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Team Playing

Jazzed Magazine • March 2021Outlier's Blues • March 18, 2021

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On a recent afternoon, a friend and I were spending quality time the very best way: listening to music. Although conversant with a wide swath of artists from disparate musical genres, my friend had only a passing acquaintance with the work of the pianist Art Tatum. I played him “Willow Weep for Me,” one of Tatum’s benchmark virtuosic performances, and he was duly impressed. I then played some tracks from Tatum’s storied 1956 quartet collaboration with the saxophone titan Ben Webster. Noting that Webster was in peak form, my friend then made an unassuming yet pointed comment about his partnering pianist: “He wasn’t much of a team player, was he?”

And there you have it. Tatum – keyboard giant that he unquestionably was – didn’t exactly play well with others. A lone wolf, Tatum was a brilliant showman at his best when surrounded by no one else. Give him players to interact with and he’d do his best to mix it up with them, but you can’t help but hear how his busy fingers just wanted to cut loose and leave them in the dust. His most successful group sessions – no matter the spectacular musicianship they display – can make you feel as if they succeed in spite of his contributions. He seemingly could inspire, but not comfortably integrate with fellow players. Tatum’s many stunning solo performances stand out above the crowd because the last place he wanted to be was in a crowd.

Has there ever been a jazz great so indifferent to the pleasures of collaboration? Keyboard virtuosos from Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and Fats Waller to Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor, and more recently, Brad Mehldau display some of their most impressive work in unaccompanied performances, but each demonstrate an ability, and a willingness, to work successfully in group situations. (For example, as a contrast to Tatum, I also played my friend selections from Soulville, a 1957 Webster session with Oscar Peterson on piano. Now the mighty Peterson was anything but a shrinking violet, but here he provides, when called upon, beautifully understated and relatively spare accompaniment. Listen to the gorgeous “Where Are You?” for proof.)

Do Tatum’s monologuist tendencies violate a core principle of jazz? Doesn’t the very aesthetic of the music call for group interaction? You don’t have to wade all that deeply into the Stanley Crouch-Wynton Marsalis-Ken Burns doctrine positing jazz as a metaphor for American democracy to at least be comforted and, ideally, brought to elation at hearing two or more musicians finding common ground, exhibiting respect for one another, and ultimately pushing each other to greater levels of invention and expressiveness. Isn’t that what the music is all about? 

The listener is left with more questions. Despite his all-by-myself tendencies, is Tatum any less of a treasure? Aren’t his magisterial solo performances still part of the very foundation of jazz? If no man is an island, Tatum consistently made swimming out to him continually worth the effort.

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