On Memorial Day Weekend 1989, Riverwalk Jazz made its national debut. It’s hard to believe that over two decades have past. This month, we celebrate over twenty years on-the-air, we revisit our first national broadcast, a program with piano legend Dick Hyman, devoted to Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller.
Since that first national broadcast, Dick Hyman has joined us for so many radio shows that we sometimes think of him as the eighth member of The Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Dick is a renowned specialist in historical piano jazz styles; especially the difficult ‘stride’ style of Fats Waller in which the left hand provides a steady, pulsing ground rhythm while the right hand plays syncopated, detailed melodies and rhythmic riffs.
On this historic broadcast, Dick Hyman teams up with band pianist John Sheridan to lend their two-piano magic to our tribute to Waller’s prodigious musical legacy.
Fats Waller’s musical beginnings were based on a close association with mentor, stride piano master James P. Johnson, from whom he also received a solid grounding in classical piano technique and repertoire. Through his admirer George Gershwin, Waller had a rare opportunity to study advanced harmony, counterpoint and composition with Leopold Godowsky. Fats would henceforth aspire to ‘serious’ composition, later reflected in solo piano pieces such as “Piccadilly” and “Bond Street,” which Waller composed while on a tour of Britain in the 1930s.
In the late 1920s, Waller made a living playing Harlem ‘rent parties’ where competitive ‘cutting contests’ between solo pianists were part of the action. Waller’s stride classics, “This Joint is Jumpin,” “The Minor Drag” and “A Handful of Keys” come straight out of that experience. Our show this week features 4-handed, 2-piano arrangements of these great works, in thrilling performances by Hyman and Sheridan.
Waller was a prolific composer of popular tunes, today considered classic ‘evergreens’ of the Great American Songbook. Many were conceived as songs for cabaret shows, such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Black and Blue” from the Harlem revue Connie’s Hot Chocolates. Lyricist Andy Razaf tells the story that New York mobster Dutch Schultz, a financial backer of the show, threatened him as he collaborated on the score with Waller. Schultz insisted they write a “funny number” with a “little black girl” singing about how “tough it is to be black.” Razaf flat out refused to write such a demeaning piece and Schultz pulled a gun on him. Shaken but unbowed, Razaf and Waller circumvented Dutch Schultz’s order and wrote the magnificent “(What Did I Do to be so) Black and Blue,” often called the first racial protest song on the New York stage.
Fats Waller enjoyed a successful and highly visible career in the 1930s and early 40s. He recorded hundreds of light-hearted discs for the RCA Bluebird label with a small group of hot jazz players, Fats Waller and His Rhythm. He composed songs for more popular stage works and appeared in several Hollywood movies, including Stormy Weather.
Fats Waller said, “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.”
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Fats Waller. Copyright 2002, Institute of Jazz Studies Rutgers University Libraries
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2012