WHEN THE Smithsonian recently released "Art Tatum: Pieces of Eight" (R029), it was the culmination of 3 1/2 years of work on the part of the Recording Program, headed by Cynthia Hightower. The album captures the seminaljazz pianist in sterling solo performances that will only solidify his unimpeachable reputation, but the selection of material proved to be almost as interesting as the final product itself.

According to the producer, J.R. Taylor, "It began as an idea of Martin Williams director of the Smithsonian Jazz Program in the summer of '78. He wanted to issue an album of excellent Tatum performances that were generally not available or were difficult to come by."

The Smithsonian enlisted a trio of Tatum scholars--Arnold Laubich, Felicity Howlett and Ray Spencer of England--who'd been working for some time on a biography-discography. "Arnold is the discographer of the group and well-acquainted with everything issued and unissued, including tapes that have circulated only among collectors," Taylor explained. Laubich proposed a possible LP program, which was then kicked back and forth with Williams, whose involvement was heaviest at the beginning. Once the program was settled, tackling the laborious task of getting rights and permissions became the order of the day.

Some areas were not difficult. Five cuts from the late '50s were secured from 20th Century-Fox; two had appeared in severely edited versions and were restored to their original lengths, and three had never been released at all (though Fox has just put out a double-album reissue of the remainder of this material). There were no major difficulties in securing rights to four 1939 Standard Transcriptions, originally done for sale to radio stations and never legitimately issued.

A sparkling live Trio date from 1944, the only non-solo performance, was obtained from "a recording made by a friend of a friend of Laubich in Milwaukee that had never been issued." Recorded at Frenchy's Pink Pig, "Exactly Like You" features Tatum with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. Taylor contacted both Grimes and Stewart, as well as Tatum's widow Geraldine, and they all granted permissions.

The "snag" arose in 1979 with four tracks recorded in 1945 for American Recording Artists; here the tale gets interesting. ARA had been founded in 1944 by Boris Morros, who'd come out of the Paramount Theatre chain, where he'd been a manager and producer of films and musicals. "At the same time, he was also active in Soviet espionage and later on, in counter-espionage," Taylor recounted. "He alleged he was pressured into espionage in the first place because he had relatives in Russia and they were twisting his arm. Eventually he went to the FBI." In 1959, Morros wrote a book called "My 10 Years as a Counterspy," which evolved into a 1960 film, "Man on a String" with Ernest Borgnine.

"ARA was a business front to allow money to be laundered," Taylor continued, "and was financed by two Communist Party members from New York, Phillip and Martha Stern." ARA signed up a number of major artists, including Hoagy Carmichael, Frances Langford and Bob Crosby; it also had at least one major pop success with Miklos Rozsa's "Spellbound Concerto," the first hit record to be based on a film score. However,, said Taylor, Phillip Stern insisted on being an operating partner despite having no background in the music business. As a result, he bought obsolete pressing equipment; that drove Morros to a buy-out in 1945. And as soon as he owned ARA, Morros lost interest in it ("He'd never wanted to do it in the first place, it was something he'd been told to do," said Taylor) and let it lapse; its corporate interests were suspended in 1950.

Morros died in 1961; his wife and son had died before him, so when Taylor sought an owner, "There was a record company that had apparently never been sold, had not been left to anyone and was just hanging out there in the ozone. There was nobody to go to for permission. It also took quite a while to find all this out." Fifteen months after starting the search, the issue was resolved when the comptroller of the State of California gave the Smithsonian an okay to use those particular recordings. It makes for an odd "permission" on the back cover.

Once all the rights and permissions were secured, engineer Jack Towers elicited the most faithful quality without interfering electronically. Laubich and Howlett wrote extensive liner notes, and Lyn Komar of Watermark Designs came up with a subtle cover drawn from previously unpublished photographs. The mastering, test pressing and production process from then on followed standard proceedure.

Taylor views the final product with "a mixture of pride and relief. It's terrific to see something that's been going on for three or four years." He doesn't have much time to enjoy, though. The Smithsonian's six-person Record Program is involved in 20 other projects, some due out soon, some still in the research stage. For one major project, on American Popular Song, Taylor estimates "we'll wind up listening to six or seven thousand records." Still, he knows, the Tatum package will find a welcome place in the rapidly expanding Tatum library. "It's a pleasure to be a part of that, getting some of the things that still aren't available back into the catalogue."