Tatum is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He was noted for the complexity and speed of his performances, which set a new standard for jazz piano virtuosity and he was a major influence on later generations of jazz pianists. Critic Scott Yanow wrote, "Tatum's quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh (and sometimes futuristic) ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries ... Art Tatum's recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists."
Tatum was born in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Arthur Tatum, Sr., was a guitarist and an elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, where his mother, Mildred Hoskins, played piano. He had two siblings, Karl and Arlene. From infancy he suffered from cataracts (of disputed cause) which left him blind in one eye and with only very limited vision in the other. A number of surgical procedures improved his eye condition to a degree but some of the benefits were reversed when he was assaulted in 1930 at age 20.
A child prodigy with perfect pitch, Tatum learned to play by ear, picking out church hymns by the age of three, learning tunes from the radio and copying piano-roll recordings his mother owned. In a Voice of America interview, he denied the widespread rumor that he learned to play by copying piano roll recordings made by two pianists. He developed an incredibly fast playing style, without losing accuracy. As a child he was also very sensitive to the piano's intonation and insisted it be tuned often. While playing piano was the most obvious application of his mental and physical skills, he also had an encyclopedic memory for Major League Baseball statistics.
In 1925, Tatum moved to the Columbus School for the Blind, where he studied music and learned braille. Subsequently he studied piano with Overton G. Rainey at either the Jefferson School or the Toledo School of Music. Rainey, who too was visually impaired, likely taught Tatum in the classical tradition, as Rainey did not improvise and discouraged his students from playing jazz. In 1927, Tatum began playing on Toledo radio station WSPD as 'Arthur Tatum, Toledo's Blind Pianist', during interludes in Ellen Kay's shopping chat program and soon had his own program. By the age of 19, Tatum was playing with singer Jon Hendricks, also an Ohioan, at the local Waiters' and Bellmens' Club. As word of Tatum spread, national performers passing through Toledo, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Joe Turner and Fletcher Henderson, would make it a point to drop in to hear the piano phenomenon.