Let’s take a break from the anxieties of current news commentary. Instead, we’ll go back in time to marvel at a jazz great, Thomas “Fats” Waller, an American musical genius, who may well have been the most exuberant performer ever to take the stage.

One legendary scene from his life offers a great place to start: picture Chicago in December of 1926, a time of speakeasies, mob bosses, bootlegged liquor, wild parties, moonshine, and all the other excesses that defined the era of Prohibition, and the aptly named “Roaring ‘20’s.”

Fats Waller was but 21 years old, just making a name for himself in the entertainment world. He had finished a performance, and had just left the venue. What happened next has been disputed by some, but sworn to by his biographers as well as his own son.

While walking along the sidewalk in his overcoat, one of those “mile long” gangster limousines — the kind with the high roof and dark windows, “running boards” along the sides, crystal bud vases hanging from the interior wall, and huge, chrome lantern headlamps — pulls up. 

As the story goes, the limo doors swing open, and out jumps a duo of dapper ruffians, with their coat collars up and fedora hats pulled down low on their heads. At gunpoint, they motion Fats to get in the car — fast. 

Off to East Cicero they drive, where Fats is ordered into an exclusive nightclub. A boisterous party rocks the building, hosted by none other than the feared, celebrated mobster, Al Capone. Also known as “Scarface,” Capone had the ambiance of a portly pirate in a three piece suit, a larger-than-life brute, the very essence of his threatening, fast and loose times, right out of central casting.

Up to a grand piano Fats was escorted and told to play. With bootlegged champagne flowing by the bucket, and fine food, and with Fats on the keys, radiating his incredible mix of charisma, tone and melody, the crowd went even more wild, with the loudest applause from the cigar-chomping Capone himself.

Gathered in true pirate fashion, the whirlwind crowd partied non-stop for three days. Fats Waller spent most of this time where he also slept now and then — at the piano. He saw he was getting big tips for this involuntary gig, but he didn’t expect the thousands of dollars, stuffed in the different pockets of his overcoat, when the limo dropped him off.

To get the flavor of Fats Waller’s musical genius, listen to this performance of “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter” while you read on. His is quite a story to tll, and his music tells it all.

Born into a religious family in NYC’s Harlem in 1904, Thomas Wright Waller, whose grandfather was an accomplished violinist, learned to play the organ from his mother, who was the organist and musical director at their family’s church. Amazed at his progress, she then hired a piano tutor for him. Once he was able to read as well as compose music at the age of 6, the rest is history. 

His father yearned for his son to be a minister, given Thomas’ truly magnetic and affable nature that radiated from his earliest days, and would itself be the subject of praising revues in later years. But little Thomas Waller had another kind of epiphany — growing into a deep and enduring love — for jazz, America’s own, original form of music.

As he grew up, he gained fame and fortune, along with body weight. From his teenage years till he died in 1943, he broke the scale at 300 pounds. With a 5’ 10” frame, he quickly became known as “Fats,” and gained a following not only from his cherished, musical style, but also his kind and generous personality, a sweetness in spirit that all who knew him came to love, setting him quite apart from most people in the world of show business.

Fats Waller composed and copyrighted literally hundreds of songs. Many became great commercial successes. And he was a natural for the stage, where he gave careful attention to what the music world calls “decorative detail.” 
His technique became known as “stride piano,” and he was a master of it. His magic still inspires many a young musician of today. One from Long Island, Christopher Huber, explained “stride piano” to this writer:

“In a slight satirical fashion, German composer Paul Hindemith’s instructions to play his piece Ragtime are: ‘Play this piece very wildly but in strict rhythm, like a machine. Consider the piano as an interesting kind of percussion instrument and act accordingly.

“Satire only works when there’s a hint of truth to it. Applying these instructions to the music of Fats Waller, and to rag and stride music in general, we can come to understand why his music and the genre are so important. With a commanding left hand “striding” from low bass notes to middle register chords, accuracy and steady rhythm are essential in playing this style of music. While the left hand keeps rhythm and harmony in order, the right hand will play syncopated lines throughout the composition interweaving between bass and chords. When the robotic left hand comes together while the wild right hand is playing off-beat melodies, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I personally believe the beauty of stride piano lies in the oxymoron of ‘strict rhythm’ and ‘playing very wildly.’ It’s not either or, but rather both. Fats possessed the ability to execute all of these skills with virtuosity.”

Christopher also embraces Fats Waller’s legacy in this way: “What separates Fats Waller is not only the addition of singing while juggling base, harmony and melody, but also his ability to entertain. I think a YouTube comment on a performance of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ puts it best: ‘His eyebrow control is EPIC!!!!!!!’”

This young musician goes on to say, “Anyone with enough practice could play like Fats, but no one could entertain like him. He was eccentric with his moves, and witty with ad-libs in his performances. Fats Waller’s unique combination of skill, presence and personality is responsible for his legacy in American music.”

Waller’s iconic friends in music, such as Louis Armstrong, were inconsolable with the news of Fats’ sudden death at age 39 on a train while on tour. By then, he had become one of the most popular performers of his era, with critical and commercial achievement in both the US and around the world, particularly in Europe.

The New York Times called him “a radiant performer – waggling his eyebrows above his gleaming eyes, smiling a vast, half-moon smile, singing lyrics that are speckled with his ad-lib comments, and backing everything with his rhythmic stride piano.”

Fats Waller leaves an indelible place in our culture and the American identity. His great-grandson, Darren Waller, plays football for the Oakland Raiders, at a stadium not far from a venue where his great-grandfather often performed, where Darren talks of how he still feels his forbear’s ties.  

Many Long Island musicians regard him with an abiding admiration. Thomas Huber, another accomplished musician, performer and composer, whose son is quoted above, shares with us a keen perspective of his own:

“So much can be learned from Fats Waller and his music. Mere listening enjoyment or studying him as notes on a page are all fine pursuits, but only scratch the surface.

“There is a phrase that is passed among musicians: ‘You play who you are.’ Translation: try as you might, your personality will always come through. As a long-time musician/performer, that concept resonates strongest for me when I listen to Fats Waller. 

“Listening, I feel as though I know him (and would’ve enjoyed his company). I feel the excitement and naughtiness of the Prohibition speakeasy. I hear the clatter of glass, chatter of conversation, and rise of laughter while he cracked a joke or made a funny face. I can imagine the. Stomping of dancing feet in a mix of cigar smoke, sweat and bootlegged whiskey. It’s all right there, in his playing. 

“Much like his personality, his music is inviting, funny, energizing, festive and energetic. Beethoven could’ve played it, but would it have sounded the same? Therein lies the beauty and art of music.”

So let’s close with a rare video of Fats Waller performing one of his immortal classics, “Ain’t Misbehavin.” Here is preserved but a small whisper of this immortal giant of the music world stage. (YouTube video here of that song)

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Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg