“The Common Fate of All Things Rare”: Or Fats Waller’s Last Ride
By Stuart Mitchner
Aware that this issue will be appearing on Fats Waller’s 110th birthday, I’m listening to “Honeysuckle Rose,” the first track on If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a 3-disc CD set from RCA. The music is coming from the speakers of my Honda CRV as we pay our biennial visit to the Inspection Station near Dayton on Route 130. As the song plays, there’s no appreciable change in the performance of my 14-year-old alter ego, which seems to be off its game, almost as if it felt failure looming. But once Fats hits his stride-piano stride, we’re in business. The damage he’s doing with the left hand that Rudi Blesh compared to “heat thunder on a summer day” seems to rouse a bell-clear burst of cheering from the right hand, and when the big man’s gutsy, give-no-quarter vocal comes in, it’s a walking talking opera and we’re driving like a dream. At the DMV there’s only one car ahead of us, and ten minutes later we’re flying south on 130, me and my forest green millennial music machine with its good-till-2016 sticker shining like a medal on the windshield, yes, yes, we’re stridin’ high.
Playing the God-Box
In Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins calls him “a state of mind …. He was also bigger than life, Rabelaisian in intake, energy, and output. His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask” that “consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian mustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”
Further insights on Thomas “Fats” Waller as “the clown who wants to play Hamlet” are offered by New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson, a longtime resident of Basin Street in Princeton, down by the D&R Canal. After mentioning Waller’s “consuming desire to bring to the public his love of classical music and of the organ” and the depth of the “hurt” he felt when audiences rejected this side of him, Wilson describes the moment in Paris in 1932 when Fats “climbed up into the organ loft of the Cathedral of Notre Dame with Marcel Dupré, the cathedral’s organist.” Fats is quoted saying, “First Mr. Dupréplayed the God-box and then I played the God-box.” There seems to be some debate about whether Waller played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue or his own “Honeysuckle Rose.” Both, I would think, though RCA Victor declined to release any of his Bach performances, including the two fugues he recorded at Victor’s Camden studio in 1927. He also once recorded on the organ in the same Abbey Studio where history was made three decades later by the Beatles, who regularly performed their version of Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” at Hamburg’s Star Club.
The Life of the Party
Standing an inch short of six feet, weighing 285 pounds, and turned out in the style nicely nailed in Gary Giddins’s sketch, Waller “lit the place up like Luna Park” when he walked into a room, according to his son and biographer, Maurice. As much as he loved Bach (said to be third on his list of the greatest men in history, behind Lincoln and FDR), he also loved being the quintessential Life of the Party. It would be twisting reality to spin his story as that of a misunderstood giant whose inner church organist wept whenever he sat down to play something serious only to hear the audience, even at Carnegie Hall, losing patience and soon shouting for the dispenser of joy to do his thing.
Fats Waller didn’t die half a year before his 40th birthday from the stress of stifling his serious side. The life force loved to party, and his prodigious capacity for food and drink and late hours is well-documented. According again to his son, people would drop into the Waller home in St. Albans Queens at all hours of the night to hang out with Fats and hear him play. He never turned them away. Who could? These were people like Legs Diamond, Joe Louis, Humphrey Bogart.
One of the best-known Fats Waller stories, included in Bill Crow’s Jazz Anecdotes from the archives of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers, has Fats playing at Chicago’s Hotel Sherman circa 1925 when he was ordered into a car at gun-point and driven to a saloon in East Cicero to play at a surprise birthday party for Al Capone. After experiencing certain initial concerns for his well-being, Fats settled down and so totally charmed the partygoers that Capone kept him there three days, “shoving hundred dollar bills into his pocket with each request” before returning him to Chicago “several thousand dollars richer.”
Playing for Movies
In a minute and a half clip from a September 23, 1943, interview with Hugh Conover on WABC in New York, Waller jokes about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the world, and then shows his kneejerk sensitivity to language when asked when he made his first professional appearance. “I was approximately 14 years old — that’s a good word approximately. I like that.” According to Murray Schumach’s New York Times interview from July 1943, which can also be accessed at handfulofkeys.com, Fats says that after dropping out school (“I hated algebra”) he found work playing organ accompaniment for silent movies in a Harlem theatre called the Lincoln, where he got in trouble for the sort of waggish improvising that would become his trademark. Like the time the silent movie cowboy, William S. Hart was on the screen: “He’s just been plugged and looks like he’s a cold mackerel. Pretty sad stuff. Next thing I know I’m playing ‘St. Louis Blues.’”
The Last Ride
The circumstances of Fats Waller’s death at 39 are worthy of a place in the national narrative if you can imagine a collaboration between, say, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, and Ralph Ellison: the stricken hero passing his last hours on the Santa Fe Chief, eastbound from the Zanzibar Club in L.A., after being laid up for weeks with a virus. You know that if people partying around the grand piano in the Club Car knew Fats was aboard, he’d have been summoned to perform, so it’s possible he didn’t get to his berth until he’d sweated out a set surrounded by the revellers while the train braved a blizzard, the winter winds of the plains howling outside. As the Chief pounded into Kansas City’s Union Station on the morning of December 15, 1943, Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, found the big man in his berth, unconscious and unresponsive. The coroner’s statement reports that “Acute left influenzal bronchopneumonia” was “the immediate cause of death.” The place of death was given as Union Station.
To die in Kansas City’s Union Station? As Fats was known to say, “One never knows, do one?”
In his book, Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats (University Press of Mississippi 2002), Dr. Frederick J. Spencer describes bronchopneumonia as “a patchy infection of the bronchi and bronchioles — the air passages that carry air into and out of the lungs.” Sounds very like the “intake and output” mentioned by Gary Giddins, whose account of that snow-blown endgame train ride features a jazz-flavored double entendre Fats would have appreciated even more than the notion of dying in your berth. When Waller spoke of the bitter winter wind to Ed Kirkeby (“yeah, hawkins is sure blowin out there tonight”), he was using a term for a cold wind “common among black midwesterners” and presumably unrelated to the blowing of the great tenor man who was born just up the Missouri River in St. Joseph. As things happen (“one never knows”), Kirkeby’s account of Fats’s last words in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’ “created the widely repeated legend that Fats went out contemplating Coleman Hawkins.”
Another jazz-flavored touch is that when the Chief carrying Fats arrived at Union Station it coincided with the arrival of a train carrying Louis Armstrong.
Fats Waller would have turned 40 on May 21, 1944.
I haven’t got the time, patience, or genealogical resources to prove it, but it’s not unlikely that Fats Waller is descended from Edmund Waller, the 17th-century poet and Member of Parliament (1606-1687). There are interesting possibilities online at houseofnames.com. Like Jo Waller, age 17, who arrived in Barbados in 1635. Or Nicholas Waller, 41, who landed in Philadelphia in 1738. An Alfred Waller showed up in New York in 1845. The reason Edmund Waller is worth a closing mention in a column that begins with “Honeysuckle Rose” is “Go, lovely Rose,” the four stanza lyric for which he’s best known and which ends with a reference to the “common fate of all things rare …. How small a part of time they share/That are so wondrous sweet and fair.”
The Princeton Public Library provided the CD set mentioned at the top, though of course you can see and hear Fats Waller on YouTube, where I found the documentary from which the quotes by Maurice Waller were taken.