The Amazing Fats Waller

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Recently I became involved in a bit of an argument with a “jazz” person (or group, I’m never sure which they are) on Twitter. This group or person has consistently been promoting non-jazz entertainers, which I found annoying, several of them of an explicit sexual nature. My patience broke when they spent two full weeks Tweeting three times a day about the upcoming “Surrealist Ball” on New Year’s Eve at the Roxy Hotel. I’m not sure why; perhaps they were being paid to do the promotion. This non-spectacular exhibition of perversion was led by “Buster Poindexter,” a pseudonym of David Johansen, former member of the New York Dolls, who since the late 1980s has been singing lounge music under that name. I saw “Buster Poindexter” once on Saturday Night Live. He couldn’t sing, at least not on key…he wasn’t a jazz artist. And he certainly wasn’t entertaining. The result of my Tweet that this sounded like the most boring event in the world was for this Twitter group to insult me for having under 100 followers and then block me. Real open-minded, they are.

Yet as you can see from this article, I hold a certain few jazz artists dear to my heart even when they also happen to be entertaining…but they MUST play JAZZ, and they must be exceptional at it. Otherwise, I’m out the door before they even hit the stage. And there is no question at this point, 113 years after his birth and 74 years after his death, that Thomas “Fats” Waller was a major figure in jazz, clowning or no clowning. Yet few have ever taken the time to isolate and identify the components of his style that made him so appealing, beyond his oversized, outgoing personality.

Waller had an unlikely trajectory to fame and fortune. The son of a Harlem minister, he was raised in a strict religious family and although his keyboard prowess became evident at an early age, his initial outlet for this talent was classical music and music of the church. At age 18 he managed to go to the Big City, where he became immediately involved in the burgeoning jazz scene. He made the acquaintance of the great James P. Johnson, originator of the stride style of piano, who took him under his wing and showed him around (as well as some new tricks on the keyboard). In his later years he actually paid for lessons from piano pedagogue Leopold Godowsky.

This was what I would call Point A in Waller’s transformation from a well-bred, morally upright young man into the hedonist he became. I am not passing any moral judgment on him; he certainly made his own decisions in life and had to live with them; but the fact that he went hog-wild in the world of “booze and broads,” to use a crude colloquialism, was a major component of his personality. To a certain extent, this was not much different from the rite of passage that many Amish teens go through. They, too, are finally allowed to leave their tightly-controlled communities and let loose in the “real world,” to do whatever they choose as long as they remain true to their moral code. Most of them end up returning to the Amish communities where they spend the rest of their lives, but there is always a percentage that strays from the fold forever. Not much is known of Waller’s siblings, although we do know that he had a sister, and that she remained a good, moral Christian throughout her life. I’m sure that she, too, had the opportunity to see what the outside world was like when she hit 18 as well. But Tom was just one of those people who indulged himself well over the top, and this, in my mind, was a major and often-overlooked character flaw that merged with his outstanding talent.

Moreover, the talent itself was prodigious. Even Art Tatum, the one pianist that he and everyone else came to admire as the greatest of the great, had to work at his technique and, in fact, never really stopped honing and refining it throughout his life—one reason why he died of uremia at the age of 46. But Waller was one of those people who, like classical pianist Walter Gieseking, could literally roll out of bed at any time of the day or night, hit the keyboard, and sound fabulous without even a moment of warmup. This, too, led to his choice of a more hedonistic lifestyle. A key to these features was given when former musicians in His Rhythm, the small band that he played with for most of his career (1934-1942), told interviewers in later years that Fats was like a big child, a spoiled child. That was exactly it. Because everything came so easily to him, he didn’t have to work at it, and without a work ethic hedonism could take root more easily. Waller wasn’t just the kid in the candy store; he was the kid who owned the candy store.

By 1926, when he was only 22, Waller was not yet famous to the general public but was already well known to musicians. And not just to black jazz musicians, like bandleader Fletcher Henderson and his arranger Don Redman, but to white musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and even Paul Whiteman. He had the knack of being able to write instrumental tunes that could then be orchestrated for different sized groups (up to big band) that sounded like stride piano. This was not an insignificant talent; Johnson, skilled as he was, could not do it as well. Out of this talent came several wonderful instrumentals over the next few years, such as Henderson Stomp, Whiteman Stomp, St. Louis Shuffle, Fats Waller Stomp, Harlem Fuss and The Minor Drag. This in addition to what was to eventually grow into an incredible number of quality popular songs like Ain’t Misbehavin’, I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby and Honeysuckle Rose that he wrote with lyricist Andy Razaf as well as with others.

