was a jazz pianist and organist of extraordinary facile 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
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.
||Waller's effortless execution
of even the most difficult passages, however, was completely deceptive;
it masked a brilliant and prodigious technique that enabled him to
negotiate even the most complex gestures with perfection (see, e.g.,
his May 13, 1941 recording entitled "Honeysuckle Rose, à
la Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Waller", matrix number 063890-1).
Of his generation, only Art Tatum and Earl Hines could match his keyboard
But impressive technique itself
is insufficient to account for Waller's musical accomplishments.
When he spoke about his music (which he did only rarely), he 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 how
to harness his skill to realize compelling 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 songfrom
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.
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."
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.
Waller's enormous handshe
could stretch the interval of a twelfth on the keyboard (the equivalent
of twelve white notes, or an octave plus the interval of a fifth)were,
of course, a tremendous asset in playing stride; the blind pianist
George Shearing, with that particular acuity in touch reserved to
those who are sight-impaired, once explained that shaking hands
with Waller was "like grabbing a bunch of bananas."