Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller
Most Jazz fans consider Art Tatum to be the greatest jazz pianist of all time (case in point). I suppose I am not a jazz aficionado (and I am not), for I always prefer Fats Waller. Waller and Tatum were contemporaries, but while Fats Waller looked backwards to a time of Ragtime, Art Tatum looked forward, taking hundreds of years of piano technique and throwing them out the window. I much prefer the styles of the first half of the 20th century, so I am drawn to the music of Fats Waller (though I do not deny that Art Tatum had extraordinary ability and, for better or worse, reinvented jazz piano).
Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller was born in 1904 and made his first recordings in 1922, at the age of 18. He was taught by the great James P. Johnson, who himself taught many greats including Duke Ellington. In my mind, the death of Fats Waller was the end of stride piano, which was an extension/modernization of Ragtime. He composed many songs each year and sold them for small sums (he was known to be short-sighted and wreckless). Because of this, his compositions were often stolen by other composers claiming to have written the songs themselves. It is not known how many jazz standards were actually written by Fats Waller, but it is believed that he penned over 400 new/original songs in his short career. He was also a master of improvisation, and his improv style was much-copied for many decades. Additionally, he was well-versed in classical music and performed a number of Bach organ pieces with regularity.
Waller’s real skill was on the piano and organ, but he was more than that–he was an entertainer. He was always calm and relaxed, and sang all of his tunes with levity, making sure never to take himself too seriously. All of his performances were punctuated with jokes and funny facial expressions (which was not uncommon, given the style and time period). Many of his songs had hidden meanings that were sexual in nature, such as All That Meat and No Potatoes. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, such as Ain’t Misbehavin, Honeysuckle Rose, Your Feet’s Too Big, and Jitterbug Waltz.
Fats Waller led a fast life and is told to have consumed large amounts of food and alcohol at every turn. His chubby, happy persona contributed greatly to his genius never being recognized (in the opinion of this author). After all, he didn’t take himself seriously, so why should anyone else?
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.
I’m not sure if the above story is true or not; it’s from the book Fats Waller (1977). Stories like this contribute to Waller’s reputation as a fast-living boozer who often affiliated with the seedier side of New York and Chicago. He continued to rise in fame and visibility until he contracted pneumonia in 1943, and died on a train near Kansas City. His ashes were spread in the air over Harlem. Louis Armstrong cried for hours when he heard of the passing of Fats Waller, or so the story goes.
Fats Waller – Your Feet’s Too Big
Not many videos of Fats Waller are around, and most of the videos he made were for gag type songs that don’t show off his skills. Some audio recordings that showcase his talent are ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do and I’m Crazy About My Baby (click the links to hear the songs, hosted on my server). If you like this style, you may want to look into this comprehensive list of Stride pianists. Also, the 1978 musical revue Ain’t Misbehavin uses the music of Fats Waller to give tribute to the Harlem Renaissance and all those involved in furthering the black cause in the 1920’s an 30’s. Many of Fats Waller’s recordings can be streamed and/or downloaded for free if you search his name on archive.org.