Fats Waller

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Fats Waller, 1938

Thomas Wright Waller (born May 21, 1904 in Harlem , New York, † December 14 or December 15, 1943 in the Santa Fe Express in the amount of Kansas City ) was an American jazz pianist , organist, composer and - Singer. The jazz musician, known as Fats because of his large size (mainly by the white audience - his musician colleagues called him by the name Tom) , played a major role in the development of early jazz in the 1920s to swing in the 1930s and 1940s.

Early years

Fats Waller's parents, Adeline Locket and Edward Martin Waller, got engaged in 1878 and came to New York from Virginia . The father Edward Waller was a Baptist preacher in Harlem (Abyssinian Baptist Church), the mother Adeline Waller church organist. Fats Waller was the youngest of five children. He started playing the harmonium at the age of five. At the age of six he was taking lessons from a piano teacher after having learned to play the piano from a neighbor. He also began to practice on the church organ and played in the school orchestra (violin and piano). Often he played by ear and was less interested in the classical music his father urged him to do after realizing his talent. If he caught Fats Waller secretly playing jazz on the organ in his church, he could punish him. Back then, Fats Waller played a wide variety of music, including by ear, for example ragtime ( Scott Joplin ). In 1920 his mother Adeline died and the young Waller moved out of his parents' house because of an argument with his father Edward. According to Edward Waller's will, Fats should also become a clergyman. Fats Waller moved to pianist Russell Brooks, who owned an automatic piano ( pianola ) with pianola roles by James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts , which Waller used as an auxiliary instrument for finger exercises. In 1919 he played the cinema organ at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, after having previously received lessons from the local organist. From 1921 he played at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In 1921 he married Edith Hatchett, with whom he had a son, Thomas Jr., and from whom he divorced in 1923. The maintenance payments became a constant burden for him afterwards.

Years of advancement

James P. Johnson, who mastered the Harlem Stride , took on the still young talent, gave his jazz piano style the first polish and introduced him to the Harlem jazz scene. He received further private lessons from George Gershwin's brother-in-law Leopold Godowsky . Besides playing keyboard instruments, he also sang and played with the orchestra of Fletcher Henderson , McKinney's Cotton Pickers , Ted Lewis and Jack Teagarden, among others . Fats' mentors James P. Johnson and Willie The Lion Smith were replaced by Waller himself in the role of most influential Harlem Stride pianists. This piano style requires long fingerings with the left hand ( tenth , the interval of a decimal ), which, unlike many other pianists, was no problem for Fats Waller because of his very large hands. When playing the Stride, the left hand takes on the role of the rhythm instruments of jazz bands, in particular it replaces a bass player, while the right hand plays that of the melody instruments and chord inserts. At the time, the style was ideally suited to making the piano heard at loud parties and in bars. At the same time or alternately, the audience was entertained in the background and dancers were accompanied. In addition to solo recordings on records and piano rolls, Fats Waller's fame grew as the star of the Harlem Rent parties and as a companion to famous blues singers such as Bessie Smith , Alberta Hunter and Sara Martin in the 1920s. A close collaboration developed with the blues singer Myra Johnson . In general, the large number and type of line-ups with which Waller recorded in the first few years of his recording career is a reflection of the enthusiasm for experimentation and creativity of the jazz musicians of those early years. In New York after World War I, many African Americans from the rest of the United States tried to get jobs and brought their local styles of music together. This musical diversity was taken up and processed by musicians and the young Waller in training. During the prohibition period there were numerous opportunities to perform in pubs ( speakeasy ) that could be exposed at any time. His son Maurice Waller tells of a day when Fats Waller lived in a suburb of Chicago, how Al Capone gangsters kidnapped him at gunpoint and blindfolded. They took him to a private show that lasted a day and a half where he was given a hundred dollars for every number he played at the request of the gangsters. Finally they dropped him off at home.

Waller was one of the first to record jazz pieces on the organ. He pioneered this instrument and later taught it to young Count Basie . Waller later owned a portable Hammond organ , which he often carried with him when traveling and which he sometimes used to drive hotel guests and neighbors to despair late at night. Later he always insisted on a well-tuned Steinway piano as a prerequisite for appearances .

