Beyond Appropriation: Art Tatum Taps into Infinity

Judith Ellis

Beyond Appropriation: Art Tatum Taps into Infinity

 As the tracing of beginnings is a dubious task in the writing of history and the retelling of stories, the question of appropriation is always problematic. Art Tatum, the great jazz pianist, has been viewed as one whose body of work merely appropriates those of classical European composers. However, Tatum’s music appears to expand on the work of these composers in a way that goes beyond appropriation. How did Tatum achieve this extraordinary feat without any formal musical education? In this study, I explore how genetic inheritance and remembrance may have enabled Tatum to transcend his predecessors by tapping into the intrinsic knowledge and skill of “blues times.” The study concludes with an attempt to bring ideas surrounding “blues times” into conversation with Heideggerian concepts such as “being-in-the-world” and “being-among-one-another.”

Tatum’s Life and Work

READING Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, I was arrested by the phrase “the physics of remembrance,” described by Moten as “the strange correspondence between distant particles, like the communication with the dead (or with tradition).”1 Art Tatum, the legendary jazz piano virtuoso, seems to have had just this kind of remembrance. While improvising on the themes of European classical composers, Tatum creates original music with extraordinary skill and adroitness, putting into question the idea of American appropriation of Europe. Tatum appears to tap into ancient, hardwired knowledge to create “new openings” beyond tradition,2 a tradition that does not inhibit access to what Heidegger identifies as “primordial sources” that “have been handed down to us.”3

Who, then, is this blind, black man, Art Tatum? The few available oral accounts of his life yield as many questions as answers, while Tatum himself seemed to prefer focusing on the music rather than his life. Even the cause of his blindness is up for debate. We know he was born in Toledo, Ohio, on 13 October 1909, to parents from the South and not born into slavery. His father, whose regular employment as a “shipper” enabled the family to live in one of the best neighborhoods a black family could inhabit,4 pursued an itinerant street ministry—whether as a side gig or a divine calling. At the age of five, Tatum played hymns on a harmonium during his father’s ministry,5 gaining experience as a performer early on.

Tatum completed eight grades at Jefferson School in Toledo before enrolling for classes for the blind in Columbus. Math was his best subject, speaking to his extraordinary gift for polyrhythms—simultaneous, often competing and contrasting rhythms in a single meter of music that can also be compounded by combinations of meters in conflict. James Lester asserts that Tatum had some musical training, but also includes the opposing view, which seems somewhat more believable.6 If Tatum indeed had training, it does not seem to have been extensive.

Undeniable, nonetheless, is that as a pianist, Tatum was in a class all by himself. Jazz critic Whitney Balliett describes him as “the greatest jazz pianist who ever lived and he was said to be not a jazz pianist at all.”7 Classical pianists were in awe of his technical and improvisational abilities. And while “nobody has decided yet what kind of pianist he was,”8 Tatum’s abilities surpassed those of anyone around him and have not been equaled since. But if not based on a foundation of formal training, where did these abilities come from?

Not having studied classical music to any extent, Tatum could nonetheless listen to a recording of Chopin or Tchaikovsky and play it back verbatim. Expanding beyond form, he then went on to reshape these compositions into new pieces altogether while retaining hints of the originals. In Tatum’s interpretations, the melodies of the original work can be heard throughout but coalesce with improvisations on themes that follow a strict structure while being compounded by complex polyrhythms and dense harmonies. Tatum may begin with Massenet or Chopin, but the resulting work can hardly be deemed that of these great masters, any more than Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison can be deemed the same writer simply for having used the same alphabet.

Clearly working through themes of classical music, Tatum employs more than the nineteenth-century European composers he channels. Consider his performance of Elegies by Massenet. While the variation on the theme harbors a remembrance of Massenet, the new meters, chord structures, and themes create new openings. The question is not one of improvement on the original, but of a variance that exceeds the original’s rhythmic and harmonic structure. Tatum’s process, then, seems in line with Jonathan Rée’s maxim of taking over traditions and making them your own by creating “a new opening to the future, not tagging along behind it.” Through music, Tatum creates something new with what is given from the past.9

Interestingly, though, Tatum is not considered a composer, but rather a jazz pianist with extraordinary technical and musical abilities in the realm of improvisation. Through improvisation, he creates what classical pianist Glenn Gould called “formlessness,” the creation of a form which has as its basis its own limitations, inducing from the offset the terror it brings to recreate something new each time.10 Indeed, for many musicians, listening to Tatum play was simply terrorizing. The eminent jazz pianist Oscar Peterson remarked, “Tatum scared me to death.”11 In the end, the scary “formlessness” of Tatum’s artistry begs the question of “whose” composition the resulting work represents. I propose that within his immense, extraordinary variations lies an originality that bridges the gap between improvisation and composition. 

