Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller’s life and musical career is being honored this year when pianist and MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient Jason Moran brings his Fats Waller Dance Party to the College of Charleston Cistern Yard on Saturday, June 4.
Here are some Fats Facts to help you get in the mood:
- Born May 21, 1904 in New York City’s Harlem
- Fats was an African-American pianist who composed popular jazz standards: “Ain’t Misbehavin’” “Honeysuckle Rose” “Handful of Keys” “Valentine Stomp” “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
- A large man with a wild and exuberant personality both on and off the stage
- The name “Fats” came from his commanding 300-pound frame.
- Learned to play piano and the reed organ at the age of six.
- Performed in his school and church by the age of ten.
- Reed organist at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem when he was fifteen-years-old
- Waller’s father, a Baptist minister, disapproved of his desire for a career dedicated to “the devil’s music.” He hoped Fats would follow in his footsteps towards a religious calling or, at the very least, that he would shift his focus towards classical music.
- As a kid, he would sneak out of his house to play piano in clubs and after hours bars.
- After the death of his mother in 1920, the family of pianist Russell B. T. Brooks took young Waller into their home. During this time, Harlem stride master James P. Johnson took him under his wing and taught him the skills he needed to become the lively stride piano composer that he eventually became. (Note: In stride piano, the left hand “swings” to play the bass note or octave on the strong beat—now played by the bass violin in larger orchestrations—and a chord on the weak beat, while the right hand handles the melody.)
- He began his career by performing his jazz at dance halls and “rent parties” around Harlem with fellow musicians.
- “Squeeze Me” is an early composition of his that earned him credibility as a composer.
- Waller performed as a soloist as well as the leader of “Fats Waller and His Buddies.”
- In the 1930’s he branched out into radio as host of “Paramount on Parade,” “Radio Roundup,” and “Rhythm Club” out of New York, as well as “Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club” out of Cincinnati.
- Around 1935 he began seeking more recognition as a serious artist instead of the cheeky, party-animal character that his fans had come to expect. London Suite, recorded in 1938 while Waller was touring Europe, is his longest composition. It represents his goal to distance himself from the character he grew up playing and from the hits he was primarily known for.
- Bronchial pneumonia and an unhealthy lifestyle quieted Waller at a young age on December 15, 1943 in Kansas City.
- In 2014, Jason Moran released All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller with collaborator Meshell Ndegeocello on the Blue Note label. At the suggestion of his wife, Alicia Hall, the live concert events became dance parties saying “unlike today, where jazz audiences generally remain seated, dancing was expected when Fats showed up to a gig.” (Note: the Wells Fargo Jazz Series concert on June 4 will feature a special dancing section.)
- Jason Moran speaking of Fats Waller: “It has always amazed me that a pianist whose playing was so deep could sing and keep a running commentary of what was going on around him at the same time.”
Get your feet, body, and soul moving to some live performances of Fats Waller’s most prominent pieces:
Tickets for the Jason Moran Fats Waller Dance Party are available HERE!