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Art Tatum and the “Black Virtuoso Tradition”

On the heels of his film with Alexander Toradze (my previous blog), Behrouz Jamali has released another remarkable film essay dealing with the art of the piano: The Black Virtuoso Tradition. It features what the New York Times once called “piano playing at its most awesome”: Steven Mayer playing Art Tatum.

The Black Virtuoso Tradition is an American musical phenomenon that I framed decades ago, inspired by Mayer’s eloquent advocacy of such Black piano geniuses as Tatum, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, and Fats Waller — some of whom didn’t always write their compositions down. Steve – and only Steve — has been presenting this music (sometimes transcribed from recordings) as canonized American piano repertoire for decades.  If you add to that such white composers as Gottschalk, Dvorak, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Bolcom, you wind up with one of the signature achievements in American music: piano cameos, many of them highly virtuosic, absorbing Black vernacular strains. 

The Black Virtuoso Tradition remains virtually invisible for two reasons. The first is that other pianists don’t purvey it. The other is that it combines “popular” and “classical” genres. It’s actually therapeutic – as I remark in Behrouz’s film, “it heals the schism driven like a stake through classical music in America.”

The inclusion of Dvorak may surprise. It’s my contention that by 1894 he had become an ‘American composer” as surely as Domenico Scarlatti, born in Italy, became “Spanish.” The proof in is in the pieces Steve plays: the G-flat and F major Humoresques; the American Suite (though it’s not in the film).

You’ll find Behrouz’s film on the website I’m constructing for my forthcoming book Dvorak’s Prophecy and the Vexed Fate of Black Classical Music (which W. W. Norton releases in early November). In tandem with that, Naxos will release six films I’ve produced with the visual artist Peter Bogdanoff, and an Arthur Farwell CD I’ve produced for PostClassical Ensemble. It is all to be found here, here, here, and here.

And here’s an index to Behrouz’s film:

00:00: Kevin Deas narrates pertinent history

4:00: Louis Moreau Gottschalk: “The Banjo”

8:19: Scott Joplin: “Pine Apple Rag” (of Schubertian eloquence)

11:33: Commentary on Gottschalk and Joplin.

16:13: Joplin: “Maple Leaf Rag”

18:50: James P. Johnson: “Blueberry Rhyme” (an intoxicating reverie with pearly filigree)

23:11: Fats Waller: “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”

25:28: Commentary – ragtime vs. stride piano

35:40: Antonin Dvorak: Humoresque in F

38:17: Dvorak: Humoresque in G-flat

41:35: Art Tatum: Humoresque

46:40: Discussion – Tatum (with a clip of him playing)

55:00: Tatum: “Tiger Rag”


  1. Kathleen Hulser says

    Passionate engagement with the roots of American music, paying attention to all sounds without regard to the barbed wire so often erected between classical composed music and popular improvised work.

  2. Richard Voorhaar says

    The Black virtuoso tradition is also found among horn players, particularly sax players

  3. Alan Sukoenig p says

    Several years ago, shortly after I had chanced upon this thrilling stride performance by Donald Lambert of the Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhäuser on YouTube, Jeremy Denk took me, and probably his entire audience, by surprise by playing it as an encore at the 92nd Street Y.

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