Tracing Tatum’s Brilliance

In an attempt to trace the sources of Tatum’s brilliance, let me start with the notion that there is nothing new under the sun. Our present state has depth and expansiveness, enabling us to recall, retrieve, and reenact in the arts, sciences, literature, and philosophy. What we recall, retrieve, and reenact is indeed nothing new, but that which we already know, letting us move beyond our present state via reiterations and amalgamations. Should amalgamation be understood as appropriation or as innovation? Is it improvisation or origination? Can amalgamation become composition? And if so, from where did it originate?

Michael S. Gazzaniga reminds us that an infant uses basic principles of physics innately and without learning. The infant can distinguish a figure from the ground and realize that when one object with mass hits another, it will move the object.12 Gazzaniga goes on to suggest that we are born “factory wired” and that “everything from perceptual phenomena to intuitive physics to social exchange rules” is intrinsically wired into the brain.13 In 1953, Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking work showed DNA to be the repository of genetic information.14 This has been followed by evidence of increasingly complex information and instruction stored as a vast, dynamic chemical language. Physical traits, emotional and intellectual aptitudes, as well as historical family events are all written in code which can be turned off and on by things as simple as social context.15 16 The young Tatum, playing for his father’s street ministry even though he had no formal training, could be a good example of such genetically hard-wired knowledge.17 Having come into the world with this knowledge, Tatum would have actualized it in an exemplary way.

Gazzaniga’s ideas also lead into a fruitful discussion of creativity, innovation, and appropriation. In his essay, “Comparing Medieval European Music with Arabic Music,” music theorist and musician Sami Abu Shumays reminds us that “Ancient Greek music theory—and practice—did not develop in isolation”18 and that the Ancient Greeks had substantial interactions with the Ancient Egyptians, who greatly influenced their culture. Before the West was “civilized,” there was Africa. Before the invasion of Greeks into Egypt in 332 B.C.E., there was Africa. Before there was Western music, there was Egyptian music—from which Pythagoras derived his musical knowledge. As the basis of classical music, we usually only consider a canon of European music and, in so doing, fail to acknowledge the infinity mirror of preceding roots traveling from Iberia, from Arabia, and again from Africa.19 What has been learned and what has come “factory wired” from the Ancients?

The deep knowledge of the first people of Africa seems boundless and without beginning. But if there is no beginning, there is always a precedent, as our increasing knowledge, like the expanding universe, moves outward from within. As the universe continually expands out from within itself, particles are forever broken down into yet more minute particles, but are always made up of that which lies within them, inestimable quantities that are not yet known. Similarly, our understanding of knowledge may be bound to history or experience, but the vastness of knowledge already exists. And if every particle of knowledge already exists within us, the very concept of “appropriation” is thrown into doubt.

We are unsurprised to hear of the child that has the instrumental talent of her organist father, or the one whose gift for mathematics is just like that of his scientist mother. How each is formed in its environment in time, as well as through lessons never learned and memories never experienced, is a matter in which genetic memory needs to be taken into account. If we relate genetic memory to the extraordinary gift of Art Tatum, who improvised on the music of classical European composers, we might consider that Tatum’s gift might have been created in “blues times,” seemingly reaching back far beyond these composers to intrinsic knowledge and skill. 

A Remembering Gene

At this point, permit me to insert a personal interlude in the hope that it will help clarify the issue of inherent knowledge and skill in relation to historical, cultural, precedential, and genetic inheritance. When I was twelve years old, a composer, who was married to the impresario of three opera companies, came to my school to audition us for an operetta she had written. During the audition, I naturally displayed trills (fast alternation between two adjacent notes), portamenti (sliding from one note to another, usually for dramatic effect), timbre (quality of the tone distinct from pitch and intensity), and a three-octave vocal range.20 She explained what these musical terms meant and how I had performed them instinctually, and went on to write an aria for me that incorporated these elements. I had had no musical training and had not listened to opera before, yet singing in this way felt completely natural. Where did I “learn” to sing like this?

