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Vol. LXIII, No. 43
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
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Record Review

Tatum and Webster: Celebrating Two Jazz Giants at 100

Stuart Mitchner

I wish I could play like Art Tatum’s right hand.

Charlie Parker

On Art Tatum’s 100th birthday last Tuesday, October 13, Renée, an elephant at the Toledo, Ohio Zoo, painted a piano in honor of the city’s native son. Green and purple were the colors of choice. According to one report, pianos were also being painted all over town by human artists and left here and there so that anybody who felt the urge could sit down and play. Imagine — pianos on every street corner, in parks and shopping malls, as pros and amateurs alike take turns pounding the ivories. It makes some kind of sense, this idea of pianistic fantasia, a citywide musical delirium, to celebrate the man of whom Fats Waller once famously said, “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house.” Other pianists created moderately populous music. Tatum’s sound was a metropolis.

When the Count Basie band was in Toledo, the Count made the mistake of sitting down at a piano in a certain bar without knowing that it was Tatum’s hangout and Tatum’s piano. As Basie tells it, “I went over there and I started bothering that piano. That was just asking for trouble, and that’s just exactly what I got. Because somebody went out and found Art …. He was just off somewhere waiting for someone to come in there and start messing with that piano …. Oh, boy. They brought him in there, and I can still see him and that way he had of walking on his toes with his head kind of tilted.”

Tatum’s head is “kind of tilted” on YouTube clips of him playing “Humoresque.” Almost totally blind, he may be showing off his sharpest sense with that gesture; his hearing was phenomenal. He’d ask someone to drop a handful of coins on the counter at a Manhattan drug store he frequented and then amaze everyone by identifying each coin according to the sound it made.

No pianist ever wanted to play after Tatum. According to Teddy Wilson, “He was miraculous. It was like someone hitting a homerun every time he picks up a bat.” Trumpet great Roy Eldridge spoke of being amused by “cats that say, ‘Well, I finally got a decent piano’” because Tatum “played any of those pianos; he’d play it if it only had four keys on it!”

Parker and Tatum

In 1939 Tatum was playing at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in lower Harlem while a young alto saxophonist was briefly moonlighting there as a pot-walloping dishwasher for nine dollars a week. According to Ross Russell in Bird Lives!, Charlie Parker realized that if the sax could be played “with the speed and accuracy of Tatum’s piano … it would be a major breakthrough.” This was around the time that he supposedly said he wished he could play “like Tatum’s right hand,” which he can be heard doing five or six years later in the mid-1940s. While his technical gifts may never have been the equal of Tatum’s, he fully and inventively exploited the fact that, as Russell puts it, “the saxophone was the more versatile instrument …. Once the piano chord was struck, it was finished. You couldn’t bend it or color it. Not even Tatum could do that.” But with the sax, “You could shape notes, bend notes, take away from and add to pitch.”

The ultimate musical embarrassment of riches would be Tatum and Parker playing together, an event that, if it ever happened, was never recorded. While it’s said that Tatum preferred to play alone, the advantage of hearing him with other musicians is in the jolting thrill of the moment when he takes flight. Playing solo, he can create a semblance of that breakaway excitement, but when Lionel Hampton or Buddy Rich, or the members of Tatum’s 1940s working trio, guitarist Tiny Grimes and bassist Slam Stewart, trip open the gate and set him loose, it’s as exhilarating as anything in jazz. Describing Tatum’s arrival on the New York scene, Roy Eldridge describes the time that he and [drummer] Jo Jones took him down to the Rhythm Club, “and we played two tunes before we cut him loose …. All of a sudden we dropped out and let Art go. Boy, …. That sumbitch tore that Rhythm Club up!”

