Recent Fats Facts And Interviews: Part 1
At a showcase of "Shades of Harlem" a musical last fall in upper Manhattan's Harlem an original Cotton Club gal was announced as "being in the movie 'Stormy Weather' - Jaunita Boisseau, age 91!" After the performance Jaunita (you should see her gorgeous complection now and imagine what she must have looked like to those Harlem men 50 years ago) I asked if she knew guitarist Al Casey when he played with Fats Waller? She replied to my surprise, "I put Fats on the train (in 1943), he said he wanted to get home to New York for some home cookin'," and added, "I was also in the line in a Fats movie short ("Ain't Misbehavin'"- 1941 Soundie), one of the Jones sisters, I was sittin' on the piano."
That was 60 years ago last December 15th and what a sad day it was for Jazz, Humor and Stride piano as you will come to understand from the musicians who have carried on Fats' musical tradition. My first priority was interviewing musicians who played with Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller or saw him perform, followed by pianists who currently play Fats music with reverence.
Al Casey told me that soon after that December 1943 day he was at home when he heard about Fats passing from the family. Was Fats ever ill? "Never heard him complain before, just ordinary pains. We heard he had a ball out there in the movies . . . . It was a shock!"
On May 2 - 8, 2004 the Tribeca Film Festival premiered "The Last Of The First" to sold out audiences in downtown Manhattan. Guitarist Al Casey, the last of "Fats Waller and His Rhythm", still alive at age 87 is featured with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band. Included in this Jazz Documentary Film is footage of Casey playing Ain't Misbehavin' behind Fats in that same Soundie filmed in 1941. We expect that you will be able to see it in your local movie theater next year.
I've had the pleasure of knowing "Casey" (as he is called by jazz cognoscente) for some years and arranged for the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, a jazz ensemble made up of surviving members of many famous jazz bands and orchestras, to perform the music of Louis Armstrong at Moscow's Tchaikovsky Hall on June 3, 2000 at the request of conductor Yuriy Saulskiy in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Jazz Ambassador Louis Armstrong's birth. Guitarist Al Casey had performed and recorded with Armstrong as recipient of the 1944-45 Esquire Gold Award and at Carnegie Hall.
For a video clip of this event go to: www.tva.ru
Fats recorded 400 sides (1934-1942)with Casey including Al's tunes "Pantin' At The Panther Room" and "Buck Jumpin'". Casey can be heard soloing on The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band - From Past To Present, a Barron CD VOCA408-Vol 2 recorded by Dr. Al Vollmer available from Cadence/NorthCountry distributors or JazzPhone (866) 411-JASS.
In 2001 Bruce Gast hosted: "Jumpin' With Al Casey" at the Bickford Theater in Morristown, NJ. Humorous stride pianist Peter Sokolow, who pulled off a delightful imitation of the famous Fats Waller, co-starred with Casey and rhythm players Shelton Gary - drums and Alex Layne - string bass. In the second half I got a chance to play some swing-jazz clarinet with these great musicians.
Billy Taylor Remembers Thomas "Fats" Waller
At the International Association of Jazz Educators Convention publicist Arnold Jay Smith arranged a private interview with pianist educator Billy Taylor on January 24, 2004:
Dan Kassell: Well I want to thank you in advance for joining me this morning.
Billy Taylor: My pleasure, Dan. Well, you know, Fats Waller is a special man. He was my first big influence. My Uncle Bob was a big Fats Waller and Willie the Lion fan, you know. And he laid that on me that was the way he played, because those were the group of guys that he liked. But I kept bugging him about teaching me. Three quarters all my father's brothers were musicians. I kept bugging him saying "I want to do that." And he said "Oh, no, you go study the music and make sure you got piano lessons and everything".
DK: What age were you then?
BT: I was what? Seven. Six or seven, somethin' like that. And he said "I want you to listen to this guy." Fats Waller was accessible. And I said "Man, this guy was you know like in theories, curly notes and hearing the kinds of things that really . . . it was so cleanly played, and so rhythmically, and it had elements that were much more appealing to me than any other music that I was hearing at that time as a kid. You know, and I'm not talking about his singing.
Everybody, you know . . . he's famous as a singer. And of course that was what I heard a lot of because he was so famous, but I'm always listening, you know, when he'd stop singin' and somethin' else was goin' on and I'd say "Oh, man, that was gorgeous!" So Waller was highly placed in my head at that time. That was something that I said "Gee, I just want to do that. Cuz' this is so gorgeous."
DK: In 1950, I heard, at eight years old, "Your Feet's Too Big". My parents would go to 52nd Street, hear music live, come home with these fantastic stories of the night life and would put on those 10" records and you know, it was fun; it was humorous. And as a kid, I heard the lyrics and I knew it was fun and my parents joked about big feet and it was reference-able to me, but there was something infectious about the joy he brought to the music that was easy to get.
