Monday, November 7, 2011

Fats Waller [1904-1943]

Fats Waller, I suppose, is not a name one immediately associates with big band swing, or lindy hop, and the truth is most of his music is more 20s in rhythm & style. Still, he was a great musician, incredibly funny, definitely one of my favourites (if not actually my favourite), so he gets an entire post, and you, visitor, get a whole bunch of (maybe useless) information about his life, but also two track lists, one for lindy hopping and one for doing the Charleston. Without further ado, "Ladies and Gentlemen Fats Waller, yeaaaaaah" (imagine Kermit saying that – it’s much funnier...btw Fats Waller would have made such a great guest at the Muppet Show...)

Jazz music's first organist and one of the giants of piano jazz Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was born on May 21, 1904 in Harlem into a musical family. His grandfather was an accomplished violinist and his mother was the church organist. His family had moved to New York City from Virginia in the late 1880s and his father was the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. His first exposure of music was in the form of church hymns and organ music, an instrument that he was taught to play by his mother and the church musical director. The latter introduced him to the works of J.S. Bach which he played on and off for the rest of his life. [1]  

Waller took up the piano at age six, playing in a school orchestra led by Edgar Sampson (of Chick Webb fame) [2].

His father wanted him to follow in his footsteps and go into a career in religion but Waller wanted to pursue his passion for music so in 1920, after his mother died, because of the disagreements he had with his father over this issue he moved out of his family's house and in with the family of pianist Russell Brooks where he met James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith two of the giants of the Harlem stride. James P. Johnson took the young Waller under his wing and taught him the stride piano style and advanced his musical education in general. Smith also influenced the young man by introducing him to the works of the impressionistic composers of the 19th century. [1]

At age 14 he won a talent contest playing Carolina Shout by James P. Johnson, a song he had learned by watching a pianola play it. That year he left school and worked at odd jobs for a year. In 1919 he got his first regular job when he was hired by a movie theatre to play organ accompaniment to the silent films they showed [1]

After making his first record at age 18 for Okeh in 1922, "Birmingham Blues"/"'Muscle Shoals Blues,"" he backed various blues singers and worked as house pianist and organist at rent parties and in movie theaters and clubs. He began to attract attention as a composer during the early- and mid-'20s, forming a most fruitful alliance with lyricist Andy Razaf that resulted in three Broadway shows in the late '20s, Keep Shufflin', Load of Coal, and Hot Chocolates. [1]

Waller started making records for Victor in 1926; his most significant early records for that label were a series of brilliant 1929 solo piano sides of his own compositions like "Handful of Keys" and "Smashing Thirds." [2] Waller composed many novelty swing tunes in the 1920s and 1930s and sold them for relatively small sums. When the compositions became hits, other songwriters claimed them as their own. Many standards are alternatively and sometimes controversially attributed to Waller. [3]

The anonymous sleeve notes on the 1960 RCA (UK) album Handful of Keys state that Waller copyrighted over 400 new tunes, many of which co-written with his closest collaborator Andy Razaf. After Waller's death in 1943, Razaf described his partner as "the soul of melody... a man who made the piano sing... both big in body and in mind... known for his generosity... a bubbling bundle of joy". [3]

His playing once put him at risk of injury. Waller was kidnapped in Chicago leaving a performance in 1926. Four men bundled him into a car and took him to the Hawthorne Inn, owned by gangster Al Capone. Fats was ordered inside the building, and found a party in full swing. Gun to his back, he was pushed towards a piano, and told to play. A terrified Waller realized he was the "surprise guest" at Al Capone's birthday party, and took comfort that the gangsters didn't intend to kill him. According to rumor, Waller played for three days. When he left the Hawthorne Inn, he was very drunk, extremely tired, and had earned thousands of dollars in cash from Capone and other party-goers as tips. [3]

In 1931 he toured Paris and upon his return to New York he formed his small combo Fats Waller and His Rhythm with whom he would perform and record until his death. [1] After finally signing an exclusive Victor contract in 1934, he began the long-running, prolific series of records with His Rhythm, which won him great fame and produced several hits, including "Your Feet's Too Big," "The Joint Is Jumpin'" and "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." He began to appear in films like Hooray for Love and King of Burlesque in 1935 while continuing regular appearances on radio that dated back to 1923. 

