Fats Waller: One Never Knows, Do One?

The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the seventh show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then.  Show #7, on Fats Waller, is probably my favorite show, and Waller would play a big part in the careers of the subjects of the next two shows, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.


Show #7 on Thomas “Fats” Waller is probably my favorite show in my Voices and Freedoms radio series.  It contained, for one thing, our most dramatic transition: we echoed Fats shouting “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!!!” at the end of a raucous tune, then a beat of silence before his introspective playing of one of his most beautiful compositions, “Honey Suckle Rose.”  That transition was a metaphor for his life: fast, raucous, funny but also reflective and achingly beautiful.  He was one of the music’s greatest comic geniuses, and this side of him overshadowed—partly  because he encouraged it—his beautiful sense of form and melody and human longing.  I quote Martin Williams, the great jazz critic, saying that “only a complex person could hold life at arm’s length through such great comedy, but a musically gifted man like Waller could have done much more.”  At show’s end I say Fats Waller could have been the most important jazz composer and arranger since Jelly Roll Morton, but that honor would go to Duke Ellington, the subject of show #8.

This show on Fats also featured a special guest, pianist Joe Zawinul.  Born in Vienna, Austria, Zawinul came to prominence playing keyboards with one of Julian “Canonball” Adderley’s greatest groups, and writing one of the group’s—and jazz’s—most popular tunes, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” He went on to play with Miles Davis, and to be one of the founders of Fusion Jazz, both with Miles and his and Wayne Shorter’s group Weather Report. He was voted best electric keyboardist nearly 30 times in the famous Downbeat magazine poll. One of the places I caught him was at a piano workshop long ago in Berkeley, California. He was doing impressions of great jazz pianists—Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and others—but when it came to Fats Waller he said he couldn’t.  “I don’t think I can do Fats. That’s pretty hard. He was something else,” Zawinul said. “With Fats I get the feeling of so much entertainment. That’s when art is at its highest: when it’s also entertainment.”

Many times, though, art and entertainment didn’t blend as well as it did in Zawinul’s mind. There was a tension between the two that could tear at a performer’s sense of self. This show was another exploration of that tearing tension that manifested powerfully in Fats Waller’s case and would come to a head with the Be-Bop Generation.  That’s one reason I dedicated a whole show to Fats, besides the fact that I just flat out enjoyed both sides of him, the comic and the artist.

But Fats was important to the evolution of jazz for technical and musical reasons as well.  He was the epitome of the Stride Piano school, a school founded by James P. Johnson, his early mentor. Ragtime piano was extraordinarily popular, and very influential in the development of early jazz, but Ragtime was often rigid and mechanical, partly because it often stood at a far remove from the vocal qualities of the blues. Here again, I got to talk about the importance of voice to jazz.  In the 1920’s the vocal qualities of blues and Southern culture began influencing jazz more and more.  These shaped stride piano as well.  Ragtime’s rigidity broke down under the influence of voice.  The piano’s left hand became more propulsive, forward moving, while the right hand took on a more vocal linearity and subtlety.  The Stride Piano School brought up much of the elite in jazz piano: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, all up and through Thelonius Monk.  It’s also no accident that, as in the case of his close friend Louis Armstrong, Fats was also a great singer, and even more than Armstrong his vocal style was extraordinarily fluid, full of sudden shifts and breaks that still set standards for comic timing today.  What an act he had.  Yet he couldn’t control the shifts and breaks in his life as well as he could in his music. By his mid-30’s he was breaking down. His signature line—“One never knows, do one?”—applied to him ever more ironically. He never saw 40.

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