• Fats Waller – First Recordings

I’ve long been curious about Fats Waller’s musical origins, such as stories about him learning the repertoire of stride piano by sticking his fingers on the keys as the piano roll depressed them.  Well, now that I’ve the opportunity to explore his legacy of some 600 recordings, I thought I’d begin by posting two of the earliest.

Waller made his first recordings as a solo pianist.  On 21 October, 1922, when he was 18, he recorded two tracks with connections to Alabama in their titles.  The first, played apparently more or less at sight, was George W. Thomas’s Muscle Shoals Blues.  As a B side, Waller improvised Birmingham Blues (below), which makes it also his first recording as a composer.  The characteristic right hand riffs are already there as is his legendary left-hand spread and the relaxed, bouncy manner in which he plays.  It’s very fresh and natural.

I’ve also posted a modern Yamaha DiscKlavier performance from a transcription made by Paul Marcorelles (below).  It makes for interesting viewing, because it demonstrates visually what Waller did in his early years to learn how to play stride piano.  It also gives a good idea of both Waller’s right-hand ornamentations as well as the distance covered by the left-hand stride.

Jump over some 20 not-so-interesting recordings of Waller as an accompanist (with the exception of two off-the-wall tracks with kazoos, wood-blocks and piano – You Don’t Know My Mind Blues and West Indies Blues – recorded by him in May 1924 as one of the Jamaica Jazzers) and you come to Waller’s first ‘orchestral’ recording, The Henderson Stomp.  He made this as a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra on 3 November 1926.  Also in the line-up were Benny Morton (trombone) and three equally young clarinettists/saxophonists – Buster Bailey, Don Redman (also the arranger, below) and Coleman Hawkins.

The Henderson Stomp has the infectious energy and raw edge that characterise the shifting jazz performance styles between the early and late 1920s (note also the bass line: bands used the tuba before the string bass took over).  And Waller has developed a dance-swing style in his playing that fits in perfectly with Redman’s catchy chorusing.


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