Horowitz and Tatum – when jazz met classical

Classical music and jazz may seem to have little to do with each other at first glance, but that hasn’t stopped there being a great respect between many of the artists working in both genres. Great musicians appreciate great musicianship and this seems to have been the basis of an unlikely friendship between the classical piano legend Vladimir Horowitz and the jazz virtuoso Art Tatum.

A tale of two pianists

It may be one of the stranger tales in musical lore, but it’s highly interesting nonetheless. The story goes that the legendary classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz often visited the jazz clubs of New York to listen to the improvisation sessions that played such a great part in the night-time scenery of early-to-mid-20th century America.

On this occasion, Horowitz had in hand something that he was quite proud of. Over the past months he had been busy transcribing the jazz standard ‘Tea for Two’ and was eager to show Art Tatum the fruits of his efforts. He sat down at the piano and carefully picked out the notes of his version of the classic composition for Tatum to listen to. Once he had finished, Tatum (now virtually blind) sat down at the piano and played his own version of the piece.

It’s said that Horowitz was amazed by Tatum’s interpretation and implored him to tell him where he could find the score he had used, to which Tatum replied: ‘Oh, I was just improvising’. Horowitz later said in an interview that he never played ‘Tea for Two’ in public again.

On another occasion, when asked who the greatest pianist in the world was, Horowitz replied without hesitation, ‘Art Tatum’. Horowitz also said in an interview that ‘If Art Tatum took up classical music seriously, I’d quit my job the next day’.

Here’s a short video clip of Horowitz playing a tiny portion of ‘Tea for Two’:

Blurring the boundaries

Classical music obviously had a great influence on jazz and the same could be said of jazz’s influence on a portion of 20th century classical music. Many great jazz artists began their careers studying classical music and the connection goes beyond mere influence at some points.

To give you just a couple of examples of the blurred lines between the two art forms, the famed jazz singer and pianist Nina Simone studied classical piano at Julliard and, one of her most famous pieces, ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’, contains a piano solo that has the music of Bach written into every note. There are also musicians like the French jazz artist Jacques Loussier, who base all of their improvisations on classical themes.

On the other side of the coin, the French composer Maurice Ravel had a deep affection for jazz music, having grown up in and around the cafes of jazz-crazed post-war Paris and gone on to visit George Gershwin in New York and the jazz centre of America, New Orleans.

Rachmaninoff was also a great fan of jazz. He was present at the premiere of the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, a piece that is said to have been a strong influence on his own Piano Concerto No 4. He and Arthur Rubinstein were known to be, not only fans of jazz, but of Art Tatum’s musicianship in particular.

Final thoughts

To leave you with today, here’s a tape recorded version of Art Tatum playing Chopin’s Waltz in C# minor Op. 64, No. 2. Perhaps it may not be for the purists but – before you judge – think of Horowitz.


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