Fats, Hoagy And W.C. Handy This Week On Riverwalk Jazz


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This week Riverwalk Jazz explores the rich legacy of three jazz heroes whose work has inspired The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band through the years—Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and the blues-driven work of W.C. Handy. Series favorites Vernel Bagneris, Topsy Chapman and Shelly Berg join the band on the stage of Pearl Stable, a century-old limestone horse stable transformed into a state-of-the-art theater at San Antonio’s historic Pearl Brewery.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

Thomas “Fats" Waller was a prolific composer of popular tunes as well as one of the great masters of the Harlem Stride piano style. Waller’s music is often heard in the present day in popular Broadway revues such as Ain’t Misbehavin’.

Waller composed solo piano masterpieces today considered essential classics of the repertoire. Pianist Shelly Berg, Dean of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, tackles the difficult “A Handful of Keys” and a blues solo, “Numb Fumblin’". Broadway actor Vernel Bagneris interprets Waller’s show tunes “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now” and “I’ve Got a Feelin’ I’m Fallin’.” Waller wrote about his approach to composition: “I think the thing that makes a tune click is the melody. Give the public four bars of melody to dig their teeth into, and you have yourself what you call a killer-diller!”

In 1920s jazz, Frankie Trumbauer emerged as one the first masters of the saxophone. Later saxophone greats—such as Benny Carter, Don Redman and Lester Young—all greatly admired ‘Tram’s’ easy, airy and light upper-register sound, in no small measure produced because of his instrument of choice, the now-obscure C-Melody saxophone.

Pitched in between the alto and tenor, the C-Melody characteristic sound is somewhere in between the two, especially when played in the upper register. On a specially-restored 1920 Conn model C-Melody instrument, saxophonist Ron Hockett performs two classics from the Trumbauer repertoire inspired by the legendary Bix Beiderbecke—Hoagy Carmichael’s first hit song, “Star Dust” and Tram’s classic “For No Reason at All in C.” Hockett says, “Trumbauer played in a very relaxed style and tried to find the pretty notes. He didn’t use much vibrato, and when he did it was not fast and wide, but slow and narrow. And he always stayed in the upper register of the horn to make use of the horn’s best range.”

Now known as the “Father of the Blues," William Christopher Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. He made his living leading marching bands and dance orchestras, playing for both black and white audiences.

Handy could remember any song he heard and get it down in musical notation as fast as he heard it. Handy had the ability to expand on simple folk blues. He’d write new music around fragments of old melodies, add his own lyrics, and create his own complete compositions.

Jim Cullum says this about Handy’s tune “Loveless Love:” “We’ve performed “Careless Love" before on our show but never “Loveless Love" with W.C. Handy’s verse and lyric. I heard a tape with Handy’s granddaughter singing it this way, and I wanted to share it with you.”

Closing the broadcast are two old songs that are particular favorites of Jim Cullum. New Orleans’ Topsy Chapman and Vernel Bagneris interpret Irving Berlin’s 1911 classic “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and Topsy steals the show with her slow blues rendition of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” accompanied by the peerless Shelly Berg on piano.

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