Sunday, 26 April 2015

W is for Waller

Back to New York we go for Thomas Wright "Fats" Waller who was one of the most innovative jazz pianists.  He was born in 1904 in Harlem, the youngest of 11 children of whom only five survived childhood. His father was a clergyman who disapproved of young Fats' interest in music even though his mother tutored him in piano and organ.  At age 14 he began to perform organ accompaniment to the shows in Harlem's Lincoln Theater, and his off-beat tunes caught the attention of professional pianist James P. Johnson who took the young man under his wing.

Before long, Fats was composing and performing his own tunes, and developing two career paths: jazz pianist and theater organist.  His preference for working at Harlem clubs led to the development of his famous capacity for liquid refreshment; one anecdote states that as part of his contract, Waller insisted on having a two-fifths of gin at the piano before beginning his set.  The life of a club hopping musician took its toll on his personal life however; his marriage in 1920 only lasted three years, and he was dogged by officials seeking alimony payments for many years thereafter.

As his career continued to rise he became known to many musicians of the time, including Gene Austin, Fletcher Henderson, and Count Basie.  Even the underworld was impressed with him: in 1926 Waller was kidnapped following a performance in Chicago, only to discover that he had been "invited" to mobster Al Capone's birthday party to play.  Around this time he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor which he would continue to associate with for the rest of his life.  In the 1930s he toured the UK and appeared on one of the first BBC television broadcasts.

Back in the U.S. he formed his own band in 1934 and commenced a huge recording project of his music, including a series of pipe-organ solos.  His songs became hits for Louis Armstrong, Erroll Garner and other musicians, and he even had a few small roles in films, notably "Stormy Weather" (1943).  Unfortunately the end came far too soon for him to fully enjoy his success.  On the way home from Los Angeles following the successful premiere of "Stormy Weather", he contracted pneumonia and died.  After his funeral his ashes were scattered from an airplane over Harlem.

His music remains popular to this day; the Broadway musical "Ain't Misbehavin'" showcasing his tunes has been revived several times.  He has been posthumously inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Here's a recording of Ain't Misbehavin'.
Ain't Misbehavin'

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