The movie Be Kind, Rewind got me thinking about Fats Waller and the importance he played in jazz piano in such a short yet productive life. He was a vastly productive composer, including lesser known tunes like Minor Drag, Fractious Fingering, and Yacht Club Swing, alongside more popular tunes like Honeysuckle Rose and Ain’t Misbehavin’ which have been performed by Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, and many more.
Classically trained and rent party experienced, his music is often characterized by its playful manner and lyrics. A prime example of the stride tradition, Fats studied with James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith; his songs reflect the brightness of strides’ ragtime roots with the complexity of jazz improvisation and swing rhythms. He influenced a great number of jazz pianists, including Count Basie and Errol Gardner, and still influences pianists like Gordon Webster who regularly plays for dancers.
Most recently in the lindy hop community one of Fats Waller’s lesser known songs, Twenty-Four Robbers, was used for a choreography by Skye Humphries and Frida Segerdahl. It was performed at ULHS (article here) and at ALHC. The routine emphasizes the clarity of Fats’ piano, and an ease and happiness that is just as characteristic of their personalities as it is of Fats’. They evoke the spirit of the song, dancing within the space created by Fats Waller’s piano and voice.
All too often as dancers we can forget the joy of dancing or as musicians that joy of playing, we get caught up in a technical perfectionism and bind ourselves with arbitrary rules which supposedly define our arts. Fats Waller as an icon of playfulness and joy should not be forgotten and we should embrace that when we are on the floor or the bandstand.