He toured Europe in 1938, made organ recordings in London for HMV, and appeared on one of the first television broadcasts. He returned to London the following spring to record his most extensive composition, "London Suite" for piano and percussion, and embark on an extensive continental tour (which, alas, was canceled by fears of impending war with Germany). Well aware of the popularity of big bands in the '30s, Waller tried to form his own, but they were short-lived. [2]
Into the 1940s, Waller's touring schedule of the U.S. escalated, he contributed music to another musical, Early to Bed, the film appearances kept coming (including a memorable stretch of Stormy Weather in 1943 where he led an all-star band that included Benny Carter, Slam Stewart & Zutty Singleton), the recordings continued to flow and he continued to eat and drink in extremely heavy quantities. Years of draining alimony squabbles, plus overindulgence and, no doubt, frustration over not being taken more seriously as an artist, began to wear the pianist down. [2]

Finally, after becoming ill during a gig at the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood in December, 1943, Waller boarded the Santa Fe Chief train for the long trip back to New York. He never made it, dying of pneumonia aboard the train during a stop at Union Station in Kansas City [2] [on December 15, 1943 [3]].

Not only was Fats Waller one of the greatest pianists jazz has ever known, he was also one of its most exuberantly funny entertainers -- and as so often happens, one facet tends to obscure the other. His extraordinarily light and flexible touch belied his ample physical girth; he could swing as hard as any pianist alive or dead in his classic James P. Johnson-derived stride manner, with a powerful left hand delivering the octaves and tenths in a tireless, rapid, seamless stream. Waller also pioneered the use of the pipe organ and Hammond organ in jazz -- he called the pipe organ the "God box" -- adapting his irresistible sense of swing to the pedals and a staccato right hand while making imaginative changes of the registration. As a composer and improviser, his melodic invention rarely flagged, and he contributed fistfuls of joyous yet paradoxically winsome songs like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin,'" "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and the extraordinary "Jitterbug Waltz" to the jazz repertoire.

During his lifetime and afterwards, though, Fats Waller was best known to the world for his outsized comic personality and sly vocals, where he would send up trashy tunes that Victor Records made him record with his nifty combo, Fats Waller & His Rhythm. Yet on virtually any of his records, whether the song is an evergreen standard or the most trite bit of doggerel that a Tin Pan Alley hack could serve up, you will hear a winning combination of good knockabout humor, foot-tapping rhythm and fantastic piano playing. Today, almost all of Fats Waller's studio recordings can be found on RCA's on-again-off-again series The Complete Fats Waller.

While every clown longs to play Hamlet as per the cliche -- and Waller did have so-called serious musical pretensions, longing to follow in George Gershwin's footsteps and compose concert music -- it probably was not in the cards anyway due to the racial barriers of the first half of the 20th century. Besides, given the fact that Waller influenced a long line of pianists of and after his time, including Count Basie (who studied with Fats), Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck and countless others, his impact has been truly profound. [2]


Tunes for Lindy Hopping:
The Joint Is Jumpin'
Chant of the Groove
Beat It Out
Come and Get It
Lounging At the Waldorf
Fat and Greasy
Hold Tight
All That Meat and No Potatoes
Spreadin' Rhythm Around
You've Been Taking Lessons In Love
Boogie Woogie
Copper Colored Gal
Spring Cleaning                                              
Tunes for Charleston:
The Minor Drag
Everybody Loves My Baby
I Got Rhythm
Handful of Keys
T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do
Floatin' Down to Cotton Town
There Goes My Attraction
Fractious Fingering
Big Chief De Sota
Got a Bran' New Suit
Hey! Stop Kissing My Sister
Christopher Columbus
Twelfth Street Rag
The Sheik of Araby
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