Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Dec. 10, 11 or 12
Thomas “Fats” Waller died 69 years ago this week on a westbound Santa Fe Chief train traveling from the Midwest to Hollywood, but the great jazz pianist and songwriter lives on.
It’s been 70 years since his “Jitterbug Waltz,” 80 years since he first experimented with solo jazz, and 90 years since he started recording at age 18 – after years of playing at his father’s Baptist church, Harlem’s Lincoln Theater and “rent parties.”
His music continues to inspire in contemporary arts – an ongoing appreciation of Waller’s immense talent and friendly charm.
There’s been poet Michael Longley’s “Elegy for Fats Waller” from the mid-1960s; several biographies published in the ’60s and ’70s; the 2008 independent film comedy “Be Kind Rewind,” starring Mos Def, Jack Black and Danny Glover (revolving around Fats’ “birthplace”); and a 2009 Italian comic book by Carlos Sampayo.
Now Paul McCartney’s version of Fats’ “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” is on the ex-Beatle’s newest record, “Kisses on the Bottom” and a new DVD of McCartney’s live rendition, “Paul McCartney’s Live Kisses,” came out a few weeks ago.
“For years, I’ve been wanting to do some of the old songs that my parents’ generation used to sing,” McCartney said.
Waller appealed to generations – for generations. Personally, after years of piano lessons, my brother and I were shocked one afternoon to watch our Grandma – who usually, dutifully, asked to hear our lessons – herself sit at our spinet (it accustomed to Bach and countless scales from music books) and launch into a Fats Waller stride improvisation. She played by ear, she said, astonishing us further.
There also was the thrill of first hearing a Fats Waller LP and the reassurance of having trombone-playing Dad share Fats’ music as a bridge between his love of jazz and our passion for rock ‘n’ roll.
As jazz legend Louis Armstrong said at Fats’ memorial concert, “Every time someone mentions Fats Waller’s name, why, you can see the grins on all the faces, as if to say, ‘Yea, yea, yea, yea, Fats is a real solid sender, ain’t he?’ ”
Fats’ many songs include “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Sunny Side of the Street,” “This Joint is Jumpin’,” “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” and (a favorite) “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
(Years later, I even produced a recording of Fats’ “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with four Midwest musicians, a priceless side never released, unfortunately.)
Waller frequently played Chicago and had downstate ties. He played on the 1931 song “Royal Garden Blues” with Ted Lewis, who’d done the tune “I Wish’t I Was in Peoria” six years before. Fats’ sidemen included Macomb native Al Sears when the saxophonist was a teen (years before Sears played with and for the likes of Chick Webb, Duke Ellington and rock pioneer Alan Freed). And Fats’ music is still featured in the annual World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Peoria, alongside material by George Gershwin and Jelly Roll Morton.
Internationally, Fats’ music has been everywhere from radio to Broadway. He was featured in one of the first broadcasts on the BBC and the 1978 revue “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” revived in the ’80s. A popular performer from piano rolls and records to the stage and cinema, Fats romped coast-to-coast with the likes of Earl “Fatha” Hines, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Willie “The Lion Smith” and Art Tatum; he was featured in a half dozen short films and three features, including the musical “Stormy Weather”; and he played Carnegie Hall in 1942.
Fats was “the soul of melody, a man who made the piano sing,” said lyricist and collaborator Andy Razaf. “Big in body and in mind, [he was] a bubbling bundle of joy, known for his generosity.”
Critic Joel Vance, writing about Fats performing on a transAtlantic voyage, said, “Tom’s left hand made the rhythm throb as his right played frisky variations on the melody, and as his personality and drive compelled the normally stodgy ship’s orchestra to work harder but feel better than they ever had before.”
That trip resulted in Fats’ ambitious instrumental “London Suite,” a sophisticated jazz impression of Waller’s take on London’s neighborhoods, from Chelsea and Piccadilly to Soho and Whitechapel.
Although Fats could have a light-hearted, even clownish, stage presence, his music demanded respect. Pianist Oscar Levant described Fats as “the black Horowitz.”
Teacher and friend James P. Johnson said, “Fats, he was all music – and you know how big he was.”
Longley, the poet fan of Fats, said, “I adore the drive, the warmth, the apparent spontaneity, the dizzy humor, the hilarious demolition of sentimental material. Seamlessly, he combines sunniness and subversion.”
Longley’s elegy includes the lines, “With music and with such precise rampage/ across the deserts of the blues a trail/ he blazes…”
Blaze on, Fats!
[Picture: Thomas "Fats" Waller, courtesy myswingarchive.blogspot.com]