I am writing about pianists with physical disabilities. With a clarinet or flute or guitar, the fingers are always moving but the hands remain in a relatively fixed position. A blind or otherwise disabled artist is not overwhelmingly challenged playing these instruments.
But what about a piano? The game changes here. You have a large span of four feet for an standard 88 key piano, so the challenge of hitting the right notes is increased exponentially.
Below you will find three artists who surpassed incredible difficulties in creating their phenomenal music. The first is Michel Petrucciani, who was born with glass bones disease, which means the body does not produce the calcium essential for normal growth. As a result, Petrucciani as an adult was only three feet tall. He had to be carried to the piano or use crutches. He had special extensions he brought with him to reach the pedals. He weighed 60 lbs. Yet he was a formidable technician and powerful pianist. His parents, when he was a child in Toulon, France, gave him a toy piano. He smashed it with his fist, saying he wanted a real piano.
Watch what he does on the Ellington/Strayhorn classic C Jam Blues:
Lennie Tristano and Art Tatum were born blind and learned music at various schools for the blind, where they learned to read Braille. Tristano started a whole school of improvisation, embraced by saxophonists Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, as well as pianist as diverse as Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Steve Kuhn, and countless others.
Here’s Lennie playing the song “Tangerine” in Copenhagen, 1965:
Art Tatum, like Nina Simone, wanted to become a classical pianist, but there was an atmosphere of racism in the classical establishment back in the 1940s. His versions of Dvorak’s Elegie and other classical repertoire were legendary.
While in Los Angeles and playing on Central Avenue, he’d sometimes astonish jazz patrons by playing and improvising on a classical work. The great Joe Zawinul who founded the visionary group Weather Report and who was the only musician who ever turned down an invitation by Miles Davis to join his band, was a classically-trained pianist, once told me Tatum was the greatest pianist in the world, putting him next to Horowitz and Rubinstein.
Here is Art Tatum performing the jazz standard “Yesterdays” in 1954.