Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 127 - A 1934 Art Tatum Broadcast from Cleveland

Story filed October 1, 2009

On Tuesday night, February 27, 1934, Art Tatum, the man who is still considered the all-time king of jazz piano, was seated at a piano in the WTAM studios in the Auditorium Building in downtown Cleveland. At precisely 11:15, he began playing on a coast-to-coast radio broadcast on the NBC network. The announcer on the program was legendary Cleveland sportscaster Tom Manning.


The 1934 words of introduction may sound a little unusual to 21st century ears. Newspaper articles of the period called Tatum a "blind Negro pianist." Up until that time, there had been few, if any, African-Americans performing on network radio broadcasts.


Tatum, who grew up in Toledo, came to Cleveland at the age of 19 in 1928 and began playing at a little, illegal after-hours joint called Valís in the Alley off the north side of Cedar Avenue near East 86th Street. When he first arrived in Cleveland, Tatum auditioned for a job with the studio orchestra at WTAM but was turned down because the station executives didnít like, or didnít understand, the way he was playing.

But Tatum quickly built a reputation playing at Valís in the Alley. Musicians flocked there to marvel at his piano technique. They included touring musicians Paul Whiteman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins, Mary Lou Williams, and Oscar Peterson.

In 1929, Whiteman took Tatum to New York, but he became homesick for Cleveland and returned to Valís in the Alley. He went back to New York in 1931 and began dazzling other musicians. One night, when he walked into a club, Fats Waller announced, "I play piano, but God has just come into the house."

In March of 1933, Tatum made his first solo records, including "Tea For Two." Despite his growing fame, Art Tatum kept coming back to Cleveland to play at Valís. Among the local musicians who were listening was Al Lerner, who later spent years playing piano with the Harry James Orchestra. Lerner told me, "Most people who are not pianists do not realize how impossible it was to play the way he did . . . impossible!"

Less than a year after Tatumís first recordings, NBC was looking for some popular music for its Red Network and scheduled him to play from its Cleveland studios. Ironically, when the network announced the program, it misspelled his name. The radio listings in three daily Cleveland newspapers spelled his name Ė Tatem, not Tatum.

Some people at WTAM later recalled they had to send somebody out to Valís to be sure that the partially-blind Tatum got to the studio in time for the broadcasts.

A Cleveland Call & Post article at the time called Tatum "One of the most outstanding race pianist to be on the ether waves since radio began." Another article said Tatumís broadcasts "make (George) Gershwin sound like a six-year-old taking his second music lesson."

That same night, Cleveland radio listeners could also hear live broadcasts of the bands of Glen Gray, Hal Kemp, Wayne King, and Ozzie Nelson, plus the classical music of the Cleveland Orchestra, but nobody quite like the pianist who critic Leonard Feather called "the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument."


Two weeks later, in March of 1934, Tatum began doing a 15-minute broadcast each Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 from the NBC studios in New York City. In 1935 and Ď36, he played on weekly broadcasts on the NBC Blue Network which eventually became ABC. But, as he became world famous, he kept returning to Cleveland to play all-night jam sessions at Valís in the Alley.

Special thanks to Carl Hallstrom, who is writing a book on early NBC broadcasts, for providing the rare recording of Tatum in Cleveland and some of the information for this article.

Copyright 2009 Joe Mosbrook

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