If we go back some generations, my third great grandfather, William Johnson (1809-1851), the noted “Barber of Natchez,” was a former slave turned composer and successful entrepreneur who lent money at an interest to both blacks and whites, owned three shops, and acquired substantial holdings–rental properties, timberland, farm acreage, and slaves. Johnson’s house is listed on the historic National Registry, and he is known as an “American Diarist” for his 14 voluminous diaries that reveal ante-bellum Southern life. Without formal education, Johnson became a composer, entrepreneur, and diarist whose papers and compositions are archived at Louisiana State University.

Similarly, without formal education, my great grandfather Garfield Thomas Haywood (1880-1931) became a polymath. He was a notable composer of hymns that are still performed and recorded today by artists around the world, a pastor of a church of 1,500 congregants both white and black, an architect, author, entrepreneur, world traveler, and cartoonist.  The massive brick church he designed and built still graces a major Indianapolis thoroughfare, a section of which is named in his honor.

My third cousin, Anna Julia Haywood Cooper (1858-1964), was a scholar, educator, and suffragette. Unlike Johnson and Haywood, she graduated college, getting her Ph.D. from the Sorbonne in Paris during the same time that Marie Curie, the noted Polish-French physicist and chemist, was in attendance. While women generally didn’t reach that level of educational attainment, black women were an even greater anomaly at the time.

My eleven siblings and I were raised in Detroit by a single mother. We all excel in multiple fields without formal study or training. We all have ministerial licenses and are musicians, as were Johnson and Haywood. Though born into modest circumstances and raised with a checkered educational background, we achieved success in various sectors, often simultaneously. It seemed natural that we could be opera singers, athletes, preachers, scientists, novelists, pastors, mathematicians, inventors, poets, educators, dancers, architects, and entrepreneurs all at once or consecutively.

The function of “blues times” seems to be unrestrictive and dynamic in any field. It is as if ancestral knowledge and skill can be tapped into from a pre-existing repository that charts the past and guides the future, all simultaneously in the present.

In the microscopic
      kernel that contains

      plays in the sky
                  sits still
                  as our stories move…

Is cosmos

Offering aroma
        out of place
         slice through open door and

Opaque blue corridor

With my siblings’ children and grandchildren, I can readily see them moving within the same “blues times.” They compose; sing; excel in math; write; calculate interest on allowances if not paid on time; perform physics-defying gymnastics routines on the floor and balance beam with speed, accuracy, adroitness, and elegance; and are recruited to Ivy League colleges in middle school. In other words, like Tatum, Johnson, Haywood, and Anna Julia Haywood Cooper, all seem to reenact genetic memory, possibly from “remembrance of things past,”22 aided by a buoyancy and assurance that seems coalesced within eras and epochs. Where there is offspring, remembrance seems to be passed down, called back, and propelled forward in the present.

Tatum is more than most. He can be viewed as a savant in that he is not merely copying what he knows. Rather, he reaches back into past, inherited knowledge, draws upon it in the present, and reaches beyond it to find new openings beyond tradition. What might this past reference? And from where did it come? Could we infer the past to mean that which has been genetically “programmed” or “factory installed,” as Darold Treffert puts it?23 Studies have shown that shared genes are indicative of the level of success a musician is likely to attain. A combination of hereditary chemical switches taps into musical ability that is innate in the individual.24

Like the dynamic, continuous whole into which string theory builds from its infinitesimal particle structure, Tatum’s rich, intricate, rhythmic, harmonic structures build on “the smallest perceptual time unit in music,” which, in computational musicology, has aptly been named the “tatum.”25 It would be easy to reduce Tatum’s brilliance to mere talent without considering that we may already have within us every particle of knowledge. And since even Pythagoras’ musical knowledge drew on the Egyptians, Tatum could well be recalling, retrieving, and reenacting that which precedes even Greece and, by extension, European music and culture.26 The question, then, becomes: what exactly is appropriation? Who appropriates whose work? Our very interpretations, reinterpretations, and misinterpretations themselves seem essential.