Yet Waller’s lifestyle became so busy, whirlwind and almost out of control that even his closest friends and associates could scarcely believe how he held it together at all. He wrote a great many songs that he then sold, for top dollar, to other songwriters because he was always broke (one of them, he always claimed, was On the Sunny Side of the Street), and he was always broke because as fast as he made money it went out twice as fast. Liquor, women and marijuana were his vices of choice, and he indulged in them uninhibitedly. Even during his long recording career with Victor in the 1930s, he seldom arrived at the studio to make records without a jug of corn liquor on the piano, which he would offer to his sidemen if one of them played a chorus on a record that he particularly liked. He had so many women at one point that he began to lose track of them, and even had the nerve to bring his young son Maurice with him on Sunday afternoons to visit “aunt” so-and-so on condition that he not tell his mama where they went that day.

lenox-aveHow he was able to continue playing the piano—and organ—at such a high level over such a continuous period of time still remains a mystery. The vigor of youth certainly had something to do with it, but even so, there were other young pianists who also led frantic lifestyles who couldn’t do what Waller did. In fact, his pipe organ solos recorded at Camden in 1926-27 are still considered to be among his most creative and amazing recordings. It’s relatively easy to make a small electronic organ swing, which Waller also did in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but the kind of “slow” sound that a real massive pipe organ has, lacking crispness, does not lend itself to the jazz pulse known as “swinging.” What Waller did has seldom been duplicated, let alone surpassed, in all the decades since. I strongly urge you to listen to some of these to hear what he was able to accomplish:

St. Louis Blues (November 17, 1926)
Lenox Avenue Blues (same date) – later used in the soundtrack of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead
The Rusty Pail
(January 14, 1927)
Stompin’ the Bug (February 16, 1927) also heard in the soundtrack of Eraserhead

Even as early as 1929, Waller’s life was in such disarray that he was starting to forget that he even had recording dates. The most legendary instance was the “Fats Waller and his Buddies” session of March 1, 1929, when a mixed band including Charlie Irvis on trombone, Arville Harris on clarinet and tenor sax and Eddie Condon on banjo was to record two sides for Victor. Fats was asleep and had to be awakened by Condon an hour before the date took place. He didn’t even have any music written for it. After quickly washing up and getting dressed, Condon pushed him into a cab where he began writing the music. It was finished by the time he reached the studio; but after making the records the Victor brass realized he hadn’t given them any titles. Waller told them that the fast one was called Harlem Fuss and the slow one The Minor Drag, but someone either forgot or didn’t write it down because when the record came out the titles were reversed. Thus the wild, uptempo romp has forever more been called The Minor Drag while the slow, bluesy number became Harlem Fuss.

maxresdefaultOne of Waller’s strangest dates came on March 5th and 6th 1931 when white bandleader Ted Lewis decided to help the New York jazz community, which was struggling financially in the wake of the Depression. His all-star band included Muggsy Spanier on trumpet, Benny Goodman on clarinet, George Brunies on the trombone and Fats on piano and vocals. Egyptian Ella was a showcase for Lewis’ bizarre singing and clarinet playing, but I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby was Waller’s coming-out party as a vocalist, followed the next day by Dallas Blues and Royal Garden Blues. Not knowing the lyrics of the latter two, Fats simply made up his own on the spot (my favorite bit being “I’ve got the Dallas blues and the mainstream heart disease!”). This kind of ad-libbing was to become a major feature of his entertaining ability throughout the years of Fats Waller and His Rhythm.