In 1922, at the suggestion of Clarence Williams, the first recordings were made and Williams encouraged him to compose. However, Fats Waller was careless with the sale of the rights to his compositions, which he sold for relatively little money and with which the publishers mainly made money when they became hits. From 1923 to 1927 he also recorded around twenty piano rolls for the QRS Company, including his first composition Squeeze Me . In 1927 he played with Erskine Tate in Chicago and in 1928 he was heard for the first time at Carnegie Hall in Yamekraw by James P. Johnson. He began composing for Broadway musicals, first Keep Shufflin and Load of Coal (1928). In 1927 he found in Andy Razaf the desired lyric writer for his compositions. Razaf was literarily very gifted and educated and took songwriting very seriously, although he also urged Fats Waller, who composed apparently effortlessly and off the cuff, to discipline. One of the Razaf / Waller songs was written over the phone (it is said to have been Honeysuckle Rose ). In the 1929 Broadway show Hot Chocolates , many of the two pieces were presented, including Ain't Misbehavin ' by Louis Armstrong , who became the star of the show. Waller's own solo recording for Victor , for which he recorded from 1926, was ranked 17th, the first of a total of 62 hits in the course of his career. He sold the rights to the compositions to Hot Chocolates , including Honeysuckle Rose hits like Ain't Misbehavin ' and What did I do to be so black and blue , to Mills Music for only $ 500, which he later regretted. In order to earn more money with her songs, Razaf often wrote up to five texts for the same composition, which were then sold to a different publisher in the Brill Building , where the music publishers were in New York. After the Billboard Top 100 chart success of Ain't Misbehavin ' (up to No. 17 in 1929) he did not have chart successes again until 1934.

High point of his career with his own swing band

With Fats Waller and His Rhythm , which included Al Casey , Herman Autrey and Harry Dial , Waller finally had a small swing band from May 1934. With this and other bands he made recordings and could be heard nationwide on radio stations. At that time, every major hotel had its own house band and there were daily direct radio broadcasts from the various hotels and dance halls in Chicago, for example, which made the musicians known to a wider audience. In 1933/34 Fats Waller hosted the fifteen-minute show Fats Waller's Rhythm Club on the WLW radio station in Cincinnati every day , which was reasonably successful, and at the end he was also offered a half-hour show. To this end, Fats Waller lived with his family in Cincinnati for nine months before moving on because of better offers - including his Hollywood career began. In 1934 he returned to New York and continued the show for an even larger audience for CBS through their network. Waller had meanwhile further developed the stride piano into a decisive piano style of swing, but he enjoyed public success mainly because of his personality as a singing entertainer who was always joking. Around this time, the Victor label was looking for a replacement for their successful Jelly Roll Morton , which was less in demand as the public's taste changed. Victor decided on Waller and a six-piece band. His manager Phil Ponce and Waller named them Waller and his Rhythm because of the rhythm club Fats. With 400 recordings, they recorded almost half of Waller's recordings. The material ranged from excellent to poor quality. The Rhythm were primarily a studio band that made up to ten recordings a day, mainly new material. The recording dates had to be adapted to the musicians' various schedules. It was Waller's ability to bring the band together, who had never heard of the pieces before. It was still a chaotic approach, which contributed to the spontaneity of the band, but also to the changeable quality of these recordings. The last recording for Victor with his Rhythm took place in July 1942. Waller did not have an exclusive contract with Victor and was also recording for other labels. He was enthusiastically received on his European tour, and was even presented for the first time on television in England in 1938: He created the London Suite , a composition of six musical miniatures about London districts. He also visited France often, first on his first trip to Europe in 1932, together with England. He avoided Hitler Germany because of its racist and intolerant Nazi music, which he detested ("that rascal Hitler doesn't like my kind of music"). It was only with difficulty that he could be persuaded to go from England via Vlissingen to Hamburg for a performance in Copenhagen and then in other places in Scandinavia on his European tour in September 1938 . He insisted on a closed compartment and had his manager assure him that he would not be disturbed during the transit.

Waller also took part in three Hollywood musicals in the course of his career and there were some so-called soundies , small music box short films in which Waller's formation Rhythm was able to prove their talent for one song. In 1942, Fats Waller also gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York, then as now a special honor for musicians. He performed his London Suite there, but the critics found the poorly produced performance "tedious". According to his son Maurice, this was due to the fact that the audience was expecting Waller, who was always joking and singing, but in this case he appeared very seriously and only presented the instrumental music he had composed.

Waller's creative power was evident in hundreds of compositions under his name, including many others, some of which were attributed to other composers due to the publishing practices of the time, and hundreds of recordings in a wide variety of formations. From the first recordings in 1922 to the last in 1943, there are none in which the typical verve and the so-called Wallerdrive do not dominate. Waller even brought the church organ into jazz through rather melancholy gospel recordings and was able to elicit its swing .

Waller is often described as the "clown prince of jazz", a role he already took in school. In keeping with the conventions of the time, he was also pushed into black stereotype roles, particularly when he began making films in Hollywood. Although he consistently refused to appear as a shoe shine boy , he was, for example, cast as an elevator boy, which he accepted in order to appear on the screen with his entertainment talent and his music. In 1943 he wrote the Broadway show Early to Bed (planned recordings were prevented as a result of the recording ban ), shot Stormy Weather in Hollywood , played countless gigs for the troop support of American soldiers and advertised on radio broadcasts for the purchase of war bonds.

