
If they start playing immediately, we tell a story that leads into our song.
If they’re serious, we smile.

In short, it means that we’re not competing on their turf. We’re not giving into the common temptation to try to outdo the previous performer at something they do very well. Instead, we’re trusting that if we’re fully ourselves, we’ll offer the audience something very special… on our own terms.

I’ve done this myself, and you can do it too. (And besides, it’s a lot better than the alternative!)

Good luck with your piano playing and as always, “let the music flow!”

Enter your email here to get your free copy of my ebook, Pop and Rock Accompaniment for Piano

* indicates required

1 thought on “How to beat Art Tatum in a piano contest”

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates