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Artist Profiles

Continuous Fats: May 21 to December 15, 2004

By Published: May 27, 2004
Fats Other Instrument: The Church Organ

"Fats was an important artist when it comes to the evolution of the organ as a jazz instrument", who wrote a course and lecture "The Jazz Organ Story", Chester Smith said by phone then e-mailed me the following:

"Fats Waller was not only a composer, he was a wonderful musician. A student of James P. Johnson, who was one of Harlem's great stride pianists took Fat's under his wings. This relationship was obviously a musical experience that would influence and impress marvelous attributes for the piano.

What about his organ playing? Well, Thomas "Fats" Waller switched regularly from piano to pipe organ. In 1909-1910 Fat's started to accompany his parents his family's singing on the harmonium a small reed pump organ on street corners sermons when he was 5 or 6 years old. At an early age young Thomas was learning the mechanical differences between the organ and piano. In 1919, the 15 year-old Fats became friendly with Mazie Mullins, the organist at Harlem's Lincoln Theater. That friendship allowed Fats to learn about more pipe organs which were going through a major transition. Later he assumed responsibility for playing accompaniment to the theaters live vaudeville shows.

However, Fats Waller's pipe organ recordings of 1926 have a unique place in the evolution of the pipe organ as a jazz instrument. During this period no other figure made so many jazz recordings on the pipe organ, establishing Fats himself as grandfather of the jazz organ. Fats Waller gigged at the Lincoln theater playing a Wurlitzer pipe organ or on a Robert Morton at the Lafayette theater, also playing stride piano throughout Harlem. He made an annual appearance at the Paramount organ in Times Square. Fats also gave Basie organ lessons at Harlem's Lincoln Theater.

Fats Waller devised independent and unorthodox solutions to making the pipe organ swing based on a traditional approach. His striding technique adapted well and produced a syncopation not heard on the pipe organs.

There were three important elements to Waller's organ style of swing:

  1. He created swing by striding the bass pedals on beats 1 and 3.
  2. Fats played chords with his left hand on all 4 beats.
  3. That gave his right hand the freedom to take full advantage of the melodic line.
Fats Waller did not play walking bass lines we recognized today. The bass lines played by Waller were adapted through his stride piano style. Playing the bass on beats 1 & 3 usually consist of tones 1 & 5 of the major scale. The 4 to the bar drive created momentum by the left-hand rapping out the chord on every beat. Playing a chord on every beat is an important rhythmic element in jazz. Well, Dan, as you can see I'm passionate about such things."

For more check out Chester Smith's website: .

Additional interviews and "Fats Facts" to follow soon.

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