In July 1941, Fats Waller made records for the first time with a studio big band, including his previous combo. After an engagement in the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood, where he was constantly exposed to a draft from a nearby fan on the stage, where he was exhausted, he got the flu. Instead of going to a hospital, he recovered ten days in the hotel under the supervision of two doctors and under the care of his personal manager, Ed Kirkeby, and then continued his grueling program of performances despite warnings from the doctors. On the eve of his death, he had a gig in Zanzibar . The next morning he and his manager took the train to spend Christmas with his family - he had a house in St. Albans, Queens, in a neighborhood where other colored show stars lived (Count Basie, Mercer Ellington, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, Lester Young). That night the train passed through Kansas, where a blizzard was raging (Waller reminded the howl of the storm in delirium of his friend Coleman Hawkins' saxophone playing ); bronchitis and pneumonia, from which he had suffered for a few days, got worse in the cold sleeper. Fats Waller had died on arrival in Kansas City. At the memorial service in Harlem at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the church where his father had pastor, a crowd of around 10,000 people filled the surrounding streets and rooftops, and prominent jazz musicians carried the coffin. His body was then cremated and the ashes - at his request - were scattered over Harlem from an airplane. He left behind his son Maurice Richard Waller (1927-1989) and had another son Ronald from his 1926 marriage to Anita Rutherford.

Legend and anecdotes

Waller's dissolute lifestyle repeatedly resulted in health problems. Despite some attempts to exercise restraint and switch to lighter refreshments such as wine or cider, nothing could replace the familiar taste of Old Grand-Dad bourbon whiskey . His appetite was legendary and he spent his money (most recently he earned very well) generously, for example on his family, wardrobe and culinary delights, or by spontaneously organizing large parties for fellow musicians and numerous friends and acquaintances. His life was a series of parties, as his son Maurice remembered, only replaced by appearances as a musician (which was his priority). Even in his cramped cloakroom, up to thirty people often celebrated between performances. As a result, despite his income, he was often in need of money. His friend Earl Hines reported that Waller once ordered six hamburgers and twelve bottles of beer in the club's locker room. When Hines wanted to grab it because he thought Waller had ordered for everyone, he taught him better and put him off for the next order. Waller had numerous admirers and regular friends who he always bought a piano on which he could then practice, as his son Maurice remembered. He tried to keep it a secret from his sons and wife, but failed.


Waller's life and music are central themes in Michel Gondry's film Abged Films (2008). Waller himself appeared in 1936 in addition to Stormy Weather in the films King of Burlesque (directed by Sidney Lanfield) and in Hooray for Love (directed by Walter Lang 1935). Howard Johnson made the English television film Thomas 'Fats' Waller - This joint is jumping (1987) for Fats Waller , a with interviews by Maurice Waller, Waller's biographer Paul Machlin, Jean Razaf (the daughter of Andy Razaf), Marshall Royal , Sammy Price and Eddie Barefield as well as film clips.

Waller studied classical music since his youth (with his organ teacher also Bach). He studied with Carl Bohm at the Juilliard School and Leopold Godowsky in Chicago. With the latter he especially learned the toccata and three-part inventions from Johann Sebastian Bach; He did not want to study Bach's fugues because, in his opinion, he did not need them for jazz. He arranged one of Bach's three-part inventions in D minor for his jazz band. For Waller, Liszt or Chopin, in their own words, were also a means of getting back to the right harmonies when improvising. Fats Waller was an admirer of the conductor and classical pianist Dimitri Mitropoulos . After a joint benefit show for the US troops in Minneapolis in 1942 with a marine choir and numerous swing musicians (such as the Casa Loma Orchestra ), they auditioned and exchanged views. When Cab Calloway then spoke of his dream of conducting Beethoven's Fifth in front of a large audience, Waller said: “When you do that, Cab, and when you get to Beethoven's Fifth, you goin to give it an upbeat or a downbeat? Tell me that. ”In the 1930s he made a series of recordings of classical music for Victor ( Johann Sebastian Bach , Fugen in B and D minor, Hummelflug by Rimski-Korsakow , Liszt's Liebestraum, Rudolf Friml's Spanish Days ), both of which in its own style as well as traditional. Victor never published them. His arrangement of a waltz, at that time very daring and perceived as completely strange in swing, became the jazz standard from the end of the 1950s ( Jitterbug Waltz , 1942) and heralded the broader use of 3/4 time and other non-jazz elements in modern jazz on.

