Tox Tunes #39: If You’re a Viper (Fats Waller)

January 9, 2011, 11:04 pm

Fats Waller (1904 – 1943) was one of the very greatest of jazz pianists.  Although often thought of as merely an entertainer and a comedian, he had incredible technique and touch, was well-versed in European classical piano, and was a protege of the great stride piano player James P. Johnson.

” . . .Fats Waller, represents a different aspect of the same problem.  An enormously facile pianist with an irrepressible spirit, wit, and humor, a composer of a number of songs that have become standards (Honeysuckle Rose, for example), Waller was able to survive for a while in a way that his more “serious” mentor [James P. Johnson] and teacher could not.  Actually Waller also entertained “serious” aspirations, but he suppressed these under a veneer of extraordinary showmanship and conviviality.  He recorded voluminously, mostly in the thirties, and on even his most commercial sides, his extraordinary pianistic skill and innate feeling for jazz never disappear.”

– Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development

“The most important pianist to come out of this Harlem tradition was Fats Waller, who died at 39 in 1943.  Louis Arstrong said it: “Right now, every time someone mentions Fats Waller’s name, why, you can see the grins on all the faces. . . .”  Fats is two men: one of the greatest pianists in jazz history and one of the funniest and most entertaining comedians of popular music.


“As a pianist, Fats had the strongest left hand in Jazz history — a left hand which could replace not only a rhythm section but a whole band.  He was altogether an ‘orchestral’ pianist.  His piano sounded like an orchestra.’

– – Joachim Berendt, The Jazz Book

Viper (n.): 1930s term for a person who smoked weed. So called for the hissing noise produced by the joint when smoked.
Urban Dictionary

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