Tatum and Being

In The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes that Tatum is not original, instead copying the work of nineteenth-century composers.27 Ted Gioia counters by asking: did nineteenth century composers use techniques such as “passing chord reharmonizations” with “bitonality” and wistful “dissonances” executed with “rapid-fire precision?”28 Tatum breaks down the components of harmony and rhythm—the “particles” of music, as it were—into a brilliant, explosive universe. His extraordinary virtuosic performances are sometimes overly reliant on arpeggios, scales, and other embellishments, but these feats, along with complex harmonic structures, are what make Tatum compositional and not merely improvisational.

Tatum’s feats can be seen as the individualized essence29 of the Heideggerian notions of “being-among-one-another” and “being-with.” Unlike “being-in-the-world,” which is pre-eminently determined as an a priori state that is whole without our cognizant participation, “being-among-one-another” and “being-with” are subjective formations that require others. Nonetheless, even “being-in-the-world” does not exist without “being-with-others.” As existence is always in a performative state, it too is relational to and reflective of others.30

As the noted jazz pianist Fats Waller announced upon Tatum’s entrance into a night club where he was performing, “Ladies and gentlemen, I play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.”31 But especially when viewed as a transcendental figure, the question arises to whom Tatum related, and with whom he engaged “as a performer of intentional acts which are bound together by the unity of a meaning.32 The quintessential state of being lonely at the top seems apropos–but was he? Were great European composers utilized as an inspirational launching pad back to the future? Or could Tatum have been propelled to such musical heights by an intrinsic, fundamental understanding of Da-sein—simply translated as “being there”? Where is that “there”? Amid the Ancients? The idea seems antithetical to Dasein, as it requires being engaged in the world with others. However, I submit that DNA can be just as “there” as such an engagement, for essence and individuality are determined not just environmentally, but also genetically.

While our individuality exists, it does not do so within a vacuum. We all come to the world hardwired with knowledge, but how that knowledge is tapped into, experienced, and understood seems to be the subjective, individualistic part of Being, a concept that Heidegger takes from Plato’s “ὂν,” which he translates by the present participle of the verb sein (“to be”).33 The grammatical tense of “to be” indicates a continuing process or state. Therefore, the constitutive state of Being and the characters of individual formation may not have taken shape in the current generation or those immediately preceding it.

Indeed, the concept of Dasein stands in a complex relationship to questions of individualism. “Being-among-one-another” marks a “disburdening” process in which it is revealed that “everyone is the other, and no one is himself.” In this process, individualism is disassociated from Dasein, and “they” becomes the state of being that “retains and enhances its stubborn dominion.”34  Individualism ceases and sameness reigns—as in the process of “groupthink,” which causes behavioral sameness. This sameness, or “averageness,” as Heidegger puts it, “reveals in turn an essential tendency of Dasein which we call the ‘levelling down’ [Einebnung] of all possibilities of Being.”35 This, Heidegger objects, “is not the genus to which the individual Dasein belongs”;36 there is a sense here of missing what matters most.

Returning to our specific inquiry into the individualism of Tatum, I wonder if the alignment of the immediate present and an ancient past in a musical genius can make us understand him as more than a mere anomaly. Perhaps, at base, he is not really different from us. “Dasein,” as Heidegger puts it, “has been individualized, but individualized as being-in-the-world.”37 While individualism surrenders to “being-among-one-another,” as Rée asserts, I wonder if the very act of “being-among-one-another”—say, in a virtuosic, improvisational performance—is not itself an inquiry of Being?38 Maybe Tatum just executed this “being-among-one-another” in a way that kept his identity or sense of self intact and in tact. I wonder if such a “being-among-one-another” could evade the trap of “levelling down” and the confines of tradition to create something beyond “averageness” that can be tapped into by all?

This inquiry has not focused on the “pleasure” or “judgement” Tatum evokes—Heidegger aligns these two with the loss of Dasein into others since we lose ourselves by taking them in. Rather, it has been about the quest to understand that which is “closest to us,” yet “farthest from us.” Rée juxtaposes subjective being, which is “closest” to us as we relate to our environment, with the fundamental existential being which is “farthest” from us to the point that “its own state of being […] remains concealed from it.”39 Essentially, we are made aware of ourselves through historical tradition that is bound in a language that changes and takes shape within the present that goes “back to the future.”40 This is “blues times,” eschewing appropriation and individualizing being, present in the genius of Art Tatum and all of us as “being-in-the-world.”