a At that time the dance gatherings were called “Joint”

Other works

Solo piano pieces, including stride piano favorites like


  • Morroe Berger: Fats Waller - The Outside Insider. Journal of Jazz Studies, Volume 1, Issue 1, 1973
  • Ed Kirkeby: Ain't Misbehavin '- The Story of Fats Waller. Dood, Mead & Comp., New York 1966 (Da capo Press, 1975)
  • Maurice Waller and Anthony Calabrese: Fats Waller . Schirmer Books, New York 1977.
  • Leonard Feather , Ira Gitler : The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-532000-8 , p. 672.
  • Studs Terkel : giants of jazz . Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt 2005, ISBN 3-86150-723-4 .
  • Jürg Schatzmann & Hannes Binder: Ain't Misbehavin '- Stories and pictures from the life of the legendary jazz pianist Fats Waller . Otto Maier, Ravensburg 1981, ISBN 3-473-35061-3 .
  • Joel Vance: Fats Waller - His Life and Times . Contemporary Books, Inc., Chicago 1977.
  • Paul S. Machlin: Stride. The Music of Fats Waller. Macmillan Press and Boston: Twayne Publ. 1985
  • Paul S. Machlin: Fats Waller Composes. Annual Review of Jazz Studies, Volume 7, 1994/95, pp. 1-24
  • Paul S. Machlin (Ed.): Thomas "Fats" Waller: Performances in Transcription, 1927–1943. (Music of the United States of America, Vol. 10), AR Editions, Middleton, Wisconsin 2001
  • Robert Nippoldt , Hans Jürgen Schaal : Jazz in New York in the roaring twenties . Gerstenberg, Hildesheim 2007, ISBN 978-3-8369-2581-5
  • Paul Posnak: Thomas "Fats" Waller. The Great Solos 1929-1941. Hal Leonard, 1998 (transcriptions)
  • Andy Razaf: Fats Waller. Metronome, January 1944, p. 16
  • Alyn Shipton : Fats Waller: The cheerful little earful. Continuum 2002, 2010
  • John S. Wilson: Thomas "Fats" Waller. In: Shapiro / Hentoff, The Jazz Makers. Rinehart 1957, reprinted in Robert Gottlieb (Ed.): Reading Jazz. Vintage Books, 1996

Web links

Commons : Fats Waller  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Uwe Wiedenstried, Yeah, man! Wild Years of Jazz, Transit, 2005
  2. ^ Feather, Gitler, Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford UP 2007, p. 672
  3. a b c d e f Maurice Waller, Interview in the British TV documentary Howard Johnson Thomas 'Fats' Waller - This joint is jumping , 1987
  4. Fats Waller Biography (English)
  5. Simonetti, Fats Waller
  6. Feather, Gitler, Biogr. Encycl. jazz
  7. Maurice Waller, interview in the British TV documentary Howard Johnson Thomas "Fats" Waller - This joint is jumping , 1987. Maurice Waller also reports this in the biography of his father, which he wrote.
  8. Kirkeby, Waller, p. 210. Kirkeby reports how Waller installed his Hammond organ in the Ritz Hotel and played Christmas so loud that musicians like Duke Ellington , Earl Hines and John Kirby were attracted to the game there late into the night after their performances. "The vibration was such that when he played with all the stops out the windows fell open on the floors below." A typical party developed and Waller played sentimental Christmas carols that moved everyone to tears. Billy Kyle : A roomful of the weepingest cats you ever did see .
  9. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, Da Capo, 1985, p. 224
  10. ^ Fats Waller Top Songs , MusicVF
  11. a b Red Hot Archive
  12. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, p. 203
  13. ^ Feather, Gitler, Encyclopedia of Jazz, 2007, p. 672
  14. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, Da Capo, p. 225
  15. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, p. 205
  16. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, p. 228, one of his last known words, "Yeah, Coleman Hawkins is surely playing out there."
  17. Kirkeby, Waller, p. 231. Pallbearers were the band leaders Don Redman , Claude Hopkins and Andy Kirk , the songwriters Andy Razaf and JC Johnson, the composer and publisher Clarence Williams , who published Waller's first song ( Squeeze Me ), the Writer Donald Heywood and Waller's mentor James P. Johnson .
  18. Kirkeby, Fats Waller, p. 177
  19. Paul Machlin, Stride: The Music of Fats Waller, 1985, p 106
  20. Waller: “whenever you get stuck for a two bar harmonic device, you can always go back to Liszt, or Chopin. Even so, it's all in knowing what to put on the right beat ", Machlin, Stride, 1985 p. 107
  21. Kirkeby, Waller, p. 217
  22. Kirkeby, Waller, p. 109