The Musician's Magical Touch

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What did Elvin Jones, Vladimir Horowitz, Art Tatum, and Django Reinhardt have in common?

I once interviewed Elvin Jones (b. 1927–2004), the legendary powerhouse drummer who fueled the great John Coltrane Quartet with his incredibly complex polyrhythms, on Morning Becomes Eclectic back in the mid-1980s. I often wondered how he pulled it altogether, but he did. Elvin was a massive guy with a fierce look, who went only by his first name: Elvin—it was all he needed. At the end of our interview, I tried shaking hands with him, but his hand was so huge that it felt like shaking the hand of someone wearing a baseball glove. I could only fit my normal-sized hand in the flat of his palm.

The other day, I was listening to LPs of the legendary Russian Romantic piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz (b. 1903–1989), which led me to a YouTube video of him performing Rachmaninov’s luminous Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36 in B-Flat minor. Arguably the greatest pianist of the twentieth century, Horowitz, with his elegantly long, slender fingers, dazzled audiences around the world in a breathtaking array of the most exquisite tonal contrasts and colors.

And yet, for all the dramatic intensity of his performances, Horowitz would take his seat at the piano, his posture and expression always perfectly composed, betraying nothing of the dynamic range of his extraordinary playing, from thunderous fortissimos to the subtlest of pianissimos. Former New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg once observed that Horowitz had a most unusual technical approach at the piano: “wrists turned outwards, and [palms] often below the keyboard, flat fingers, the little fingers of both hands curled in, opening to strike with the rapidity of  cobra, then instantly coiling again.”

As like minds attract, Horowitz was a huge admirer of jazz piano phenom, Art Tatum (b. 1909–1956). Horowitz, who was known to frequent the the New York late night jazz clubs, was said to have been so astounded by Tatum’s unparalleled improvisational technique of combining the stylistic elements of Harlem stride, jazz, classical, and boogie-woogie, that the former decided to share his own transcription of the jazz standard, “Tea for Two.” The story goes that the then-blind Tatum whipped out his own interpretation on keyboard afterwards in response, improvising completely on the fly. Horowitz never performed “Tea for Two” in public again.

Art Tatum dreamt of becoming a classical pianist, but such opportunities were closed to African-Americans at the time. Blind since infancy but possessing perfect pitch, this child prodigy was completely self-taught until he received formal music education at age 16. Like Horowitz, Tatum employed his own flat finger technique, performing with such remarkable composure and dexterity that he made even the most impossible passages appear absolutely effortless.

Finally, Belgian manouche guitarist, the great Django Reinhardt (b. 1910–1953), was left with only two functioning fingers on his left hand after a gypsy caravan fire, forcing him to reinvent his technique. By using both paralyzed fingers to grip the fretboard, Reinhardt came up with a system of chords that he could still play vertically—rather than horizontally—that contained a minimum number of notes. The result was his highly spirited, unique blend of ‘hot’ Roma folk, French pop, American jazz—now popularly referred to as ‘gypsy swing.’

Elvin Jones and Art Blakey go head-to-head.

Vladimir Horowitz: Elegance and authority.

Jazz genius, Art Tatum.

Django Reinhardt’s gypsy swing.

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