Renowned for clever lyricism as much as the cartoonish iconography of his facial expressions, Thomas Wright Waller became known as “Fats” – a childhood nickname befitting his personality and figure, though the former proved somehow even more massive than the latter. The sight of him immortalized in black and white is proof that personality is capable of
overcompensating for the lack of color in archival photos and making a big man larger than life. Waller’s mischievous smile and devilishly ebullient stage antics became as infamous as the span of his fingers. According to pianist George Shearing, shaking hands with Waller was the equivalent of “grabbing a bunch of bananas.” Through sheer luck of the genetic draw, technical proficiency, and the canal of a well-trained ear, Waller redefined the sound of the stride style and developed a technique that would help form the sonic foundation of modern jazz piano.
Fats Waller began playing piano at six years old, before graduating to church organist where he worked alongside his father – a lay preacher at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Waller took to rag and stride as a teen, while perfecting his ear and developing a knack for composition as a cinema pipe organist under the tutelage of Mazie Mullins, maestro of the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. Following the death of his mother, Waller abandoned his allegiance to the hymns and spirituals of his childhood in favor of the music coming from jazz clubs and rent parties. His father insisted his forays into popular music were the work of the devil and kicked him out of the house.
Waller landed with Russell Brooks, who introduced him to James P. Johnson, a fellow pianist and friend. Johnson, in turn, introduced Waller to classical piano, jazz clubs, and a stint at Juilliard with Leopold Godowsky and Carl Bohm – an assertion some still question the legitimacy of, despite Waller’s command of the keys. Waller became a devoted acolyte of Johnson’s – making the acquaintance of rising stars like George Gershwin and Count Basie, who studied with Waller for some time. It was around this time that Waller also began working with Andy Razaf, a lyricist with whom he would collaborate often – the pair becoming regulars on the songwriting circuit known as Tin Pan Alley.
Fats Waller began to make a serious impression once he became a fixture on the nightclub scene, replacing Willie “The Lion” Smith at a club called Leroy’s in Harlem. Waller then replaced Johnson as the house pianist for QRS, creating piano rolls for player pianos with such flair that he managed to catch the ear of recording companies. Waller made his solo recording debut in 1922 for Okeh Records, where he also worked as a blues accompanist. It was during this time that Waller became the first to use an organ on a jazz recording and began to make his way onto radio, first writing and composing for other artists before stepping to the front as a soloist and radio host.
His popularity with audiences led to a gig composing for an all-black Broadway production in 1928 called Keep Shufflin. This led Razaf and Waller to work on two more shows together, Load of Coal and Hot Chocolates – a production that included the huge hit, “Ain’t Misbehavin.” Along with that tune, Waller became known for other hits, including “Black and Blue,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Jitterbug Waltz.” Waller later debuted at Carnegie Hall as a solo pianist in a production called Yamekraw, A Negro Rhapsody, composed by his mentor, James P. Johnson as an ode to Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. His entrance into radio and theater eventually led to appearances on the big screen in short musical films, or Soundies, which allowed Waller’s personality to infect the masses as people outside of Harlem finally got a taste of his onstage antics. In the meantime, Waller found a home with Victor Recordings and work on the West Coast, before retreating to Europe in the late ’30s where he recorded his London Suite; each piece named for an area of the city.
Waller returned to the U.S. and spent the rest of his life touring heavily – an undertaking peppered with a handful of major projects, including the filming of Stormy Weather with Bill Robinson and Lena Horne in 1943 and the recording of the score for Early to Bed, a collaborative project with George Marion Jr. for the stage production that would open later that year. The last leg of Waller’s final tour was riddled with the markers of overindulgence; Waller spent most of his time outside of recording and performing in the throes of exhaustion and the company of food and drink in copious amounts. While Waller remained busy as a professional musician, and thus relevant up to the end of his life, he remained consumed by his devotion to the music, dying on the road at the side of his manager, Ed Kirkeby.
Left to advertisement, his legacy is a twister of wild eyes, booming laughter, and sassy commentary emanating from the perch of a piano bench, but that does little justice to the life he spent behind the keys. Waller’s legacy begins in many ways with his ability to pack a dance floor, which is where he hooked audiences and found the freedom to lash out from the bandstand and release his unique magnetism into the crowd. In those moments, Waller nurtured and relished the freedom with which he approached the stride style – his innovations, the work of a rule breaker who made it okay to toss the cummerbund and tie, allowing the music to breathe and ultimately swing.
Abandoning the church to worship at the altar of infectious melody, Waller realized early on that that was key to winning an audience. Waller’s hands stretched the interval of a twelfth on a keyboard – the equivalent of an octave plus the interval of a fifth, allowing him a level of comfortability and movement that made the difficulties of stride more easily surmountable and awesome in performance to onlookers and fellow musicians alike; his performances landing somewhere between master class and Vaudeville act. While the rags of his teens were difficult to play, stride is even more intricately performed, and Waller’s mastery of the style allowed him the virtuosity to deconstruct it to the tune of massive result – the introduction of swing being chief among them. Waller’s talent is said to have been matched only by Earl Hines and Art Tatum as a technician. His ability to make room in the music for movement – dancing, soloing, singing, and comedic commentary, are what make his approach to swing so special. His early improvisational skills honed in the movie theaters of Harlem allowed him to develop the kind of right hand flourishes that still confound and impress the ears of musicians and listeners alike – the opulent cherry atop a mountain of expertly timed syncopation and irresistible melody.
Words by Karas Lamb