Sunday, August 31, 2008

Buckets of Beauty

Christopher Citro was my unofficial Consigliere of Funk while we were putting together the Funk issue for Indiana Review. I could always rely on him for his sound funky judgment (excuse the pun). He graciously blessed us with the following blog post. --Misstra Knowitall

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As far as I know, I have never been in a coma. Nevertheless, for some reason, I find it useful to have a plan for what to do if I ever find myself in one. Or, I should say, a plan for what the people around me should do. From time to time, I'll mention to a loved one, "If I'm ever in a coma, I want you to..." Usually it involves music that I want to be played as loudly as possible in the hospital room, on the presumption that if that wouldn't bring me back into the land of the living and breathing and shagging and eating and whining and drinking, then nothing would.

The first time that I listened to "Sir Duke" from Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, listening on headphones while walking to a place to have drinks with friends, I ended up hyperventilating. I almost got run over at a crosswalk. When I got to the cafe, I told my buddies that if I ever fell into a coma, I wanted them to play that song in my hospital room so loud that the windows would rattle and the nurses would burst into flame. They said they would, and I brought the first round of drinks in thanks.

A few weeks ago, just as the august heat and humidity here in southern Indiana cranked up to coma-inducing proportions, I dug out my Fats Waller CDs. I've been in love with his music since high school (one needs little more than the Dead Kennedys and Fats Waller to survive high school, if one puts one's mind to it--at least, that's what worked for me). I'd recently completed my collection of the superlative, now out-of-print, RCA boxed sets of Fats Waller and his Rhythm--huge chunks of his real, low-down, unadulterated music from the '30s and '40s originally released on 78s--and the good woman and I had one CD in particular that we couldn't bring ourselves to take out of the car. I almost ran off the road twice listening to "Big Chief De Sota," and the good woman kept "Christopher Columbus" on repeat for a week. The stultifying heat just couldn't stand up to Fats Waller

I found a documentary about Waller at the county library and one night, while our new robot vacuumed the living room and the air-conditioner stuck its straw right under Saudi Arabia and sucked up petroleum like crazy, we watched stuff like this:

Now, I told you all that story in order to tell you this...

While tracing the evolution of Fats Waller's stride style of piano playing, the documentary introduced Art Tatum. I’d heard his name many times, but I never heard his music. In case you're the same way, allow me to rectify (whether or not any of you ever find yourselves in a coma).

Being by no means a jazz historian, I'll keep this brief. Art Tatum (1909-1956) was an amazing virtuoso jazz pianist in the stride tradition of Fats Waller. Once when he entered a club where Waller was playing, Fats stepped away from the piano to let him sit while saying "I only play the piano, but tonight god is in the house." I found the exact clip which was in the documentary and which made me spill wine all over the robot as I reached to hit rewind on the DVD remote. It's sick how great this is. He's playing "Yesterdays."


Tatum was half blind, self-taught, and is regarded by tons of people as the greatest jazz pianist, the greatest jazz soloist of any kind, who ever lived. This is what he did to Dvorak.


Apparently when he was but a child, he'd teach himself to play tunes he heard on the radio, even going to far as to learn to play, by myself, compositions that were actually written to be performed by two pianists. He regularly made people think that his recordings were performed by multiple pianists. This guy was insanely good. His playing in the 30s and early 40s presaged bebop. You can hear it in his version of Yesterdays above.

Charlie Parker once said "I wish I could play like Tatum's right hand."

Dave Brubeck: "I don't think there's any more chance of another Tatum turning up than another Mozart."

Dizzy Gillespie: "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."

And the beautiful Ray Charles: "Even later, when I got fairly good at the piano, I knew that I couldn’t even carry Art Tatum’s shit bucket."

For those of you who've never heard of him, welcome to Art Tatum.

-Chris Citro

3 comments:

The Critic said...

Hell yeah, Art Tatum (Ohio native, regular concertplayer in Cleveland) rocks that shit out.

But can you give everyone a quick rundown of records of Tatum's you'd say oh yes, you must own? I'm rather fond of the Solo Masterpiece cd's

The Critic said...

Oh yes, and Bill Evans is pretty good on the piano himself. Unaccompanied, Conversations with Myself is quite good, but he had to multitrack it to sound like more than one person.

.Christopher. said...

Having only recently been turned on to Art Tatum, I don't know a great deal about what albums to recommend. Myself, I started with a double CD called "Art Tatum - 20th Century Piano Genius (1950-1955)." It was recommended by many places online. It's a record of some after hours performances at a rich friend's house. The friend had the place wired for sound and recorded the sessions without Tatum's knowledge and released them later with his consent. Apparently his creativity is especially in evidence in these sessions. And having listened to them, I concur. They're amazing.