Thursday, July 23, 2009

Remembering Fats Waller

One should write books about this marvelous musician and never stop praising him. He is by far the most wonderful musician that I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. He is a natural wonder. Apart from being a most entertaining character of the first half of the previous century, he is truly a man who surpassed every barrier in his life. First, he had to fight against the cultural atmosphere as hostile as it could be in a family within which the father, being a hardboiled religious teacher of the church, was against any sort of entertainment except singing from the holy book. He was especially against any kind that came from the jazz-corner, “the devil’s workshop”.

Then it was the material conditions of his life in early days. Being born as the fifth child to a poor black family and not having proper means for education and musical teaching. His mother, a home-made musician gave him the first lessons, as it is always the case with most of the musicians of the American black race and not only with them.

His primary lessons were giving to him at the school. There is some evidence to Waller’s claim that he also received much sympathy from the classic music composers and pianists like Carl Bohm and Leopold Godowsky. These two masters had an immense influence in his stylistic development that helped him so much later in his life. After his mother’s death in 1920, he moved in with the family of a pianist by the name of Russell Brooks. Through him he came to know the celebrated pianist James Johnson with whom he started the process of learning the ways of the world.
He became an accomplished pianist at the early age of fifteen and started his professional career by playing sometime around 1919 in New York’s cinemas and theaters. Waller, who could also play organ, worked as accompanist to silent movie performances throughout the years. He was to attract the attention of the most famous pianists in town. The giants like Willie “the Lion” Smith and the most influential of them all, the super giant Jimmy Johnson. James p. Johnson or the “brute”, as he was nicknamed by Willie Smith, became a source of learning for the young master. Under Johnson’s influence he came to make his first piano rolls, starting around 1922 with the song “got to cool down my doggies now”. In October the same year, he did some sides for the then very influential “Okeh” label. The solo piano recordings “muscle shoals blues” and “Birmingham blues” are from these sessions. The same year witnessed his collaboration with the blues singers Sara Martin, Maude Mills and the most respected miss Alberta Hunter. He worked with the “blue five” a band led by Clarence Williams, which had the great Sidney Bechet as a member. He recorded with Williams the most famous song of this period of his life called “wild cat blues” in 1923. One should keep in mind that he was still a teenager as this song was written and recorded. Another composition that became a worldwide hit in later days, “squeeze me”, was published the same year and helped to pave the way for his establishment as a song-writer whose works were constantly performed by other great musicians of the time. He also started a series of broadcasting with the new medium radio on a regular basis on a New York local station. This continued practically throughout his lifetime. For this purpose he established the “fats Waller’s rhythm club” and “moon river”. He featured as organist in the latter.
The Fletcher Henderson orchestra in the second half of the twenties recorded some of his compositions. Among them were songs like “crazy ‘bout my baby” and the most entertaining “stealing’ apples”. It was in this period that he worked with lyricists like Andy Razaf, Spencer Williams, Edgar Dowell and published songs like “honeysuckle rose”, “black and blue” and “alligator crawl”. He worked as composer for Broadway shows “keep shufflin’ (1928)”, “load of coal” and “hot chocolates” (1929). The song called “ain’t misbehavin’ (1928)”, is a product of this vintage year and became a vehicle for many other prominent artists of those days such as Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong.
Around 1926, he joined the “victor” label for a recording association that lasted for the rest of his life. He recorded the most famous solo piano works “handful of keys”, “smashing thirds”, “valentine stomp” and “numb fumblin’ (1929)”.

His most important recordings were made from 1934 onwards as he, after a long period of association with giants of music and entertainment like ted Lewis, the drummer McKinney’s cotton pickers, Jack Teagarden, and Billy banks’ rhythm makers (1929-1932) started to record a huge project of recordings with own small unit known as “Fats Waller and his rhythm” in 1934. This sextet consisted of the great genius of trumpet Hermann Autrey, the clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Eugene Sedric, the most accomplished guitarist, the one and only Albert Casey, the bassist Billy Taylor and the drummer harry dial. Bill Coleman and John Hamilton substituted Autrey on the trumpet chair as Rudy Powell and Cedric Wallace and the great Charles Turner did with clarinet and bass chairs. Al Casey was replaced with another great guitar player, James Smith, occasionally; as yank porter or Slick Jones would replace the drummer harry dial. With the fame secured in the east the film industry paid now more attention to this new phenomenon called jazz. He moved with a band organized for this purpose towards west and made two motion pictures “king of burlesque” and “hooray for love” in Hollywood around 1935. Around this time, Waller used mostly his own big band for recording sessions and tours around the country. This band was made of the main core of a band led by the bassist and frequent fellow musician of Waller I. E. Charles turner and was called “Turner’s Arcadians”. One of the prominent figures who worked with Waller as a member of his big band unit was the genius of composition and arrangement Don Redman. Redman became one of the most sought after composer-arrangers of the coming decades all around the jazz world. This large group made its first recording in 1935. The treatment of this band of the popular song of Gershwin brothers “I got rhythm” included a piano battle between Henry Duncan and Waller. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Waller made two trips to Europe (1938, 1939). He did some recordings for the British label “his master’s voice” with his rhythm section as well as recordings with pipe organ. During his second trip to London, he wrote his longest piece of music. This extended composition called “London suite” consisted of six related scores, each carrying a name related to different London streets such as “Soho”, “Piccadilly”, “Chelsea”, “Bond Street”, so forth. With this suite, he could prove that he could be a serious musician as well as a songwriter who wrote popular and hit numbers. The last period of his life was spent by extensive program of recording sessions and exhausting cross-country tours. The tightness of his travel schedule and the strain of work took its toll. During his last visit to Hollywood in 1943, when he worked as the composer and musical director for the motion picture “stormy weather” with the singer Lena Horne and the fabulous dancer Bill Robinson, he was taken ill. The band that he led for this motion picture included many famous musicians such as Benny Carter, Irving Ashby, Gene Porter, Slam Stewart and the great drummer Zutty Singleton. In the present collection we have two numbers performed with this fabulous band. One of them is “oh baby, sweet baby”. A song completely designed as a satirical romantic love-song and a reminder of the highest intelligence and tasteful approach of master Waller and his tender poetic frame of mind never to be seen again throughout the coming years.
The following extensive tour program and the heavy responsibility of finishing a stage show score by the name of “early to bed” that was opened in may 1943 in Boston and finally the life style he had been carrying along during these years hand in hand with many personal legal annoyance caused by his divorce cases deteriorated his health severely. His physical condition broke down. He died of pneumonia while traveling back from his last visit to Hollywood on December 15th, 1943 in train nearing Kansas City. The blues singer and the most wonderful pianist of the Midwest, Joe Turner relates many wonderful stories about those days in New York and about his collaboration with the gigantic quartet of the piano players mentioned above. All of the giants of the later period of jazz, Basie, Ellington, Webb, Henderson, Hawkins and many more had nothing to say about this prodigy except praise. Even the most eccentric Jelly Roll gave his praising words when he spoke about the young musician of ours.

The premature fame and relatively abundant money that he earned by recording, playing, writing and selling compositions, however at lowest prices, ruined his lifestyle. He started to drink with the older masters. If they used to drink bucket wise, our Thomas would drink barrel wise. His physical conditions and lack of attention paid by him to keep his body in shape ruined a life at the very early age. Just imagine the fact that you are surrounded by cats like the Lion, Turner, and James P. And all those heavy drinkers, the prohibition conditions of New York Harlem and its back alleys in the roaring twenties. The life style of this sort has blown out many lives of many great names in the history of this music.
-- by ARP

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