Fats Waller

1904 - 1943

Thomas « Fats » Waller was one of the greatest personalities of jazz. He was James P. Johnson's pupil but quickly exceeded him in notability and technique. The perfection of his "phrasé", the originality of his game, his "swing", seem naturally obvious. He not only was an unrivaled pianist. he also was a singer, a conductor, an abounding successful composer and a great entertainer. An iron left hand supported a solid rhythmic, boldness, imagination and strange sounds that we can often hear over « riffs » weaved in the keyboard. Here is what characterizes the spontaneity and exuberance of this big fellow,a unique person and one of the finest musician in the history of jazz music.

When You And I Where Young Maggie - 1939

Thomas Fats Waller young

The young Fats was first drawn to music by listening to the organ in his local church, his father being a clergyman. He hence learnt to play the organ at a very early age and it was in mastering such a complex musical instrument that he was subsequently able to develop a strong command of the piano. He in fact remained very fond of the organ for the rest of his life and was the first person to use one in jazz sessions.

His mother died when he was sixteen and he began to live to James P. Johnson's, a great figure of music in Harlem who will give him strong piano lessons. However, this hard period of his life will be a trauma for Fats and he will always have an ambiguous personality, both joyful and sometimes really depressed.

Saint Louis Blues - (organ, 1926)

His first recording session took place in 1922, when he was only 18 years old. He recorded Muscle Shoals Blues and Birmingham Blues these constituting his first solo piano pieces. His relaxed technique and artistry already showed how he was "at home" in the recording studio.

Birmingham Blues by Fats Waller

Fats Waller Muscle Shoals Blues

Subsequently, but before becoming famous, Fats worked with various blues singers (like Caroline Johnson and Sara Martin) and produced a number of piano "rolls", a popular way of listening to music in those days before records came on the scene. In the meantime, he began to enter in Harlem night live and play in 'rent parties', organized by pianists in their own apartments to pay their rents.

His meeting with the lyricist Andy Razaf will be decisive, and they will form a prolific duet in songs composition. During the first years of their collaboration, they often sold for almost nothing, songs which would become great hits. Today, many popular songs are supposed to be Fats' composition.

Beale Street Blues - (organ, 1927)

Fats Waller at the organ

His fame is growing but, however Fats slowly deserts the rent-parties to animate millionaires' evening parties. However, he wouldn't worry about money and would play just for enjoyment and free alcohol. He often left parties surrounded by enthusiastic people and sometimes a good cigar.

In the 20's, piano records had a great success although this instrument was difficult to record. Fats was therefore able to record a lot in 1929. These recording sessions include some original compositions among the most famous of the pianist : Handful of Keys, Sweet Savannah Sue, Smashing Thirds, Valentine Stomp, Numb Fumblin'.

Ain't Misbehavin' by Fats Waller

Fats Waller at the piano

During the years of crisis, Fats recorded few pieces : two piano duets with Bennie Payne (who will become Cab Calloway'pianist) in 1930 and two solos in 1931, I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby and Draggin' My Heart Around where he sings for the first time. He also played with some popular bands.

In 1934, while he was playing the clown on the piano in a party organized by Gershwin, a member of the Victor Studios noticed him. Fats signed a contract and then recorded till the end of his life with these studios. In the same year, he formed an orchestra with 5 or 6 musicians, Fats Waller & His Rhythm. They were a huge success. Thanks to his vigorous activity he was a very good conductor. He appeared until the end of his life with the same group and recorded more than 400 pieces.

Latch On - Fats Waller And His Rhythm, 1938

Fats Waller & His Rhythm

Thanks to the radio, Fats became a star. He was one of the first jazz musicians to use this mass media and one of the first Afro-Americans to have a regular radio show. The public loved him because he was a great entertainer with great spontaneity. From 1935 he performed in a lot of radio shows.

Go Down Moses (radio Broadcast, C.1941)

Fats Waller concert

Whilst alive, although being much appreciated by the public, Fats Waller was often seen more as a joker and an entertainer than a real jazz musician. This was always somewhat upsetting to him. However, we can see through his many recordings that he could be very serious and was an inspired and talented musician who created some beautiful pieces of poetic music.

Honeysuckle Rose by Fats Waller

As many other geniuses, Fats Waller was gone too soon He died from pneumonia one evening of December, in a train taking him back from the west. He was only 39 years old and at the peak of his fame. Who knows how his music will have delighted us ? "One never knows, do one...?"

Fats Waller transcriptions