Big Ben

Ben Webster and Art Tatum were brought together for a session on September 11, 1956, by Norman Granz, which of all Granz’s entrepeneurial feats may be the most sublime, a coup of immense proportions. Benny Green’s liner notes for Volume Eight of Tatum Group Masterpieces are mainly taken up with pointing out the great tenor man made “probably the most successful attempt of all time” to match personalities with Tatum. He mentions Webster’s “Indian summer … development as an individual stylist” but leaves out one key fact. Webster had a passion for piano music, particularly Tatum’s. In 1971, two years before he died, Webster was asked by Melody Maker’s Max Jones about his taste in records. “First thing I do in the morning,” he said. “I turn on Donald Lambert [the gifted but little known stride pianist who was born in Princeton and is buried here], Art Tatum, and Fats [Waller]. First thing I do in the morning, last thing when I go to bed.” Before he took up the tenor sax, Webster played violin, then piano. In fact, around the same time 12-year-old Don Lambert was providing accompaniment for silent movies in Princeton, Ben Webster was doing the same thing in Amarillo, Texas.

Like Tatum, who died in November 1956, less than two months after the session in question, Webster was born one hundred years ago. The place was Kansas City on March 27, 1909, but since he spent the last decade of his life in Europe, mainly Denmark, that’s where he’s buried and officially remembered. Based in Copenhagen, the Ben Webster Foundation has been marking the centenary with concerts and the awarding of prizes in his name. At the mention of Kansas City in an earlier interview with Max Jones, Webster’s first words were, “My home.” He then went on to recall playing at the Sunset on 12th and Woodland (“I lived down the block then”), with Pete Johnson on piano and Big Joe Turner tending bar and singing blues. Kansas City in this period is the subject and setting for Robert Altman’s 1996 film of the same name, featuring “appearances” by Ben Webster (played by James Carter), Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker.

Ben’s Sound

Ben Webster found his first measure of renown as the tenor soloist with the great Duke Ellington band of the early 1940s, and, contrary to what Benny Green suggests, the Webster style was already very much in evidence, if not as potent and refined as it would be 15 years later. It’s also typically Ellingtonian, smooth, elegant, suavely lyrical, and only to be expected from someone who credited Ellington’s altoist Johnny Hodges as a major influence. Words associated with Ellington — solitude, haunt, reverie, dusk, mood indigo, moon mist — can be heard in Webster’s musing, at times almost otherworldly, sound — a sound that is also among the qualities that make Ellington’s music unique.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not oddly at all, no Ellington compositions are among those on the Tatum-Webster session. You have to wonder what Tatum would make of Billy Strayhorn’s unforgettable “Chelsea Bridge,” the song that became Webster’s signature number, the one where you can hear him defining the life and breath of his art, as surely as if he were saying, “Here I am, coming through, living, breathing, dreaming, singing wordless, and wondering.” If you compare Webster’s solo on Ellington’s 1941 “Chelsea Bridge” with the one he takes on his 1959 session with Gerry Mulligan, another Granz coup, you can hear what Green is talking about. The big man — one of his nicknames was the Brute — was leasing Strayhorn’s song in 1941. In 1959 he owns it.

And what a wild piece of work was the Brute, who could play with such beauty and ineffable delicacy on ballads like “My One and Only Love,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “Where or When” on the session with Tatum. The story of his break with Ellington in 1943 has a fittingly pianistic element; according to the bio on the online African American Registry, he’d been allowed to play piano with the band and “stayed too long on the keyboard. When Duke took offense and refused to discuss the matter, Webster cut one of Ellington’s best suits to pieces.”

Max Jones talks of his moods (“quick-changing and unpredictable, not to say alarming”), of “trying to keep him approximately upright for the evening gig,” of “a large knife produced from some part of his clothing,” of his being “hell-bent on spreading bonhomie around his ample presence, despite aggressive and self-destructive urges, until a certain level of intoxication brought out the dark side of the moon.”

Such is jazz — the dark side of a blue moon where knife-wielding tenor men are playing ballads fit to charm the gods, elephants are painting pianos, and Tatum’s tearing the place apart.

As always, if you don’t have easy access to this music, go to the incredible jazz website (

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