Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thomas "Fats" Waller - 1904-1943

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"My father [Fats Waller] had a unique system to reward inventiveness in improvisation. Pop kept two bottles of gin on a table during the rehearsals. One bottle was for himself... The other bottle was the 'encourager,' as he called it. When one of the band excelled in an improvisational section, Dad would stop the rehearsal, pour him a healthy shot of gin, and the two of them would toast each other."
- Maurice Waller

“Both Fats Waller and his principal tutor, James P. Johnson, lived lives of aching frustration. Johnson ached openly because he could find no audience for his serious compositions, but Waller's desire to find acceptance as a serious musician was buried under a heavy coating of pervasive geniality. And while Johnson plodded steadily downhill in puzzled despair, Waller's blithely ironical attitude carried him up and up and up in the material world — eventually to a level that even his enormous energy could not cope with.

He was one of the most massively talented men who has ever turned up in the world of popular music — an inimitable entertainer whose charm has, if anything, grown in the nostalgic decade and a half since his death; the writer of some of the great evergreen songs in the popular repertoire ("Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'"); a jazz pianist whose playing was a landmark in the development of that instrument and whose influence on pre-bop pianists was surpassed only by that of Earl Hines; and a section man who could swing an entire band as no one else could.

All of these gifts were his and yet, like the inevitable clown who wants to play Hamlet, he had a consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ. His need to offer this gift and have it accepted was almost childlike and, childlike, the hurt when it was rejected was deep and long.”
- John S. Wilson, Jazz author and critic, New York Times

I never knew what to make of Fats Waller. His music happened way before my time and I could not seem to reconcile the views some held of him of him as little more than a musical buffoon with those that labeled him a keyboard stylist and composer of the first order.

In attempting to make up my own mind about his music, part of the problem was that most of what I had access to was derivative, in other words, what other Jazz musicians had to say on Fats’ Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose [upon which Charlie Parker’s Scrapple from the Apple is based], Squeeze Me, The Jitterbug Waltz and Black and Blue.

It really wasn’t until the reissue mania associated with the advent of the compact disc in the 1980’s that I had the opportunity to sit down and listen to the collected works of Fats which helped me finally understand what the fuss had been all about concerning his playing and his music.

One of the great joys of recorded Jazz is being able to go back in time and listen to the music of the Jazzmasters of yesteryear.

This synopsis of the career of Thomas “Fats” Waller from The Chronicle of Jazz reveals his contribution to Jazz as well as the factors that brought about his early demise; characteristics of personality and behavior that also felled many, other Jazz musicians over the years.


“Fats Waller's death in December 1943, accelerated by his habitual overindulgence, was a worldly exit fully in keeping with his flamboyant lifestyle. His clowning and infectious capers disguised a top-ranking musical genius whose importance lay in two distinct areas: the development of the STRIDE style of piano playing to its limits of virtuosity, and the promotion of jazz as a medium for refined popular entertainment.

Waller's early keyboard training was as a church organist, an experience that enabled him as a teenager to gain employment playing in the cinemas and theaters of New York. (In later life he shocked the musical establishment by playing jazz on the organ of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.) His skills as a pianist were fostered by James P. Johnson, whose own piano concerto Yamekraw Waller performed at Carnegie Hall in 1928. Waller's astonishing keyboard facility and compositional fluency resulted in a steady succession of fine works for solo piano characterized by a combination of dazzling virtuosity and harmonic ingenuity, including Smashing Thirds, Alligator Crawl, and Handful of Keys. Among his admirers was Al Capone, who allegedly had Waller kidnapped at gunpoint in
Chicago in the mid-1920s, just to get him to play at the gangster's birthday party.

Waller's incomparable aptitude for songwriting was developed in collaboration with lyricist Andy Razaf. Many of their numerous hits began life in stage shows, including Ain't Misbehavin. popularized by the vocal talents of Louis Armstrong, on whose gravelly tone Waller partly modeled his own singing voice.The peak of Waller's achievements came after 1934 in a series of recordings on the Victor label, made with a versatile combo billed as "Fats Waller and His Rhythm." In this context he found full expression for his remarkable comic talents, interpreting his own songs with infectious wit and a strong dose of satire. Among the most celebrated numbers in his vast repertoire was Honeysuckle Rose, which became an indispensable standard for later jazz musicians, not only in its original form, but as a harmonic skeleton on which other compositions were based.

As a keyboard technician, Waller formed an essential link between the first generation of STRIDE performers and the innovative work of later pianists such as Art Tatum  and Thelonious Monk.”

The broader view of Fats’ importance to Jazz is contained in the following excerpts from Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz: The First Century  while a deeper examination of his historical significance can be had through a reading of the selections from Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz that follow it.


“Fats Waller, one of the most enduringly popular figures in American music, is a state of mind. Jazz has always claimed him (what idiom wouldn't claim him?) and yet he spent most of his abbreviated career cavorting through, and contributing to, the Tin Pan Alley canon—applying a determined jazz accent, perhaps, but with the sui generis detachment of a free-floating institution. He wasn't witty, if that word is taken to imply a kind of humor too subtle to engender belly laughs— he was funny. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask as fixed as that of Bert Williams or Spike Jones. It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.

A ripe sense of humor is indigenous in jazz. It's a music quick to enlist whatever barbs can best deflate pomposity and artificiality. But jazz has not always been rich in humorists, though one can point to a few in any given period. Those in the postwar era include Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, James Moody, Jon Hendricks, Jaki Byard, Lester Bowie, Willem Breuker, the Jazz Passengers, and Waller's druggy disciple, Harry "The Hipster" Gibson. Humor was more extensive in the '20s and '30s, when Prohibition, the Depression, and the insularity of a new and predominantly black music conspired to create an undercurrent of protective irreverence. Accustomed to a place on the outside looking in, jazz took pleasure in skewering anything that made the mainstream feel safe and smug. It was a time when Fats Waller could count on a laugh by interrupting a particularly suave solo with the rumination, "Hmm, I wonder what the poor people are doing tonight."

