Arthur Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. From birth he suffered from cataracts which left him blind in one eye, and with only very limited vision in the other. He played piano from his youth, and played professionally in Ohio before moving to New York City in 1932.
Tatum was widely recognized among his colleagues as the most gifted jazz pianist alive, some going so far as to say he was one of the greatest pianists of any genre. Unusually for a jazz musician, Tatum rarely abandoned the original melodic lines of the songs he played, preferring innovative reharmonization (changing the chord progressions that supported the melodies). He also had a penchant for filling spaces within melodies with his trademark runs and other embellishments, which some critics considered gratuitous and "unjazzlike." Tatum tended to record unaccompanied, partly because relatively few musicians could keep up with his lightning-fast tempos and advanced harmonic vocabulary. He formed a trio during the early 1940's with Slam Stewart on the bass and Tiny Grimes on the guitar. They recorded a number of 78 rpm discs during the short period they were together. To hear these recordings today is to marvel at the structure and interplay which are unequalled to this day. Tatum's playing was technically awesome, and his reharmonization concepts are still ahead of their time.
Tatum's contemporaries recognized his prowess. When Tatum walked into a club where Fats Waller was playing, Waller stepped away from the piano bench to make way for Tatum, announcing, "I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house". In addition, Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, after hearing Tatum play, claimed he was the greatest piano player in any style.
Art Tatum died in Los Angeles, California from the complications of uraemia (as a result of kidney failure), having been a prolific beer drinker from his teenage years. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
There are no films of Tatum playing apart from a few fleeting seconds in the movie "The Fabulous Dorseys" and a couple of other fleeting images in a non-descript documentary. Tatum's only TV-appearances were on the Steve Allen Tonight Show in the early 1950's. However, all of the recordings of those shows, which were stored in a warehouse along with other now defunct shows, were thrown into a local rubbish tip to make room for new studios by account executives of the television network. Unfortunately for later generations, no copies exist today.