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.
This week, Dick Hyman teams up with pianist John Sheridan to lend their two-piano magic to our tribute to Waller’s musical legacy.
The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
Fats Waller’s musical beginnings were based on a close association with his 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 definitive 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.
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.”