Listening to the History of Recorded Jazz, 1917-1967: Blog #1

We’re excited to announce the arrival of a new monthly blog series that will be featured here on the PDX Jazz website, and we hope you will find informative and fun to read. This series is created and written by Mark Montesano, a friend of the PDX Jazz organization.

About the author: Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. He began listening to jazz in the early 1960’s starting with his father’s Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson, and Stan Getz albums. A few years later, he was gifted a copy of Miles Davis Live at the Blackhawk and a stack of Downbeat magazines and he was hooked on exploring both the exciting innovations of that time and jazz’s great traditions. While his high school friends were collecting Beatles albums, he was asking for Ornette Coleman albums for Christmas. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show Hard Choices on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.


BLOG #1: A look at the history and influence of Art Tatum


For jazz fans, loving the music isn’t enough. It’s also important to learn its history—not just reading about the fascinating personalities that created the music, but listening to how the music is tied to the past and the future. In this series, we’ll explore some of the great moments in the history of jazz as expressed through the amazing men and women who lived and played it.

Art Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio, October 13, 1909.  As an infant he developed cataracts in his eyes that left him blind in one eye and barely able to see with the other, yet he was born with perfect pitch and at 3 began to pick out songs from his mother’s hymns and from music on the radio. Until he came to NYC with a touring band, he was just a rumor. Touring musicians who heard him play in Toledo brought the word back to the east coast. Eventually he made his way to New York with a touring band.

As was the custom, when a new hot shot piano player came to NY, the best stride pianists in town would go meet him and take turns trying to outdo him in what they called ‘cutting contests’ on.

James P. Johnson ( famously said: “When Tatum played ‘Tea For Two’ that night I guess that was the first time I ever heard it really played.”.” (  

Willie “the Lion” Smith (

Fats Waller ( all came down to show him who was boss. After they played against him, though, they had to throw up their hands in admiration and surrender. After that match, when Tatum came to see Fats Waller, Waller proclaimed, “I only play piano, but tonight God is in the house.”

Yet without these elders that went before him, Art Tatum would not have been possible. He became the Harlem Stride style on steroids. From then on, he became known as one of the greatest, if not the greatest jazz pianist of all time. His advanced harmonies incorporated the entire history of jazz and gave birth to its modern form. Tatum credited Earl “Fatha” Hines (, an earlier innovator of the jazz piano as his inspiration.

As he became established, his influence spread. Coleman Hawkins, jazz’s first great tenor sax player (, changed his style to include many-noted and harmonically daring phrases after hearing Tatum. Charlie Parker took a job washing dishes in a restaurant where Art Tatum played so he could learn from him. His goal was to “play sax like Art Tatum’s right hand.” ( The great bebop pianist Bud Powell (, who was mightily influenced by Tatum’s speed and concept, challenged Art to a speed contest. Tatum replied that anything that Powell played with his right hand, he would play with his left. Bud backed off.

His influence continues to this day, though many thought that he played “too much piano” — too many notes, too fast — that he was just showing off. It would be the rare piano player who isn’t in awe of Tatum’s technique, his soulfulness, and his incredible musical advances. He did all this without any apparent effort. Watch him play “Yesterdays” at a blazing speed without seeming to move his hands.

Art Tatum is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, partly because he is a link between jazz’s roots in the blues and the musical explorers who came after him.   Give a listen.