Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Three pioneering jazz pianists you should know: I. Fats Waller, 1904-1943

Trite but true: when Art and Commerce collide, bottom-line considerations almost always determine the outcome. Add racism to the mix and you’ve got the beginnings, at least, of the Fats Waller story. Although Waller was a classically trained pianist, “popular” music was the only venue open to an African American in the 1920s. Studying under the great James P. Johnson and then honing his chops in the infamous “cutting” sessions of Harlem’s nightclubs, Waller became a master of the stride piano technique and began to attract “outside” attention.

Stride, named for the moving tenths in the left hand which “stride” up the keyboard, is sometimes mistakenly called ragtime; while it does have a “ragged” beat, stride swings more than ragtime and, most importantly, is characterized by melodic improvisation in the right hand. In other words, stride is jazz!

Classically informed and rhythmically complex, stride requires technical mastery, great sophistication and complete fluency in the language of music from the pianist. Fats Waller, as both composer and performer, was one of the greatest stride pianists ever.

Enter Commerce. Waller was also an engaging vocalist with an endearing comic presence on stage. The music industry, preferring the tried and true, pushed Waller to emphasize this aspect of his art and to follow the standard Tin Pan Alley routine of syrupy lyrics and simple melodies suitable for the sheet music displayed on every parlor piano in America.

Thankfully, genius will out. Though Fats Waller is remembered by many today as a vocalist and comedian, careful listening reveals that his lyrics have as many layers as his music, and he never dumbed it down on the piano. The library has several CDs by Fats Waller. My favorite, Turn on the Heat, is a 2-CD set of most of his solo piano recordings. Listen straight through once for the sheer joy of it; then read the liner notes and listen again. This is seriously great music, and, yes, there will be a quiz.

No comments: