Waller's exuberant style made him one of the stride piano masters.

Musical selection: I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling
Camden, New Jersey, March 1, 1929
FW Piano Solos: Turn on the Heat
Bluebird/RCA 2482-2-RB

Fats Waller 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 facility.

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 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."

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.






Waller's enormous hands—he 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."




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