JUDITH ELLIS received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Music from the University of Michigan and completed her Ph.D. coursework in English at Wayne State University. Her varied ventures have included performing as an opera singer and jazz artist, developing several businesses, and serving as reader for Ronald Aronson’s volume, Camus and Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended It.

dePICTions volume 2 (2022): U.S. vs. … (Un-)American Crossings and Appropriations

1. Fred Moten,  In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, 2 (eBook).
2. Jonathan Rée, Heidegger, London: Orion Books, 2011, 217 (eBook).
3. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, reprinted 2001, 60-61.
4. James Lester,  Too Marvelous for Words: The Life and Genius of Art Tatum, Oxford: University Press, 1995, 280 (eBook).
5. Lester, Too Marvelous, 301.
6. Lester, Too Marvelous, 111.
7. Lester, Too Marvelous, 11.
8. Lester, Too Marvelous, 111.
9. Rée, Heidegger, 217.
10. Anyssa Neumann, “Ideas of North: Glenn Gould and the Aesthetic of the Sublime,” voiceXchange 5.1 (Fall 2011), 35-46, here 43 [28 May 2022].
11. Don Heckman, “Pianist Dazzled Jazz World with Technique, Creativity,” Los Angeles Times, 25 December 2007 [28 May 2022].
12. Michael Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, 41.
13. Gazzaniga, The Mind’s Past, 170.
14. J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick, “Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” Nature 171 (1953), 737-738.
15. University of Liverpool, “Biologists Discover Why 10 Percent Of Europeans Are Safe From HIV Infection,” ScienceDaily, 3 April 2005 [28 May 2022].
16. W. Thomas Boyce, “Biobehavioral Reactivity and Injuries in Children and Adolescents,” in  Marc H Bornstein and Janice L. Genevro (eds.), Child Development and Behavioral Pediatrics, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996, 35-58, here 53.
17. Miriam A. Mosing, Guy Madison, Nancy L. Pedersen, Ralf Kuja-Halkola, and Fredrik Ullén, “Practice Does Not Make Perfect: No Causal Effect of Music Practice on Music Ability,” Psychological Science 25.9 (2014), 1795-1803, doi: 10.1177/0956797614541990 [28 May 2022].
18. Sami Abu Shumays, “Comparing Medieval European Music with Arabic Music,” essay emailed to the author, 30 October 2021.
19. Peter Tracy, “Al-Andalus: the Music of Islamic Iberia and its Living Descendants,” Early Music Seattle, 13 August 2021 [28 May 2022].
20. Think “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music, modulating upwards by a half note each time over three octaves.
21. Christopher Ellis, “A Remembering Gene,” Groundcover News 10.7 (2019), 10.
22. The title given to the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, a novel dealing with involuntary memory.
23. Darold Treffert, “Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned,” Scientific American Guest Blog, 28 January 2015 [28 May 2022].
24. Mosing et al., “Practice does not,” 1795, 1800-1801.
25. Karlyn M. Ward, “Music and the Archetypal Ground of the Psyche,” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 19.1 (2000), 11-35, here 12 [2 June 2022].
26. Again, think “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music.
27. Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989, 479.
28. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, New York: Oxford University Press, 2021, 124.
29. “Essence” is used here to connote both the individual properties and the essential presence of Being. Heidegger quotes Descartes: “And though substance is indeed known by some attribute, yet for each substance there is pre-eminently one property which constitutes its nature and essence, and to which all the rest are referred.” Heidegger, Being and Time, 490.
30. Heidegger, Being and Time, 73.
31. John Burnett (Host), “Art Tatum: A Talent Never to Be Duplicated,” NPR Radio, 5 November 2006 [1 June 2022].
32. Heidegger, Being and Time, 73.
33. Heidegger, Being and Time, 19.
34. Heidegger, Being and Time, 165.
35. Heidegger, Being and Time, 165.
36. Heidegger, Being and Time, 166.
37. Heidegger, Being and Time, 233.
38. Rée, Heidegger, 355.
39. Rée, Heidegger, 199.
40. Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future, United States: Universal Pictures, 1985.