Variations on a theme

Variations on a theme

Time to crack out the turn table and spend a little time with Art Tatum and a Bowmore dram

Whisky & Culture | 05 Feb 2021 | Issue 173 | By Hans Offringa

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The eighth wonder of the world, as Count Basie called Art Tatum Jr., was born on 13 October, 1909 in Toledo, Ohio. Being blessed with an incredible sense of hearing, at the age of three Tatum could already play, by ear, the piano roll recordings from his mother’s collection. His perfect pitch probably compensated for the fact that he was virtually blind. Turning six years old he developed such an incredible speed and accuracy that he played compositions originally meant as duets.

His great inspiration was famous stride pianist Fats Waller. When Tatum joined a cutting contest in 1933, he played against his hero and was propelled to stardom almost immediately. Throughout the years, he has influenced many jazz musicians, not only pianists. Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker is reputed to have once said, “I wish I could play as Tatum’s right hand.”

What made Art Tatum so unique was not only his incredible speed and accuracy, but also his capability to create a distinctive swing element in his piano sound. He is credited for innovative harmonisation by changing the chord progressions that were sustaining the melodies.

Recordings of his work are mostly solo piano. There was hardly a musician who could keep up with his tempo of playing. However, he did form a trio in the early 1940s with Tiny Grimes on guitar and Slam Stewart on bass. On some of those recordings, the latter two can literally be heard to more or less run behind Tatum.

Among the pianists who would interpret and play his pieces was Oscar Peterson. When he heard Tatum for the first time, Peterson became so frightened that he didn’t touch the piano for a couple of months.

In the Broadway and classical realm Tatum was admired too. Vladimir Horowitz reportedly remarked that the classically trained pianists were lucky that Tatum hadn’t pursued a career in classical music.

The biggest compliment, however, came from Tatum’s all-time hero, Fats Waller. When playing in a club in 1938, Waller noticed that Art Tatum had entered and told the audience at once, “I just play the piano, but God is in the house tonight.”

Tatum didn’t grow old. Having been a heavy drinker most of his working life he suffered from kidney problems and died in Los Angeles of uraemia on 5 November, 1956, aged only 47.

His name not only lives on in his music but in a musical term too. A student of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced it in 1993 when he defined the Tatum as “the smallest perceptual time unit in music”. A remarkable way to be remembered.

And now to find the perfect whisky accompaniment…

The village of Bowmore at Loch Indaal is considered the “capital” of the Isle of Islay and was founded in 1768, although there was already a pier in 1750. The man who constructed the village was Daniel Campbell of Shawfield. This branch of the Campbells has done a lot to improve the living conditions on Islay. An obelisk at Bridgend reminds the islanders of what this family did throughout the ages.

Bowmore is designed on a rectangular grid, and its main street leads up to the famous round church, built without corners to prevent the devil from hiding. A local legend tells that Satan tried to hide but to no avail. Instead, parishioners chased the devil into the streets from which he ran inside the distillery, never to be found. It’s whispered that he escaped in a cask that was shipped to the mainland.

Jumping from lore to truth, it may be said with certainty that Bowmore Distillery is the oldest one on Islay. Founded 11 years after the building of the village had started, it was run by its founder until 1837, in which year the distillery was sold to William Mutter of Glasgow. Mutter kept the distillery for 55 years and did extensive construction work. In 1892 a group of English businessmen took over and held the distillery for the next 33 years. J. B. Sheriff and Company would buy Bowmore in 1925, to hold it only for four years, when the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL, a forerunner of Diageo) acquired the distillery in 1929.

This wasn’t the end of changing hands for Bowmore. In 1950 William Grigor & Son took over for 13 years. In 1963 Stanley P. Morrison paid the then-princely sum of £117,000 for lock, stock and barrel. In 1989 he decided to bring in foreign capital and invited Suntory to become a 35 per cent shareholder.

Apparently Suntory liked what it saw, since it acquired the remaining 65 per cent in 1994. Suntory has spent millions to improve the site, reopening an entirely refurbished visitor centre in 2006. Bowmore’s malting floor is still intact and provides 38 per cent of the malted barley needed by the distillery.

Bowmore has always had an impressive range of expressions. It looks as if one could swim in the many varieties, especially as one really can take a dive at Bowmore. One of the warehouses was converted into a swimming pool for the inhabitants of the village in 1991. The pool is heated with recycled hot water from the distillery. It gives a new meaning to the expression “water of life”.


Art Tatum, an enthusiastic imbiber of the cratur, was an amazing, almost blind pianist who would take on any challenge in a piano stride. He primarily recorded solo piano pieces, but he did manage to record with a trio. Usually the bass player and drummer couldn’t keep up with him. Art Tatum is credited with heavily influencing some of his successors who all gave him praise for his enormous capability of creating new harmonies without losing track of the original theme.

The many expressions from the oldest distillery on Islay all vary in taste, but do carry the distinctive flavour that makes them all recognisable members of the same family: Bowmore Distillers. A harmonic dram, well balanced.

Recommended listening
Tiger Rag

Recommended dram
Bowmore 25 Years Old

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