Rowles on Tatum

Many stories about jazz heroes are apocryphal. This is one is true.

Tatum facing rightOne night in the late 1930s, Fats Waller And His Rhythm were playing at the Yacht Club on 52nd Street inWaller Facing Left Manhattan. Art Tatum, the other half of the Tatum-Waller mutual admiration society, came in to listen. When he first moved to New York, Tatum’s almost superhuman virtuosity at the piano had bowled over every pianist in town, including Waller. Introducing his friend to the audience, Fats said,

I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.

The line became a part of underground jazz lore. Then in 1972, producer Don Schlitten used it as the title of a Xanadu LP of Tatum recordings from the early forties, since reissued as a High Note CD. Tatum influenced virtually every pianist who came of age in the thirties and forties. Through the decades he has inspired or discouraged legions more. Among those who fell under his spell was Jimmy Rowles (1918-1996), who frequently heard Tatum in Los Angeles after Rowles moved there from Spokane in 1940. Tatum had a profound effect on Rowles: the young man determined not to be try to be like Tatum, which would have been impossible, but to find his own way. He did. Jimmy told me that, like nearly everyone else who listened to it, when he heard Tatum’s 1933 recording of “Tea for Two,” he thought it was by two, possibly three pianists.

Jimmy Rowles had an avocational sideline as a sketch artist. His visual art radiated the Rowlespiquant view of life that also characterized much of his piano playing. His drawings made their points through suggestion, subtle references, humor. Mostly, he gave them to friends, often as Christmas cards. Anybody who has a Rowles drawing is likely to have it on a wall in a frame. That is what the vibraharpist and Rowles protégé Charlie Shoemake did with Jimmy’s Tatum drawing. Mr. Shoemake has kindly shared it with Rifftides. He gave Rifftides permission to share it with you.

Rowles Tatum #2

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  1. says

    Jimmy gave me two: one is called Shearing and the other shows three gasoline pumps, old style, with the caption, Patty, Maxine and Ethyl. The Shearing one is in my computer but I don’t see a way to attach it. Let me know how. Jimmy swore that Tatum once identified him by his his footsteps. A violinist friend, Marshall Sosson, knew Tatum in Chicago before WW2. After the war, Marshall moved to California (he became the concertmaster at Columbia Pictures) and after not having seen Tatum for more than 10 years, went to a club and on the break approached him and said hello. Tatum responded, “Hi, Marshall.” I guess those amazing stories about his ears were right.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      David, there is no way to include a picture with a comment. But, guess what? I have the Shearing drawing and before the day is out will put it up in a separate post.

  2. dick vartanian says

    He did it with mirrors. I remember hearing it the first time and it was depressing to believe it was only one guy

  3. Wayne Tucker says

    Rowles is one of my favorite pianists. His duo recordings with Ray Brown on Concord Jazz are gems I listen to several times a year. His album with Stan Getz contains one of his finest compositions, “The Peacocks,” which has become a jazz standard. His work as an accompanist is overlooked and underrated, even his recordings backing Billie. And his recordings with the great Zoot Sims can’t be beat. He made an excellent Columbia album sometime in the 80s/early 90s of Ellington/Strayhorn tunes. One of my friends “borrowed” it, and I haven’t seen it since. I don’t think it has been re-issued on CD. If anyone knows, please comment. Thanks.

    • Terence Smith says

      Wayne, I have the Columbia LP Jimmy Rowles Plays Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and of course it’s a gem. I just googled it, and there is a French CD going for under $13. Recommended for anyone! (label is BIEM/SacM)

      BTW, I have an old book called The Great Jazz Pianists Speaking of Their Lives and Music by Len Lyons, with a 1981 Jimmy Rowles interview. On page 154, he is talking about using a lot of flat-nine intervals for right hand dissonances, which he says he got from Ravel. He speaks reverently of Ravel and Tatum. Then Rowles says in passing:

      “But I have to admit: everything is relative. I went up to an old-timer in Spokane—he was playing in one of the bars—and I asked him what he thought about Art Tatum. He said, ‘Oh well, he’s got his style, I’ve got mine.’ I loved that answer.”

      Hey, I had an afterthought, because as you know, Jimmy Rowles gives us some Ben Webster on his Ellington album. While we are revisiting the great Rowles albums with Getz and with Zoot, let’s not forget the 1960 Contemporary album: Ben Webster at the Renaissance. Jimmy Rowles and Jim Hall are both on board.

      • Doug Ramsey says

        So, too, are Red Mitchell and Frank Butler. It’s one of the great Ben Webster albums. Years later—I think it was in a Down Beat blindfold test—Ben said, reportedly with tears in his eyes, “Why can’t I play with guys like that anymore?”

        • David says

          In his 1972 liner notes, Lester Koenig, the album’s producer, says that Ben made that comment to him “one afternoon shortly before he left Hollywood,” and that this happened after they had been listening to a tape of “Georgia” from the album. This would presumably have been not long after the session was recorded in October, 1960. Ben went to New York for a few years before moving permanently to Copenhagen in 1964. Agreed, great album.

  4. Don Conner says

    I loved both Tatum and Rowles I had the “God is in the house” allusion before, but was unaware of its origin. I had heard about Jimmy’s artwork, but this my first viewing. It’s both poignant and inspiring, as was his playing. My favorite Rowles sides were the the two done with: Getz on The Peacocks (Columbia) and Al Cohn on Heavy Love (Xanadu}.