Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Waller, Fats (Thomas Wright)
Pianist and organist Fats Waller embodied the ebullient spirit of Harlem between the World Wars. While best known for his comic persona and compositions, his innovations to the Harlem stride style laid the groundwork for modern jazz piano.
Thomas Wright Waller was born on May 21, 1904 in Harlem. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Edward and Adeline Waller, only five of whom survived past childhood. His father was a deeply religious man, and worked as a lay preacher at Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. At an early age, Waller was immersed in the church's sacred spirituals and hymns. The Wallers frequently were seen on the streets of Harlem preaching the gospel and singing religious music. Thomas accompanied them on a harmonium, and quickly earned the nickname “Fats” due to his size.
At age fifteen, Waller fell in love with the pipe organ, after hearing Miss Mazie Mullins accompany silent films at the Lincoln Theatre. She agreed to train him, and eventually the boy also played with films at the Lincoln and Lafayette Theatres in Harlem. Waller's flexibility in his playing and compositional mindset no doubt came out of his early years as a silent film accompanist. He composed tunes very quickly, most likely due to his “reflex” ability—fitting the correct chord, melodic gesture, or rhythmic scheme to the appropriate visual situation or character.
Around the same time, Waller courted a girl from the Bronx named Edith Hatchett, who was well-schooled in the Bible, much to his parent’s approval. She became Waller’s first wife. When his mother, Adeline, died shortly after a stroke, Fats struggled to shoulder adult responsibilities. His enthusiasm for jazz, however, quickly got him kicked out of the house by his father, who saw the new music as the devil’s creation.
After leaving home, Waller moved in with Russell Brooks, a professional pianist who knew James P. Johnson, the era's most heralded exponent of Harlem stride piano. Brooks introduced Waller to Johnson, who took the talented youth under his wing. While Waller studied scales and piano music by J.S. Bach to deepen his musical understanding, he also learned how to entertain in night clubs and accompany vocalists. Before long, he was a fixture on the rent party circuit, where he met musical luminaries such as George Gershwin. Waller continued to learn from Johnson, while also studying piano with Leopold Godowsky and composition with Carl Bohm at The Juilliard School.
Waller replaced one of his mentors, Willie “The Lion” Smith, at a local Harlem nightspot called Leroy’s, and continued to make friends with more musicians such as William “Count” Basie and Clarence Williams. Basie took organ lessons from Waller, and Williams functioned as his unofficial manager. He was picked up by the blues and “race record” label Okeh, for whom he accompanied a number of blues vocalists like Sara Martin.
Waller later replaced James P. Johnson as a house pianist for the QRS (Quality Reigns Supreme) company, which specialized in creating piano rolls for player pianos. He recorded twenty-three piano rolls between 1923 and 1931 for QRS. These early recordings brought Waller wide acclaim: his technical facility and inventive use of melodic embellishments earned the respect of musicians, while his comic antics on stage made him an audience favorite.
After winning a piano competition, Waller was introduced to the lyricist Andrea Menentania Razafinkeriefo, better known as Andy Razaf. The two began composing together, and became prolific contributors to the popular song industry known as Tin Pan Alley, sometimes altering the lyrics to their songs in order to sell them multiple times.
Also in the late twenties, Waller also met saxophonist and arranger Don Redman, who introduced him to bandleader Fletcher Henderson, then a star at the Roseland Ballroom on 51st Street. In 1927, Waller recorded his own composition "Whiteman Stomp" with the Henderson Orchestra. Once, Henderson bought Waller nine hamburgers, and Waller paid him back with nine new compositions.
Waller worked steadily at the Lincoln and Lafayette Theatres and with Razaf, as well as at rent parties and nightclubs such as Connie’s Inn. However, he struggled financially, since much of his income went to alimony payments to support his son Thomas, Jr., who was born in the spring of 1921. Waller resented paying alimony to Edith, and was briefly sent to jail for non-payment.
Waller worked steadily with Chicago bandleader Erskine Tate from 1925 to 1926, then shifted his attentions to Broadway. In 1928, Waller and James P. Johnson collaborated on Keep Shufflin’, the follow-up to Eubie Blake’s hit musical Shuffle Along. the first Broadway show to feature an all-black cast. The 1929 show Hot Chocolates featured Louis Armstrong singing the Waller-Razaf composition “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” which later became a hit for blues singer Ethel Waters, who recorded the song in 1930.
In the early 1930s, Waller’s showmanship and bravura earned him work with the New York radio station WABC. He also recorded at this time for The Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey. In 1932, his manager Phil Ponce landed him a radio show in Cincinnati on WLW. “Fat Waller’s Rhythm Club” was heard in millions of homes across the midwest, and Waller was able to further his reputation as an entertainer.
Leaving Cincinnati in 1934, Waller began an exclusive recording contract with The Victor Talking Machine Company. He recorded humorous treatments of otherwise uninspiring Tin Pan Alley tunes and in some cases, such as "Florida Flo," he reworked the material to suit his larger-than-life personality.
Waller's working band on these sessions featured Herman Autrey on trumpet, Gene Sedric on reeds, Albert Casey on guitar, Charles Turner on bass, and Slick Jones on drums. For the next nine years, "Fats Waller and His Rhythm" recorded around 400 songs as well as sessions for other headliners. Only eleven of these pieces, such as “African Ripples,” are of solo piano. The rest were novelty tunes sung by Waller, such as “Your Feet’s Too Big.” The group also toured nationally with proto-swing material, such as “The Joint is Jumpin’.”
As his national reputation grew, Waller appeared in several movies, including Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque in 1935. Between 1940 and his death in 1943, he also appeared in short musical features that played on coin-operated projection machines. These films were called “Soundies,” and they helped bring Waller’s bravura and clowning to life as he suggestively rolled his eyes while flirting with female companions.
In the late 1930s, Ed Kirkeby became Waller’s manager, and a tour of The British Isles, Scandinavia, and other parts of Europe followed. In remembrance of his time in England, Waller quickly composed a series of solo pieces called The London Suite. Each movement was named after a particular district of the city - Chelsea, Bond Street, Limehouse, Soho, Picadilly, and White Chapel.
Waller's alcohol consumption began to accelerate, and he failed to impress the audience at Carnegie Hall on January 14, 1942. His frequent mistakes and lack of poise caused numerous critics to dismiss his performance as shoddy, and his doctor ordered that he quit drinking. Shortly thereafter, Waller’s Rhythm disbanded, and the pianist made an effort to tour as a soloist. Waller starred alongside Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the feature film Stormy Weather, which debuted in July 1943. After the film was completed, Waller stayed in Hollywood to play at the Zanzibar Room, but contracted pneumonia and decided to return to New York. Waller died in his sleep on a train near Kansas City on December 15, 1943. More than 4,000 people attended his funeral in Harlem, which prompted Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, who delivered the eulogy, to say “Fats Waller always played to a packed house.”
Posthumous awards include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and numerous Hall of Fame inductions for jazz and composition. A Broadway revue of Waller's best-known compositions, Ain’t Misbehavin’, debuted in 1978 and has toured for thirty years. Waller is also eulogized by filmmaker Michel Gondry in his 2008 film "Be Kind Rewind," in which he appears as a kind of emblem of the creative spirit.
While best remembered for his classic compositions and larger-than-life personality, Waller's musical gifts and innovations on jazz deserve equal recognition. At the piano, he freed the left hand of the Harlem Stride style from its rigid rhythmic structure, which allowed it to serve a more sophisticated and integrated part of the musical display. He also introduced the organ to jazz, and was first to record on the instrument as a jazz soloist.
Contributor: David Tenenholtz