Top 50 JAzz Blog

Friday, February 18, 2011

Who is Art Tatum Dating? by Steve Provizer

Trying to figure out the saturation coverage of George Shearing's recent death; coverage equal to that given over to Billy Taylor. Taylor was a creative musician, not a musical innovator, but his work as activist/mentor/educator kept his profile very high. The attention made sense.

Shearing's sheer longevity may be vaguely at play here, as is the rarity of a jazz musician who sold millions of records. To my ears, Shearing's music is pleasurable and well-crafted but unexciting. He was capable of playing any style, but the chosen format of his most well-known groups was harmonically consonant and the soloing, while very adept, lacked edge.

Media exposure is the big player. Shearing, while blind, was a prodigy, white-British even-and a jocular pun-maker. In a hyphenated word: media-genic.

For comparison, let's throw Art Tatum into the equation.

Like Shearing, Tatum was blind and a prodigy, but Tatum's musical impact was widespread and unassailable.

Shearing was a quirky, but user-friendly public representative of the jazz world; one of a handful of jazz musicians who showed up regularly on TV. Tatum seems to have been something of a cipher. Comments on his music are many, those on his personality few. He was not photogenic.

Despite Tatum's musical contributions, there are very few obits in 1956, the year of his death. In fact, there are 2 different dates listed for Tatum's death: Nov 4th and 5th. You can throw some of the blame on jazz magazines, which are notoriously derelict at putting their old stuff online. Some gleanings:

Wikipedia deaths give you Lugosi, Brecht and Pollock, but not Tatum. Wikipedia Commons does list him.
A brief Jet Obituary
The Times Obituary of the era.
Jazz Monthly in Britain had an obit
A brief graf in Billboard

Apart from jazz websites, there are a couple of "modern" mentions of Tatum: One site says: "But even the passing of a giant such as Art Tatum didn't create much stir elsewhere in the world. The Presidential election was on most people's minds, the crisis in Hungary and the Cold War all grabbed headlines, relegating the death of this true genius to the back pages in the obituary notices."

I'm not sure the Cold War really explains it.

The other contemporary non-jazz site that references Tatum offers the vital information: Who Art Tatum is Dating.

So, will a media-genic musician will always draw more attention?
Stupid question.


I Witness said...

You've tossed down a gauntlet I'm not willing to pick. But I will say a couple of things. I believe Shearing's success was more due to his smoothing out the sharp edges of Bop/Jazz than to his being white. And Billy Taylor's music has no more appeal for me than much of Shearing's, and Tatum's is elsewhere too. (Comes down to my own ignorance, no doubt, but I'd choose Monk, Evans, Ellington, Flanagan, Barron, and lots of others.)

There's that anecdote about some pianist performing in a club, and Tatum comes in. The host pianist responds to the applause after a number, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I play piano, but God is in the house." If Tatum really is the Boss, and the others just lesser angels, well, it's one reason I'm agnostic.

Steve Provizer said...

I suppose by calling out Shearing's and Taylor's playing there was the faint whiff of the gauntlet, although I meant the thing to come across in a more Platonic way.

I also didn't communicate well if I conveyed that Shearing's attraction to TV and, as Varese might say "the modern day blogger," lay solely in his being white. I think it helped, but there have been others-non white-similarly well-positioned. I wanted to say something about Esperanza S.-maybe some other time.

Inre Tatum, I do think the scales of musical influence are heavily weighted toward him. However, you and I are actually on the same page vis a vis his playing. I've had a number of discussions with musicians about Tatum, me taking the side that I hear his virtuosity, but don't "get it" in terms of the level of adulation (God). If you're offering me piano playing in that direction, I'd rather listen to O.P.

Richard said...

There are many great jazz pianists and other jazz talent that may have gotten missed by the media over the years (but some are gradually being rediscovered). The main issue here to me is, no matter how accomplished an artist is or the level of his appeal to the public-at-large, JAZZ is an art form (like with most art) that calls to an individual's personal taste, emotion, mood, mindset, perception and intellect.