BT: Well, that was a quality that he presented in all of . . . it's in everything he did . . . all of his playing had that quality. I mean, whether he was playing with Louis Armstrong or whether he was playing one of those shows. When I began to really listen to Fats Waller, the fun thing for me was when he did a show at the Howard Theater in Washington and he was the star. There was another pianist, who played the show, I know the guy, he was a wonderful . . . he was a fine pianist, himself. Anyway, he was playing with the band and at some point in the show they would always have this battle where the musicians would heckle him, "Oh, Fats, he's getting' you tonight." Or, "He's gonna' get you." Sayin' "You better not come out again." And all of this stuff, and putting him on. And he said "Oh, no, I got him. I got him." It's on one of the records that he did like that.
DK: Yesterday; Bill Hughes The Count Basie Band leader, you know?
DK: Made the same reference to the Howard Theater . . . seeing Fats Waller for the first time.
BT: Oh, yeah! Well, you know, this is one of those places where we went and I have another story about Waller there. Fats, he loved the Howard Theater because that was on the TOBA circuit. But actually, the first time I ever really saw him was at the Lincoln Theater, which was on U Street, all the black community went . . . . and the reason he played the Lincoln Theater was because they had an organ. And so he did a solo appearance at the Lincoln Theater and man, I was enamored, the Lincoln Theater was about 4 or 5 blocks from where I lived, and so I went in and I said I'm gonna' meet this guy, you know, this is my favorite player ( grins and chuckles) today and I want to say hello to him. Well, he was so outgoing, you know, so bigger than life man. I went backstage and it was small, you know, and this wasn't like the Howard, this was small backstage and everything. So he came right out. And when he came out, you know, I kinda stood there and said "OK." And I didn't say anything, you know, and so he walked on (chuckle). And he walked down the street, so I followed him, and he went around the front of the theater and there was a hamburger place. And he went into the hamburger place. Evidently he'd been doing this for awhile. And all the guys knew him and they were talking to him. And you know, it was the closest I could get to him, but not close enough to attract his attention. So I'm sitting there listening to him and he's telling these stories and the guys are laughing. It's like a party or somethin', you know. It was just a wonderful thing. And he must've eaten 45 hamburgers. Man, this guy was eatin' like crazy. And as soon as he was finished, the guy would bring him another hamburger.
DK: So, you're confirming the myth about Fats and all his hamburgers?
BT: No, no!
DK: You personally experienced what we only read about?
DK: And the number gets bigger and bigger every time. You said 45 but it could have been 25?
BT: No, I'm exaggerating it. . . . he ate a lot . . . . a regular-sized hamburger. And I'm thinking "Wow, this guy . . . what a life," you know (chuckle).
DK: Did you speak with him? Did you actually get to . . .
BT: No, no but when I saw him, man. I mean, I was just so in awe of him and of his music. He had a presence in person that was . . . it's the star presence, you know like, Louis had it . . .
DK: You must be experiencing that, too; most of your career.
BT: Oh, nothing like that (with a smile).
DK: Not recognition?
BT: Oh, yeah, you know I get, you know . . . I've been around a long time, so a lot of people know me and that's from television, it's from all of the stuff that I do. But this, this was different. It's sheer artistry of this man . . . transcends, that transcended anything I've ever read about him. Because he was funny, he was the kind of guy that I as a kid would love to . . . you know, I wish I were old enough to hang out with him.
DK: Wow, that's great. Yeah, you mentioned earlier piano influences from seven you started to develop your own desire. What was your beginning with Fats Waller's music?
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!"
Dave Brubeck Reports Traveling 40 Miles To Buy His First Jazz Record
Another delightful surprise happened after listening to Dave Brubeck play "Sunny Side of the Street" as a Jazz Masters recipient at the IAJE Convention in New York, January of this year then queried him by telephone about Fats Waller to discover:
Dave Brubeck: I never saw him in person. My first recording I ever bought was Fats Waller's "Let's Be Fair and Square in Love" and "There's Honey on the Moon Tonight." Do you remember those?
Dan Kassell: Yes.
DB: And I wrote a piece called "Mr. Fats," which I've recorded.
DB: And the only other story that I can tell you is I was working with Cleo Brown. Do you remember her?
DK: No, I don't.
DB: Well, if you want to hear her, Decca in 1945 put out recordings by Cleo Brown. When Fats died, the members of the band wanted Cleo to take Fats' place.
DB: And that's the only association I can give you.
Well, now we know why Dave Brubeck has instilled his music with swing and joy.
All Piano players and vocalists are invited to play a Fats Waller tune until December this year.
Paul Blair, New York's Jazz Tour Guide reports "Fats was born at 107 West 134th Street next to Elementary School PS 89 and a few blocks away is the Lafayette Theater next to Connie's Inn at 131st Street and Seventh Avenue" where he introduced "Honeysuckle Rose".
The Queens Jazz Trail lists 173-19 Sayres Avenue, St. Albans (also called Addisleigh Park) as Mr. Waller's home. The web site actually headlines "Lookin' For Fats"? And includes a photo of his home little changed from the early 40's.
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:
- He created swing by striding the bass pedals on beats 1 and 3.
- Fats played chords with his left hand on all 4 beats.
- 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: www.feetnfingers.com .
Additional interviews and "Fats Facts" to follow soon.