Playing Double Time

What could you achieve if you didn’t place any limitations on yourself? Jazz pianist Art Tatum— called “the eighth wonder of the world” by Count Basie— is a perfect example of a man who knew no boundaries.

Though blind, Tatum expressed an interest in the piano as a youngster. He listened to the musical stylings of Fats Waller and Lee Sims on the radio for hours, hoping that someday he would be able to perform as well as they did. Of course, that meant he’d have to learn to play, but unfortunately, like many families in the 1920s, his had few resources to spend on music lessons.

As Tatum neared adolescence, he devised his own method for learning the instrument. He persuaded friends to escort him to a jazz club, where he was given permission to sit at the player piano.

As the music played, Tatum kept his fingers hovering lightly over the falling keys, feeling his way through the songs. He practiced late into the night, as often as he could, in spite of his age, his schoolwork, and his part-time job.

Learning to play piano in this manner was difficult, but not just because he was blind. What Tatum didn’t realize was that player piano rolls of that era were the result of two pianists playing together. He was learning to play with two hands what normally took four. As a result, he developed an incredible dexterity that enabled him to master the piano. Art Tatum’s strong will overshadowed any real or imagined challenges that could have prevented him from learning to play the piano.

At the age of 17, Tatum began playing professionally in a career that spanned decades. What began as a desire to sound like Fats Waller developed into a four-handed playing style that would astonish Waller and fellow musicians throughout the 20th century.

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