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Artist Profiles

Fats Waller

By Published: September 21, 2005

Sometimes referred to as 'the greatest comedian who ever played jazz,' Fats' appeal was as much visual as it was musical.

1904-1943

Fats Waller's jazz legacy is an unlikely combination of pianist, composer, singer, and comedian. Sometimes referred to as "the greatest comedian who ever played jazz, Fats' appeal was as much visual as it was musical. From his physical presence (he had a huge girth and wore a size 15 shoe) and wildly arched eyebrows to his appetite for life and boisterous showmanship, Fats was an irresistible performer. Foremost, he was a master of stride piano playing. His recordings represent some of the most dazzling and inventive music of any jazz era. Waller's technique and attention to decorative detail influenced countless jazz pianists including Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Thelonius Monk.

He was the last of the great stride pianists, a rhythmic two-beat motion with one hand while the other supports the all-important melody. Stride playing was a relative of ragtime. Tin Pan Alley writing meets barroom piano phrasing. Waller balanced the left hand's roaring boom with the right hand's sprightly embellishments. Ever present were his vocal effects—mock accents, Bronx cheers, falsetto howls, and staccato diction, delivered as ad-libs to fellow musicians or listeners. Though Waller could sing straight first-rate if needed be. When presented with his jovial expressiveness it was all wildly entertaining.

Born Thomas Wright Waller in New York, May 21, 1904, he started playing piano and harmonium at age six. By 15 he was playing downtown Harlem for $23 a week. With the death of his mother in 1920, Waller moved in with a school mate and started hanging with pianists Willie 'the Lion' Smith and James P. Johnson. They tutored him and saw his potential as a born showman. Smith even advised Waller to make faces while playing piano to attract attention.

By his early 20s, Fats was already composing and recording his own songs, giving organ pointers to Count Basie, and studying with pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky. He lent his composing skills to three Broadway productions which included such classic songs as "Ain't Misbehavin and "Black and Blue. Waller began an abundance of recording for the Victor label in 1934 under the moniker Fats Waller & His Rhythm. These were small-band sides, mostly limited to three minutes that swung hard and put him front and center in the jazz scene. He scored hits like "Jitterbug Waltz , "Honeysuckle Rose , and "The Joint is Jumpin , By 1938 Fats was as big a star as Louis Armstrong.

Waller toured all over the country relentlessly between recordings, but never cared for the road or its discriminations. Like his persona, he lived life big and fast. He had a monstrous appetite for food and alcohol. A bottle was a mainstay under or on the piano, but it never got in the way of his playing. Instead it became a built-in joke, a part of his act. By the early 40s Waller was earning a comfortable living. He wrote the first non-black musical for Broadway by a black, "Early to Bed , took a role in the film "Stormy Weather and appeared regularly on radio.

The fast-paced, indulgent lifestyle eventually caught up with Waller. His gusto for food and booze most likely lowered his resistance. A bad cold evolved into bronchial pneumonia and Fats died in his sleep on a train ride between Los Angeles and New York in 1943.

Stride piano became less popular following Waller's death, though his virtuosity and innovation continued to influence jazz pianists. The styles of both Count Basie and Art Tatum grew out of Waller's achievements. To this day, listening to Fats reminds one of the man and his exuberance for life through music.

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