Fats Waller, a `master of jazz'

WAY BACK WHEN

February 02, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Thomas Wright Waller - better known to the world as Fats Waller - was called the "black Horowitz" by concert pianist Oscar Levant.

Others called him the "Clown Prince of Jazz."

The animated performer who was a master of the stride piano, which he drove with a powerful left hand, peppered his recordings and performances with outrageous and irreverent asides.

A critic once observed, "He's as much fun to watch as listen to. He paws the piano lovingly, wags his head, grunts out lyrics in a completely untuneful voice, and keeps up a running fire of gags and comments."

Waller, who favored spectator shoes, dark suits and a cocked derby while sitting at the piano, was an impressive sight.

He stood nearly 6 feet tall, weighed, at times, between 285 and 310 pounds, and was seldom without a cigarette drooping from a corner of his mouth.

In his all too brief but extremely prolific career, Waller recorded nearly 500 records and piano rolls and composed some 400 copyrighted songs.

Nearly 60 years after his death, people are still enjoying such Waller compositions as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Blue Turning Gray Over You," "I've Got A Feeling I'm Falling," "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby" and "The Joint Is Jumpin'."

His mega-hits include "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter," "When Somebody Thinks You're Wonderful," "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" and "Your Feet's Too Big."

In 1965, when RCA-Victor re-released Waller recordings from the late 1920s and early 1930s, a Sun critic wrote, "Eons may pass before jazz is graced again with a genius as consistently joyous as Thomas (Fats) Waller. ... He scats, sings, cracks jokes and talks to members of his band as only Fats Waller could. He also plays some of the most brilliant solos and sparks some of the most tasteful, driving hot ensembles on record - e.g. Mandy and Serenade for a Wealthy Widow."

Waller was facile and quick when writing; it was said that he composed most of "Honeysuckle Rose" while on the telephone. He could improvise on the piano or organ 25 original consecutive choruses, all technically perfect.

"He could also drink a glass of `iced tea' [bourbon] after each chorus and never miss a note," observed The Sun.

Waller was born in New York in 1904 into a musical family. His father, the Rev. Edward Martin, was pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, and his mother, Adeline Lockett Waller, was a singer who also played organ and piano. His grandfather, Adolph Waller, was a well-known violinist in the South.

Something of a child prodigy, Waller, by the age of 10, was playing the organ in his father's church, and at 15, was organist at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem.

In 1918, Waller began studying with James P. Johnson, considered the dean of Harlem piano players, and quickly developed his own rambunctious, low-down boogie-woogie style of piano-playing. He also studied composition at Juilliard with Carl Bohm and Leopold Godowski.

Waller made his first record for Okeh in 1922 as a soloist performing "Muscle Shoals Blues" and "Birmingham Blues."

During the Jazz Age, Waller was a popular figure. He was continually in demand to play at Harlem parlor socials, better known as rent parties, where guests paid a quarter to help a poor unfortunate meet that month's rent. He played in cabarets, nightclubs such as the famous Connie's Inn in Harlem, and toured in vaudeville with Bessie Smith.

In 1928, he and Johnson composed the all-black Broadway musical Keep Shufflin' ; other collaborations included Load of Coal and Hot Chocolates.

When Hot Chocolates opened at Baltimore's Maryland Theater in 1936, Waller was in the orchestra pit playing the piano.

A critic for The Evening Sun described him as having "huge hands and light, lightning fast fingers." Down in the pit, the critic wrote, "nobody notices him at all. But he happens to be the one really indispensable person in this party.

"The big fellow is Thomas Waller, the Negro master of jazz. If you met him on the street you might easily take him for somebody's butler, or a genial head waiter, or a colored banker, or some well-heeled Harlem resident. But once he sits down before a piano the artistry of those brown fingers comes syncopating forth like Congo magic," the critic wrote.

Waller went on to conduct two wildly successful tours of Europe in 1938 and 1939, and it was only the outbreak of war that ended the latter tour. He regularly appeared on radio and in films.

His last Broadway effort was Early To Bed in 1943, which he wrote with George Marion Jr. That same year, he appeared with William "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne in Stormy Weather.

It was while returning East aboard the Santa Fe's Super Chief after completing an engagement at the Zanzibar Club in Los Angeles that Waller died of pneumonia on Dec. 15, 1943. He passed away in his Pullman berth just as the train was pulling into Kansas City's Union Station.

At his funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell told the packed church of 4,200 that "Fats Waller always played to a packed house." "America does strange things to its great artists," wrote John Hammond, music critic and jazz record producer, in the program notes for Waller's 1942 Carnegie Hall recital.

"In any other place in the world, Thomas Waller might have developed into a famous concert performer, for when he was eleven he was a gifted organist, pianist and composer. But Waller was not white, and the American concert field makes a racial exception only for a few singers."

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