Motivation Articles

He Did What He Had No Business Doing

The Story of Art Tatum

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Cheers to a boy who didn’t know any better.

Cheers to a man who didn’t let a little thing like reality stand in his way.

Cheers to a self-taught musician whose creativity and skill is the stuff of legend.

Cheers to Art Tatum, maybe the greatest jazz piano player who ever lived.

Art Tatum was remarkable before he was good. Blind in one eye, partially-sighted in the other, Art idolized Fats Waller like many boys did in the 1920’s. He wanted to play the piano, and he wanted to play like Fats.

That’s where he began. Where he ended up proves what you can do by shedding your self-imposed limits.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Art stubbornly refused to close his dream off in fantasyland. He taught himself to play using Braille and piano rolls, and listening to the radio and phonograph. He imitated, he copied, he improved.

But here’s the really amazing part – Art didn’t know he was sometimes listening to two people playing. When he practiced, he was learning to play two parts of the same song at once! He had no idea, but he did it anyway. He learned it so well that years later, Oscar Peterson heard Art playing and thought ART was two people. He wasn’t the only one.

Art went on to star in the nightclub circuit that cruised through New York City, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and national radio. He created his own original and creative style that made great musical heads shake in awe and bow in homage.

Art took great pains to master his craft. He got so good at what he did that, over a two-day session, he cut 69 singles tracks – and only three needed more than one take.

Legends of Art’s skill seem almost plausible. One claimed that classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz was moved to tears upon hearing him play. It was also said that Art could identify the dominant note in a flushing toilet.

Limits – mostly false ones – can defeat us before we even start. Do you feel handicapped in some way? Does your knowledge that "there are two people playing" convince you that it’s not possible to do the same? Could your goals benefit from a little less knowledge and little more naïve faith?

Art learned that the "real world" is exactly where dreams belong. All the proof he needed came on a night when he visited a club where Fats Waller was playing. That’s when Fats – his hero, his idol, his main inspiration – told the crowd, "I just play the piano. But God is in the house tonight."


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Member Comments

  • What an inspiration!
  • That a great article on the power of stepping outside our physical limitations and making the world a better place.
  • KAZFROMOZ
    Love your article (LOVE Art Tatum and jazz....) another inspiration is Django Rheinhardt and The Hot Club de Paris. He did amazing runs etc on guitar, with only 3 fingers on his left hand. We have a festival in the NW (Djangofest) where musicians of all levels come to play. Could you write about him too, please? Self taught as well - but, as with everything including losing weight, it takes a bit of practice and dedication.
  • Great article!! Thanks for sharing!
  • Did this article fail to mention Art Tatum comes from the Black American community? Something about this article makes a talented person sound like a performing circus freak. As I said first, the article seems to marginalise the community Mr. Tatum is from. The same community I am from.
  • Absolutely awesome. Totally and absolutely awesome!
  • I love this story!!
    Thanks for sharing it.
  • Wow ! Does that make me pause & reflect . I'm very thankful to Spark People for helping us see the world in another perception that our own.
  • So true. SP is teaching us every day this is not only a possibility but a fact.
  • Sometimes the Universe gives you exactly what you need when you need it - I was feeling very down this morning because I've been coping with a seemingly impossible situation... this story has made me hopeful again. Thank you very much for sharing.
  • So inspiring... I have goosebumps!
  • Very moving and inspirational!
  • Thank you for sharing this much enjoyed article!! Makes you think life is really that simple:
    NO

    or

    Know
  • "What he had no business doing" has nothing to do with his color and everything to do with his handicap.

    I am so moved by this article. What an inspiration! It is so true that there are no limits to what can be done when limits set by man are taken out of the way and the human spirit is allowed to soar. Thank you for sharing this story.
  • FRANRING
    What a determined , talented person. A true inspiration. It doesn't matter where you come from or what physical limitations you have ,the message is, you can succeed.
    What an amazing article.

About The Author

Mike Kramer Mike Kramer
As a writer and artist, Mike has witnessed countless motivational stories and techniques. See all of Mike's articles.