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In spite of his blindness, though, Art Tatum grew to become one of the great jazz musicians of his time.
Tatum’s musical ability manifested itself at an early age. By the age of three, he was replicating music he had heard on the radio on the piano. His parents encouraged him in his music and eventually sent him off at the age of 16 to attend the Columbus School for the Blind. While learning how to read Braille, Tatum also studied music, both at his school and later with Overton G. Rainey, a classic pianist, at the Toledo School of Music. Tatum’s jazz talent was thus primarily self-taught but was good enough to get him his own show on the local radio station by the time he was 18. One year later and Tatum was working at Ohio’s Waiters’ and Bellmans’ Club, playing piano with singer Jon Hendricks. News of the young player began to spread and famous jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson began dropping in as they passed through town to hear him play.
It wasn’t until 1932 when Tatum was 22 that singer Adelaide Hall decided to bring him to New York as her accompanist and his music began to be recorded. The earliest known recording is a 1932 test pressing of ‘Tiger Rag’, which was professionally recorded the following year. The song provides an excellent example of Tatum’s abilities as it features crashing bass notes, flowing cascades on both the left and right hands and a brutally fast tempo that showed off Tatum’s amazing dexterity.
Tatum also participated in so-called ‘cutting contests’ while he was in New York, competing against other pianists such as Fats Weller and James P. Johnson for bragging rights that he never lost. Between 1933 and 1938, Tatum traveled around playing his piano visiting many of the large cities with big jazz followings including Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and several locations in England,
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