Books by James Lester

Released: Feb. 1, 1994

By amateur historian/jazzman Lester, the first bio of legendary jazz pianist Tatum. Lester is the first to admit that he's in over his head in attempting this book, an ominous foreboding of the quality of the work to come. Still, his labor-of-love is based on some original scholarship, including interviews with the remaining musicians who knew the legend at firsthand (although Tatum's second wife and surviving relatives refused to be interviewed, as did important figures like jazz promoter Norman Granz). Tatum developed a highly idiosyncratic style of playing based on impressionistic harmonies, dazzling arpeggios and runs (that some find overly fussy), and polyrhythms and polyharmonies, forging a uniquely personal technique few could copy. His incredible capacity for alcohol, almost photographic memory for melodies and song structures, competitiveness when faced with challenges by other pianists, and essentially gentle nature are all well-documented, but in the end, even so, Lester fails to give us a well-rounded life story. Tatum was an intensely private man and few knew him well; even the facts of his life are up for grabs. He may or may not have been born visually impaired: his loss of vision may have been due to childhood disease, a run-in with a neighborhood tough, or cataracts. He was married twice, having at least one child (and perhaps two others). The extent of his musical education is unknown. Lester spends most of his narrative in a fog, unable to sort fiction from fact. His analysis of Tatum's genius runs to truism (``[His] remarkable memory was still remarkable''), and he suffers from an inferiority complex toward classical performers: comparing Tatum with keyboard legends like Vladimir Horowitz, he asserts that Tatum was really a ``piano stylist,'' not a jazz musician, thus continuing the myth that jazz is a poor stepchild to ``serious,'' classical music. Well-intentioned but frustrating. Read full book review >