Continuous Fats: May 21 to December 15, 2004
BT: The first thing I remember of his . . . was I fell in love with "Jitterbug Waltz." I love that, it was so melodic and such a great piece. But prior to that I had heard him create his "Ain't Misbehavin'" and I . . . man, that was one of the things that I had learned how to play that. It was a good tune and it had that, you know . . . My uncle played it . . . a stride piano version of it, and that was good (chuckle).
DK: When I was at Drew University, The first pianist I went to see was Don Lambert.
BT: Oh, yeah. Really? Oh, he was a monster man. He could play!
DK: . . . comparing other pianists to his ability to play time, and the structure of tunes and to throw in all of this classical music . . . and to just assimilate styles, and make a show out of the single piano piece, extemporaneously. Because at the High Tavern in Orange, New Jersey he would simply play from his time period and whoever came in and said something, it would become a part of what it was . . . and when nobody was paying attention, he would doodle on his own . . . and when . . . somebody was watching him that he knew, he would move into a tune that was their favorite in recognition of like hello. How did you experience Fats Waller's music in that way, and take it into your style?
BT: Before we talk about Fats Waller though, Donald Lambert . . . I met him I didn't even know who he was . . . he came to the table, some friends of Tatum brought him over and sic'd him on our table. And I said "Man, you guys must be kidding."
DK: You were telling me about Ain't Misbehavin' was actually
BT: That was really the first Fats I can remember.
DK: The first? And Jitterbug was the second. I was referencing Don Lambert because I wanted to ask you how, stylistically, the piano and the whole idea, how that began to influence you? What did you believe was unique?
BT: The left hand was the thing that was the most outstanding in the piano that I was listening to. The men like Fats Waller, especially, . . . they played 10ths and they played . . . they did all the tricks that the older musicians older than they talked about, Eubie Blake and all of them. Fats Waller had his share of tricks and he would do back-bass or he'd hit the thumb first and then the little finger. He would do . . . different kinds of things which, rhythmically, threw the pulse off, but didn't stop the pulse. You know, it was (sings the beat) dumb-doom-du-du . . . it wasn't one he's playing with his left hand. He would play two notes, you know, doom-doom . . . then doo-dumb, chord. And things like that (chuckle). And it was . . . the manner in which each one does it is so personal that, you know, you say "Oh, that's Donald," or "Oh, that's Willie the Lion," you know. (chuckle) And it's the same device, but everybody has their own take on it, you know.
DK: His whole career, obviously shortened, but your recollection as it grew from your first experience of him to December 1943 his passing, how do talk about, think about his whole career, from a musician's point of view; from a pianist's point of view, not Billy Taylor, the correspondent?
BT: Fats Waller was one of the great jazz pianists. I mean, he stands with Tatum. As a matter-of-fact, Tatum, really . . . I respected him very much. And often gave him credit, saying "That's Waller. That's where I came from." You know, cuz he had that much respect for him. And realizing that this was man who, melodically, he was a wonderful tunesmith. I mean, he just didn't make up tunes and sell 'em and do whatever he wanted to do with them. But, I mean, and he had that gift. I mean, he heard things like that. And he was a phenomenal musician. I read about him when I was younger, because, you know, if there was something in the paper about him or anything like that . . . and he was news, you know. And . . . he was in the movies . . . and he did all these things. So he was a much larger-than-life character to me. And I especially loved the kinds of things that he played because it really . . . it was so human . . . it touched such a wide range of people. I mean, with all the comedy and stuff that he would play something and it would be so beautiful. And you'd say "Oh, gee, what is that? That's lovely," you know. I mean, but he had that kind of a touch on the piano I mean, just a gorgeous touch on piano. And it really . . . I wish I could have heard him in some of those shows like the ones he did with Louis Armstrong and some of those things. Because on Broadway, that was his element, too. I mean, he and Louis used to fight it out, you know, backstage in terms of who was going to get the most applause and who was going to bring the house down first, you know. And that's . . . those are the kinds of things I wish I had been old enough to attend. With all the older guys that I think we talked about . . . "Oh, yeah, Fats was it! He cut it, man!"
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