Dropping out of school at 15, Fats Waller became a jazz great to influence Thelonious Monk

Michael Eli Dokosi Jul 27, 2020 at 01:00pm

July 27, 2020 at 01:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Michael Eli Dokosi

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

July 27, 2020 at 01:00 pm | Faces of Black Excellence, History

Fats Waller playing piano, 1938 via Alan Fisher, Courtesy Library of Congress (99403374)

Fats Waller is regarded as one of the greatest jazz pianists. Waller was as gifted as he was comical. He also pioneered the use of the pipe organ and Hammond organ in jazz.

As a composer and improviser, he is beloved over tunes like “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” “Blue Turning Grey Over You” and “Jitterbug Waltz.”

Waller earned fame for his comedic radio performances in the 1930s. Born on May 21, 1904, in New York City, Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller was influenced as a teenager by jazz great James P. Johnson. He learned to play piano at the age of 6, adding the reed organ, string bass and violin within a few years.

Although Waller was born to a Baptist minister, who hoped he would become a religious man, the lure of music proved too great when his mother, Adeline, passed in 1920 while he was 14. “He moved in with the family of pianist Russell B.T. Brooks, who introduced the youngster to James P. Johnson, founder of the stride school of jazz piano.”

He dropped out of school by age 15, and became an organist at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. While there, he also took engagements at theaters in Philadelphia and Chicago. In addition, he starred at Harlem’s famous “rent parties,” where he enjoyed alcohol and female attention.

He made his first record “Birmingham Blues” and “Muscle Shoals Blues” at age 18 for Okeh in 1922.

Waller’s works include “Your Feet’s Too Big,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’” and “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Others include “Handful of Keys” and “Valentine Stomp” as a soloist, and “The Minor Drag” and “Harlem Fuss” as leader of Fats Waller and His Buddies.

“In the 1930s, Waller’s fame reached new heights following his performances on radio and in film. He branched out to radio with his New York-based shows “Paramount on Parade” and “Radio Roundup” from 1930-31, and the Cincinnati-based “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club” from 1932-34. After returning to New York in 1934, he began a new regular radio program, “Rhythm Club,” and formed the Fats Waller and His Rhythm sextet.”

Waller appeared in two Hollywood films in 1935, Hooray for Love! and King of Burlesque. While he had enjoyed fame for his comic gifts, Waller now wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. After his England trip in 1938, he recorded the ambitious composition “London Suite.”

Despite his deteriorating health, Waller maintained a heavy travel schedule into the 1940s. “After becoming ill during a gig at the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood in December 1943, Waller boarded the Santa Fe Chief train for the long trip back to New York. He never made it, dying of pneumonia aboard the train during a stop at Union Station in Kansas City.” He was 39.

He wrote the first non-black musical for Broadway by an African American, Early to Bed. His technique influenced countless jazz pianists including Art Tatum, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk.

The African-American gifted piano player and songwriter is regarded as one of the men whose compositions changed the course of American popular piano music.

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