The long string of records made with His Rhythm are, of course, the major part of his legacy. I know of several very serious jazz critics who dismiss them as a waste of his talents, purely entertainment records with little or no real jazz value. This, like assessments of Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s, is a case of missing the forest for the trees. While it is true that the Rhythm almost never included major jazz talent, mostly because those musicians didn’t want to bother with Waller’s crazy schedule and touring agenda, they fail to notice that Fats got the players he did use to play at an extremely high level of proficiency. And this was one of the aspects of his talent that is often overlooked or taken for granted. Waller could inspire anyone to play well, whether the trumpet player was Herman Autry or John “Bugs” Hamilton or the clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow (clearly the worst well-known clarinetist in jazz history) or Rudy Powell. Tenor saxist Gene “Honey Bear” Cedric managed to amass a fairly large following and high reputation due to his consistently good work on the Waller records, but after Fats died he was shown to be merely a mediocre musician. Yet all but perhaps two dozen of those nearly 400 recordings they made are superb jazz, all the more so because more than half the songs they played were Tin Pan Alley garbage. Waller and his band(s) managed to elevate such banal material as Nero, Baby Brown, Abdullah, Garbo Green, Breakin’ the Ice, Got a Brand New Suit, If It Isn’t Love, How Can You Face Me?, Who’s Afraid to Love and The Curse of an Aching Heart into jazz masterpieces. Who else, in jazz or pop music history, could possibly have made something palatable out of Don’t Let it Bother You? No one, I’ll bet, yet this is one of Waller’s great musical and comic masterpieces.

And therein lay the other secret of his appeal: people really liked him, and the personality he projected was real albeit amplified for commercial purposes. You could possibly fake being a nice guy for the sake of playing a role, as Andy Kaufman and Gary Burghoff did on famous TV shows, but you can’t consistently fake being funny. You either are or you aren’t, and Waller was genuinely funny.

But in the end, we have to ask ourselves: was Fats Waller a comedian who played jazz, or a jazz musician who was also did comedy? It’s hard to say. In 1941 he realized his life’s dream by playing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, and in the second half he played music “straight.” Yet I find it telling that he didn’t choose to play established classical pieces, which he certainly had cut his musical eye-teeth on, but rather improvisations on “original themes.” It has often been carped about that the public refused to take Waller seriously as an artist, but I find that complaint hard to support considering that he didn’t play anything really classical. In fact, the review of the concert made it very clear that the audience became restless not just because he wasn’t doing his comedy but because each number he improvised on sounded like the one before. Yet to listen to such a surrealist performance as Loungin’ at the Waldorf, with his muttered and very funny asides superimposed on a jazz performance of impeccable taste and phenomenal facility (Waller may have envied Tatum’s brilliance as an improviser but he clearly had as big a technique), is to marvel at the whole and not debate about which part of the performance controls the flow.

In his last year of life (1943), Waller wrote and produced an off-Broadway show called Early to Bed about a whorehouse in Martinique. He spent a great deal of time working on and refining the songs, a rare trait for him, because he really thought this was going to catapult the next phase of his career. Only a couple of acetate discs of Waller performing a few songs from the musical exist today; the musical did indeed open to good reviews, but he died before his dream could be fully realized. And even his death was typical of his uncontrolled lifestyle. Following the shooting of the film Stormy Weather, Waller was performing at a Los Angeles club that had a new, experimental form of air conditioning. The cold air blasted directly on Waller, who after the first week came down with a horrible cold, but he kept on performing. Finally, feeling really bad, he went to a doctor, who told him he had pneumonia and insisted on his spending a few days in the hospital to recover. But Fats didn’t want to do this—not because it interfered with his gig but because it interfered with his drinking and doping and hanging out with his buddies for hours after each night’s performance. He figured that he would be able to catch up on his rest on the long train ride back to New York the following week, but his immune system ran out of immunity. On the train heading east, during a stop in Kansas City, he was found dead in his upper berth bed. Louis Armstrong, on the train heading west, also had a stop in Kansas City and was told that someone had died on the other train. When they told him it was Fats Waller, Armstrong reportedly cried for days.

Waller remains consistently entertaining because he was also a fine jazz musician, although his improvisations tended more towards the fractioning of rhythm than towards harmonic ingenuity. As one musician said of him, “Some small people have some music in them, but Fats was all music, and you know how big he was.” Or as Paul McCartney put it, “I loved Fats Waller. I love his instrumental abilities, his vocal abilities and his sense of humor.”[1]

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

[1] https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/paulmccart454315.html?src=t_fats

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