Musicians, singers, and other entertainers created countless songs about bathtub gin, drugs, sex (of every variety), and other subjects unsuitable for Judge Hardy and his family, and invented slang—a new kind of signifying—to get it over….

Waller's primary influence was James P. Johnson, the songwriter and grandmaster of the Harlem school of stride piano. The term "stride" is descriptive and refers to the movement of the pianist's left hand, which upholds the rhythm while swinging side to side, from distant bass notes, played on the first and third beats of the measure, to close chords in the octave below middle C, played on the second and fourth beats. Stride was a social music, powerful enough to surmount the din of a rent party and vigorous enough to encourage dancing. It was also a competitive music, a specialist's art. The best players were fine composers, but stride was malleable: they could stride pop songs or classical themes, just as an earlier generation of pianists could rag them. Stride per se never had a large audience. It was bypassed during the boogie-woogie rage and overlooked by all but a few in the years of bop. Of its key practitioners, only Waller achieved real commercial success, and then only because of his wisecracks. Had he done nothing but pursue his art as a pianist, he might be no better known than Johnson, Luckey Roberts, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Donald Lambert, Willie Gant, or other Harlem-based keyboard professors, who took themselves pretty seriously. The complaint aimed at Waller is that he didn't take himself seriously enough.”


“ … Thomas "Fats" Waller did more than any of these players to bring the Harlem style to the attention of the broader American public. Born in Harlem on May 21, 1904, Waller honed his skills by drawing on the full range of opportunities that New York City could provide. His teachers included two great local institutions, Juilliard and James P. Johnson, as well as much in between. His early performance venues were equally diverse, reflecting Waller's aplomb in a gamut of settings, from the sacred to the profane. He was heard at religious services (where his father, a Baptist lay preacher, presided); at Harlem's Lincoln Theater, where he accompanied silent movies on the pipe organ; at rent parties and cabarets; literally everywhere and anywhere a keyboard might be at hand. His pristine piano tone and and technical assurance could well have distinguished him even in symphonic settings. Yet these considerable skills as an instrumentalist were eventually overshadowed by Waller's other talents. While still in his teens, Waller initiated his career as a songwriter, and over the next two decades he would produce a number of successful positions, many of which remain jazz standards, including "Ain't Misbehavin'," |Honeysuckle Rose," "Black and Blue," "Squeeze Me," and "Jitterbug Waltz" among others. In time, Waller's comedic abilities and engaging stage persona would add further momentum to his career, pointing to a range of further opportunities, only '"me of which he lived to realize.

Waller's reputation in the jazz world rests primarily on his many boisterous performances and recordings—the latter comprising around six hundred releases over a twenty-year period. With unflagging exuberance, Waller talked, sang, joked, exhorted band members, and, almost as an afterthought, played the piano on these memorable sides. At times, they sound more like a party veering out of control than a recording session. Indeed, this was party music for those who had come of age under Prohibition — a time when the most festive soirees were, by definition, illicit. Waller was skilled at playing Falstaff to this generation, hinting at speakeasy enticements with a wink of the eye, a telling quip, or other intimations of immorality. True, a cavalier aesthetic has always dominated jazz, celebrating the eternal in the most intense aspects of the here and now — do we expect anything less from an art form built on improvisation? — but few artists pushed this approach to the extremes that Waller did. And audiences loved it. With a winning, warm demeanor, Waller made them feel like they were honored guests at his party, drinking from the best bottle in the house, privy to the wittiest asides, and seated front-row center to hear the band.

Although Waller's small-combo work captured the public's imagination, his solo keyboard performances, documented on a handful of recordings and player piano rolls, remain his most complete statements as a jazz musician. The quintessential stride piano trademarks — an oom-pah left hand coupled with syncopated right-hand figures — are the building blocks of his playing, but Waller leavens them with a compositional ingenuity that raises them above the work of his peers. Waller's solo work revealed his omnivorous musical appetite, drawing on the blues (hear the majestic slow blues in "Numb Fumblin'"), classical music (evoked, for instance, in the high register figures of "African Ripples"), boogie-woogie (note its ingenious interpolation in the opening phrase of "Alligator Crawl"), as well as the ragtime roots of the music (as in "Handful of Keys" and "Smashing Thirds"). On "Viper's Drag," Waller toys with the contrast between an ominous dark opening theme in a minor key and a swinging major mode section — a device Ellington used frequently during this same period in crafting his own version of Harlem jazz. Combining his talents as a pianist and his sense of compositional balance, Waller's solo works stand out as the most fully developed musical documents of the Harlem stride tradition.

While most other jazz musicians of his generation gravitated toward the big bands in the 1930s and 1940s, Waller cultivated other ambitions. His activities took him anywhere and everywhere the entertainment industry flourished, from the theaters of Broadway to the motion picture studios of Hollywood. Even when he confined his attentions to music, Waller's restless seeking after new challenges was ever apparent. In a half-dozen areas — as pianist, organist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, and sideman — he made a mark that is still felt in the worlds of jazz and popular music.”


  1. Great post on Fats; thanks for spending the time to put it together and your efforts to dig up the great Gioia and Giddens passages.

  2. John S. Wilson / Jazz Critic of the New York Times


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