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This Day in History – November 5, 1956

Pianist Art Tatum dies at the age of 46 in Los Angeles, California

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On this day in 1956, pianist Art Tatum died at the age of 46 in Los Angeles, California.

Born on October 13, 1908, Tatum was legally blind, with partial sight only in one eye. Through Braille, he learned to read sheet music at a young age. He was mainly self-taught, but he did undergo some classical training at the Toledo School of Music.

By 19 years old, Tatum was playing at Toledo’s Waiters & Bellman’s Club, where musical legends such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jon Hendricks noticed his exceptional skills.

He arrived in New York City in 1932, working as the accompanist for vocalist Adelaide Hall. While there, he recorded his first tracks, most famously his version of “Tea for Two.” Three years later, he began to play in Chicago as well as Cleveland, followed by his introduction to an international audience through a tour in England.

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Although he performed as a soloist for most of his life, Tatum, Tiny Grimes, and Slam Stewart formed a trio in 1943. The following year, Tatum made an appearance in the film The Fabulous Dorseys and performed a jazz concert at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Throughout his career, Tatum recorded over 100 solo tracks as well as several sessions with famed musicians.

Tatum died in 1956 from complications of kidney disease caused by excessive drinking. He was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989.

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