Becoming Fats Waller
Picture Fats Waller, if the name means anything to you, and chances are good you've conjured the consummate jazz entertainer — the musician who, maybe even more than Louis Armstrong, conjoined the genius and the jester. (If you can't picture Fats, get thee first to YouTube to check out his 1941 proto-music-video “soundies.”) Waller (1904-1943), singing from the piano bench, was genuinely funny, skewering the dopey lyrics he was so often handed, with eye-rolling diction or a sarcastic aside.
That mugging, mocking fellow emerged in the '30s, when Fats Waller and His Rhythm, a sextet, was one of the swing era's best and most successful little bands. Fats'running commentary on the lyrical or musical action, as one sage memorably put it, suggested “a hallucinatory world … where strange surrealist notions are pursued.” Waller and His Rhythm is well represented on site, by a few mostly non-redundant anthologies that draw on the hundreds of small-band sides he turned out for Victor. (Here's two. For a quick career overview, try Avid's one-disc sampler.)
The connection between Waller and surrealism was made explicit when David Lynch dropped some Fats pipe organ solos into 1977's Eraserhead. They fit unexpectedly well in a world where dreams are always fevered, radiators are inhabited and baby is best avoided. Waller is best known as a pianist and singer, but the first sides he recorded when he signed with RCA in 1926 featured him on pipe organ. (Here history hangs on chance: RCA's studio in Camden, New Jersey, was a decommissioned church whose mighty Estey instrument was in working condition. The church's cavernous echo added to the spooky effect Lynch capitalized on.) The rich coloration Fats drew from the instrument's multiple stops, and the buoyant rhythm he brought to all musicmaking — hear “Messin'Around with the Blues” for both — instantly established him as the great jazz organist prior to the Jimmy Smith-stoked Hammond B-3 craze of the '50s. (Waller recorded on a Hammond too, by 1939.)
Organ playing was in his blood. Young Thomas Waller got his start on the sidewalks of Harlem, playing a foot-pumped harmonium to accompany his preacher dad's streetcorner sermons. As a teen he hung out in the orchestra pit at the Lincoln — the one theater in Harlem that permitted African-Americans south of the balcony — where organist Maizie Mullins schooled him and let him sub for her. That invaluable training came out later; there's an air of jolly intermission music to his organ solos on “Sloppy Water Blues” and “Hog Maw Stomp.”
Eventually Waller inherited Mullins'job, and passed on tips to his own protégé, a Jersey kid named Bill Basie. One of Count's signature piano licks — used to byline his intros to '30s classics “One O'Clock Jump” and “Taxi War Dance” — was in fact lifted from Fats. He kicks off his 1927 organ version of “Loveless Love” with it.
RCA has reissued parts of its vast Waller holdings many times — it has yet to put out a complete edition, after several false starts over the decades — but has been oddly neglectful of his organ sides. Happily they're here aplenty in the first volume in what JSP promises will be The Complete Fats Waller, the four solos heard in Eraserhead included (“Messin'Around,” “Digah's Stomp,” “Lenox Avenue Blues” and “Stompin'the Bug“).
In part this box sketches the Education of Thomas Waller, leading him (and us) through a panorama of period African-American music, from 1922 — a couple of piano solos, and four sides backing blues shouter Sara Martin — to June of 1928, with Fats and another mentor, James P. Johnson, doubling on pianos with a Johnson octet. (The master takes are on the first three discs; the fourth is for alternates.) These sides, few of them under Waller's name, find him in his apprenticeship, exploring the wide range of material lumped into the category of “race” records — blues, gospel, lachrymose ballads, West Indian songs and jug-bandy novelties. (Kazoo: the fuzzbox of the '20s.) Sad vaudeville crooners he accompanied, like Juanita Sinette Chappelle and Bert Howell, provided ammo for his later send-ups of emotional singers; his career as a pop vocalist hadn't started yet. Clarence Williams'banter with Martin may've helped fuel Fats'running commentaries to come, though his main model — and W.C. Fields'— for the droll throwaway remark was black vaudeville star Bert Williams; hear “Unexpectedly.”)
For all his virtuosity, Waller could be a team player, swinging the bezooms out of Fletcher Henderson's still-stodgy band on a 1926 “Henderson Stomp,” or making the earliest jazz organ combo sides, with Louisiana Sugar Babes: James P. on piano, young cornet wonder Jabbo Smith, and multi-reedist Garvin Bushell, sometimes lumbering on bassoon.
The influence of pal and sometime songwriting partner James P. Johnson is plain on “Blue Back Bottom Stomp.” The left-hand syncopations, jumping all around the ground-beat, are classic New York stride piano, that last and swingingest phase of ragtime. (Johnson was arguably the best of the stride pianists, before Fats came along at least.) Waller's series of solo piano masterpieces for Victor was still ahead — the first batch kick off JSP's second volume. But the sparkly voicings and bright attack that distinguish his best playing are already displayed on Sara Martin's 1922 “Mama's Got The Blues,” where some other pianist (Fletcher Henderson, say) would be content to thump quietly in the background. Waller's pop-star years were then still a decade ahead. But as his earliest recordings make clear, Fats was always a go-getter — even before he found his voice.