Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Biography of Fats Waller by Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese

© -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.”
- James S. Wilson, Jazz author and critic

“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.”
- Gary Giddins, Jazz author and critic

I never knew what to make of Fats Waller. His music happened way before my time and I could never 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.

And recently, thanks to the kind folks at The University of Minnesota Press who sent along a preview copy of Fats Waller by his son Maurice and co-authored by Anthony Calabrese, I now have a narrative reminder to revisit Fats and his music.

This month [August, 2017] The University of Minnesota Press [UMP] is releasing a paperback version of the Waller-Calabrese biography of Fats which was originally published in 1977 by Schrimer Books.

As was the case with the original hardbound publication, the UMP paperback version of Fats’ bio benefits immensely from the inclusion of a Foreword by Michael Lipskin that places Waller and his music in the broader socio-cultural context of his times [Fats died in 1943 at the age of 39!].

Michael Lipskin is a veteran stride pianist and former protege of Harlem stride piano master Willie “The Lion” Smith and his Foreword contains many insights and observations about Fats including the following:

“Like most artists, Fats possessed a very complicated personality. On the surface there was the sense of humor that pervaded any situation, be it in a private party, hotel room, or concert hall. His humor always managed to get a laugh. But, on another level, it subtly pointed out the basic contradictions and deceits that he saw around him every day. There was the rampant sensualist, with tall tales of how many steaks, hamburgers, pies he could eat at one sitting. And there were the women who wanted Fats, whom Fats had trouble resisting. Above all, there was the tremendous drinking that the man could do, and did for too many years. His gargantuan capacity for life was in many ways responsible for his premature death.

Occasionally, when the party stopped, there appeared a sadness, increasingly apparent on the later slow-tempo compositions cut at private sessions, on his London Suite, and in his last Associated Program Service transcriptions. Conjecture as to specific reasons for this disparity is pointless, but conflicts in his upbringing appeared early. Fats' father, a Baptist deacon, rejected the young Waller's music, Fats' moral support coming from his mother, whose death, in Fats' fifteenth year, was a tremendous blow to him. In those times, before mass black consciousness, Negro families frowned upon jazz, and certainly did not like their children playing a music that they felt demonstrated the worst aspects of their society.

Although he took pride in what he did, and had a healthy attitude toward his music, in some small way Fats never got over the feeling that what he was contributing was not an end in itself; that his real artistic success would lie in the creation of "serious" or "classical" music. Like James P. [Johnson] and the highly individual Willie The Lion, Fats admired the "serious" tradition. The Lion's own wonderful compositions referred constantly to impressionists of the late nineteenth century, and this influence rubbed off on Fats. Consequently, Fats never quite appreciated the fact that his own contributions were different but equal in value. But it is the rare artist who has a proper perspective on his place in history.

What Fats and those around him did was create a beautiful and whole music, on both an extended intellectual level and a sensual level, many years before there was anything approaching equal opportunity for formal education, the end of segregation that would allow proper exposure to the tools of Western tradition, or the existence of a collective black ego.”

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.”

Thomas “Fats” Waller is a Jazz immortal and I for one couldn’t be happier that the UMP has sought fit to reissue in an affordable paperback format his biography by his son Maurice in conjunction with Anthony Calabrese as a reminded of that fact.

You can obtain order information on The University of Minnesota website by going here.

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