This special festival edition of Riverwalk Jazz is devoted to a pioneer of stride piano—Thomas “Fats” Waller. Waller was born in New York in 1904 and his prodigious musical talent became apparent early on. As a young child, he played piano for assemblies in school and reed organ at open-air services in Harlem where his father Edward Waller, a lay minister preached. Waller got his first paid music job at fifteen, playing the organ for silent movies at the Lincoln Theatre on 135th Street. He could not resist the siren call of the new music infiltrating Harlem in the early 1920s. At “rent parties” in the neighborhood, young Waller soaked up the action at piano competitions called ‘cutting contests’ where ‘ticklers’ like Willie “The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson tried to top each other with their dazzling piano techniques. Eventually, he was invited to take a seat at the piano and was discovered by stride pioneer James P. Johnson, who took young Fats under his wing.
In 1922 Fats made his recording debut on the Okeh label with his solo piano rendition of “Muscle Shoals Blues.” A year later, his association with Clarence Williams led to the publication of Waller’s “Wild Cat Blues” and its recording by Williams’ Blue Five which included New Orleans jazz giant Sidney Bechet on reeds. It was in 1929 that Fats Waller achieved fame with his most enduring hit “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” composed for the Connie’s Inn revue Hot Chocolates.
About the music of Fats Waller featured in this broadcast:
The show opens with a spirited version of Waller’s “Up Jumped You with Love“ from 1942, a year before Waller’s untimely death at the age of 39 in 1943. The middle section or “bridge” of the tune is unusually complex for a popular song of this vintage.
Fats composed “Squeeze Me“ in 1925 when he was 21 years old. It has since become a standard tune for jazz bands.
Fats Waller wrote and recorded “How ‘Ya Baby?“ in 1938 with his own group for the RCA Victor label. Pianist John Sheridan says, “This was probably one that he tossed off between hot dogs and ham and eggs.”
“Fat and Greasy“ is the kind of light-hearted “novelty” tune for which Fats was sensationally popular with the general public throughout the 1930s. The success of these novelties—they sold in the millions for the low-priced RCA Bluebird label—often obscured the lofty stature Fats enjoyed among his peers and fans. Along with his mentors “The Lion” and James P, Fats Waller was revered as one of this elite trio of Harlem stride piano masters. And, he was a prolific composer of well-crafted popular songs.
“Ain'tcha Glad?“ is from 1933. That same year the tune was covered by clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman who had yet to atta status as ‘the King of Swing.’
“What Will I Do in the Morning?“ dates from 1938.
“I Believe In Miracles,“ composed by Pete Windling was recorded by Fats Waller and His Rhythm in 1935.
“How Can I?“ dates from 1937. Our version features John Sheridan in a thoughtful solo piano rendition.
The interpretation of Fats Waller’s “Stealin' Apples“ heard here features Jim Cullum Jazz Band clarinetist Ron Hockett paying tribute to a hot version made famous by reedman Peanuts Hucko in a recording with Glenn Millers’ Uptown Hall Gang.
Join the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, live from the world-famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, celebrating the music of Fats Waller, perhaps the greatest exponent of the stride piano style.
Photo credit for Home Page: Fats Waller courtesy of lastfm.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©1999