Tatum is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. His performances were hailed for their technical proficiency and creativity, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, “Tatum’s quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries.”
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio, on October 13, 1909.
Tatum drew inspiration from the pianists James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, who exemplified the stride piano style, and from the more modern Earl Hines, six years Tatum’s senior. Tatum identified Waller as his biggest influence, but according to pianist Teddy Wilson and saxophonist Eddie Barefield his favorite jazz pianist was Hines. He bought and listened to records by Hines and practiced improvising with them.
In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as ‘Arthur Tatum, Toledo’s Blind Pianist’, during interludes in Ellen Kay’s shopping chat program and soon had his own program. During 1928–29, his radio program was re-broadcast nationwide.
Lester summarized Tatum’s abilities and effect on others even from near the start of the pianist’s career: “his accomplishment, even at an early age, was of a different order from what most people, from what even musicians, had ever heard. It made musicians reconsider their definitions of excellence, of what was possible.” As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner, and Fletcher Henderson dropped in to hear him play.