For the grand opening ceremonies at The Cannery, a casual venue on Sakura Island, we listened to the early jazz of Fats Waller an James P Johnson!
Nearly sixty years after his death, Fats Waller’s his consummate artistry and high-spirited zest for living make the pianist/composer one of the most celebrated artists in jazz history.
Although his skills as a pianist place him in the top tier of those who played the instrument, these skills have often been obscured to some extent by his greatness as an entertainer with a widespread following in the United States and Europe. There are many who think (me included) that if he had been white, he would have been a world renowned concert pianist.
As it was, Fats was a jazz pianist and organist of extraordinary technique and seemingly limitless invention. He perfected and expanded the style known as stride; he was one of its three undisputed masters, together with James P. Johnson (often named the father of stride piano, with whom Waller studied) and Willie “the Lion” Smith.
Stride piano is descended from ragtime, but incorporates a much more elaborate and decorative approach to the music, and is considerably more demanding to play in terms of technique. Its core is found in a standard left hand pattern, the beat-by-beat alternation between the interval of a tenth struck deep in the bass register of the keyboard and a complex, three- or four-pitch chord struck in the tenor or alto range (the center of the keyboard). Simultaneously, the right hand plays a highly embellished and syncopated version of the melody, often so completely altered as to be lost amidst the complex cascade of notes.
But impressive technique itself is insufficient to account for Waller’s musical accomplishments. He continually emphasized artistic considerations over technique: “It is my contention, and always has been, that the thing that makes a tune click is the melody, and give the public four bars of that to dig their teeth into, and you have a killer-diller…It’s melody that gives variety to the ear.”
He had an unerring instinct of melody and how to harness his skill and create wonderful musical ideas through improvisation. In almost every recording he made (and that constitutes a very extensive chronicle), he molded the musical material to his own aesthetic ends, varying every aspect of the original song—from applying dazzling ornamental details to individual notes or gestures, to stretching and changing the basic shape of a standard 32-bar chorus to create what often amounted to an entirely new piece. Like all stride pianists, Waller developed a repertoire of “tricks”—brief, decorative figures (just a few notes in some instances), usually but not exclusively for the right hand, which could be used to produce a long line of artful decoration.
Moreover, he made every phrase swing, creating a propulsive, infectious momentum through the use of strategically placed accents, elegant articulation, and frequent syncopation. These characteristics, all essential to jazz but realized by Waller with particular originality and energy, are evident in his work not only as a soloist on piano and pipe organ, but also as a singer and member of his own small ensemble, “Fats Waller and His Rhythm.”
Although many of the songs he was given to perform are perhaps some of the most banal and superficial examples of Tin Pan Alley hackwork imaginable, Waller consistently turned in renditions that were polished, original, and often wickedly satirical.
He was indeed the consummate jazz musician, possessed of an assured and flawless technique, supportive and self-effacing as an accompanist, yet brilliant and engaging as a soloist.
James P. Johnson was an important transitional figure between ragtime and jazz piano styles. His style became known as Stride, and indeed Johnson became known as the Father of Stride. He eventually became known as the best piano player on the East Coast and was widely utilized as an accompanist on over 400 recordings and from 1916 on, produced hundreds of piano rolls under his own name. He backed up many of the Classic Blues singers of the 1920s, and Johnson’s 1921 recording of “Carolina Shout” is considered to be the first recorded Jazz piano solo by some critics.
Johnson also wrote what was probably the most famous, and most recorded song of the 1920s, “Charleston”.
For tonight’s listening, I did something a little different. I pulled a number of representative songs (though no organ pieces from Fats), but in a number of cases we will listen to multiple versions of the same songs. I wanted to do this so that you can hear the soul of jazz – improvisation – and get more than a theoretical idea of the practice. Musicians thought of their music as mutable, there was never just one ‘standard’ version.
1. Honeysuckle Rose – Fats on the piano, 1941. One of Fats most widely acclaimed recordings, this was billed as ‘a la Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Waller”.
2. Honeysuckle Rose – a 1937 all star ensemble jams at RCA Victor, including Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Fats’ bass playing compensats for the fact that there was no bass player, and his piano improvisation is one of the best of the thirties.
3.The Joint is Jumpin’ – Politically incorrect and so much fun, this is Fats Waller and His Rhythm.
4. Carolina Shout – the most famous example of stride piano, this was used to test all new pianists at gatherings, and is often known as the first recorded jazz piece. Unfortunately I could not find the early 20’s version in mp3 format, but this is James P Johnson playing his piece in the early 1940’s.
5. Charleston – James P playing his most famous piece. I am not sure if this is a piano roll or not, but I am sure you all recognize the piece!
6. The Sheik of Araby – back to Fats, in a larger band in, I believe, 1938. A bit of a banal piece, but Fats infuses it with his own style!
7. I Ain’t Got Nobody (and Nobody Cares For Me) – Fats Waller and His Rhythm swing with inventiveness and fun, and of course with the typical Fats commentary,
8. Alligator Crawl – One of my favorite of his piano compositions, Fats wrote this as a satire on boogie-woogie, a style he didn’t particularly care for.
9. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – a slow melodical version, with Fats singing, probably the song most associated with Fats.
10. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – another version, with his group, probably the most famous recorded version. The drive of the band near the end, and the strong ending. Fat’s voice is on full display here.
11. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – a piano solo version, showing Fat’s improvisational ability, and how jazz musicians mutated their songs based upon circumstances.
12. Your Feets Too Big – a silly nonsense song, but the clever rendition and silliness of the song made it too fun to resist.
13. I Got Rhythm – a unique version of Gerhwin’s famous song by Fats Wall and His Rhythm. This includes a cutting contest of alternating piano solos by Waller and Hank Duncan.
14. Snowy Morning Blues – James P playing his own song, one of my very favorites. Not stride, but a style of blues.
15. Snowy Morning Blues – James P once again, in a very different and poignant version.
16. Carolina Shout – Lets end with another version of this wonderful song, this time played by Fats in 1934 or 1937 – earlier than the James P version heard earlier.