Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
by Robert Andrew Parker
Schwartz & Wade Books
Okay, I know I've railed against adding junque to picture books. But every now and then, it makes sense. Just sometimes. And this is one of those times I'd hoped for a CD of the glorious sounds Art Tatum made during the height of the Jazz Age.
Sorry to say I'd never heard of him, despite an ex-boyfriend who chirped endlessly about jazz legends and took me to some of Philadelphia's nicest jazz venues, even to one of Cab Calloway's very last performances. Not much of it stuck, I'm afraid.
Still, I'm not a complete philistine, and I'd love to have heard some of the magic that clearly drew Parker to Tatum's story. He doesn't so much tell as envision--becoming Tatum as he narrates an early life filled with wonder despite dim eyesight:
...because of my bad eyes, day and night, dark and light, don't really matter to me. Not the way sounds and smells do--piano notes, streetcar bells, corn bread baking in the oven.
The son of working class African Americans in Toledo, Tatum takes to his mother's piano, making it an extension of self, a way of connecting to the seeing world through touch and sound. Parker's poetic, visceral narration floats through the milestones: the first time he's asked to play in church, the night his father sneaks him into a honky-tonk, a radio station asking him to play. We're always aware of his music's effect on others: his father tossing his mother's apron aside so they can boogie, a smoke-filled bar growing hushed.
Parker used watercolor as if to recreate the blur that Tatum must've seen through his weak eyes: everything is smudges of color and imprecise lines, faces fading into dark backgrounds, light streaking across the keyboard.
Now if only, if only, I could hear that music too.
End notes fill in much of the story, but that's not why you buy this book.