By its very nature JAZZ is quite individualistic in all forms of its offerings. Whether an artist is technically viable or unique enough to be given notice by people and judged to be of a certain caliber when compared to another artist to me is not the is a nonsensical triviality...these artists are expressing their own musical essence and baring their souls to anyone who will listen...any person who can popularize America's ONLY true art form, JAZZ, and bring masses of folks to drink from the deep and vast well of this particular world of musical talent is, in my humble opinion, most noteworthy (Sir George Shearing included).

As long as JAZZ is continually promoted and supported in all its many and varied forms...isn't that what really counts? Other than that, who cares?

P.S. By the way, if you guys really want to hear another excellent jazz pianist (try to find the recordings where this artist plays only piano-they are very rare) who was in the media spotlight but overlooked for his keyboard skills, check out a cat by the name of: Nat King Cole...his popularity as a singer overshadowed his noted jazz piano playing abilities when it came to his appeal to the media and the general public. 'NufSed.
-- Richard Watters, editor of the blog JAZZzology

Steve Provizer said...

Richard-Thanks for the comment. Always been a fan of Nat Cole's piano playing...

As far as comparing one musician to another-many a brain, including my own (and I'm a musician myself), is drawn to it. It's a natural part of how many people process the experience. Some musical performances leave us speechless in the moment and inspire us in our own musical work-and we crave that-but it doesn't mean we don't want to go home and write about it afterward.

Chip Boaz said...

Steve -

I think that when you look back on the history of jazz, individuality becomes a major issue. It's true that Shearing's music might not have held the musical meat that Art Tatum's playing contained. It's also true that he was not an avid advocate of the music like Taylor. At the same time, Shearing's legacy made an impact.

His most important impact may have been in the social arena. Shearing utilized a racially integrated band when others avoided the mixing of black and white musicians. In a music with major African-American roots that has been consistently co-opted by caucasian musicians, this was huge. In an early ensemble, Shearing also employed a female vibraphonist, again, a huge step forward at the time. Jazz still underplays the contribution of women; this was very forward thinking. These were important social statement that should be remembered with respect.

On the musical side of things, Shearing made important steps forward in Latin Jazz. His popularization of small group Latin Jazz helped move the music from the big band mambo sound that pumped through New York dance halls into small combos. His popularity led to major exposure for Latin Jazz, certainly on par with the exposure that Cal Tjader gave the music. On this same token, he exposed the very important work of percussionist Armando Peraza to the world, a major gift that can't be overlooked. Unfortunately, the massive coverage that followed Shearing's death pretty well wrote off his contributions to Latin Jazz as a "flirtation with Latin rhythms." I talked about Shearing's Latin Jazz explorations on Latin Jazz Corner HERE and Felix Contreras wrote about it on A Blog Supreme HERE, but that was about it.

So I'd say that the attention on Shearing was warranted. He made some major plays in the jazz world, and his music spread an awareness about the music to the world. It was pleasant enough too. At the same time, I do lament the fact that all of the jazz world's major figures don't receive the same type of attention. It's a fact that says a lot about our society and our lack of value upon the arts.

Thanks for the post, interesting perspective.

Steve Provizer said...

Chip-Thanks very much for bringing my attention to the Shearing-Latin connection which I confess I knew little about. That's why the blog/comment nexus is so useful. Your blog entry also makes many of the Shearing entries seem very glib-one of the motivating factors for my post in the first place.

The fact that he had a woman instrumentalist in a small group is certainly worth noting. Generally, featured female performers were vocalists, although we know there were other exceptions to that.

I'll credit him, but perhaps not give him quite the props you do for mixing black and white performers, as the precedent for that had been pretty well established.

Steve Provizer said...

Larry H. says:

"Whatever else he was, Shearing was the REAL THING. What's the point of comparing him to Tatum or Wilson or Monk? Damn, he was good! And I'm glad I got a few days of listening to him a lot on the radio.