A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: That was some knuckle-breaking piano by Fats Waller, Murray. Now Fats hung out with some of the hardest and most competitive pianists in the world. Yet he was one of the most respected of them.
MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Yes indeed. You're talking about that great Harlem "rent party" tradition, where people would have parties to help pay the rent. Everybody would pay a quarter at the door — and they would hire some pianist like Willie the Lion Smith or Jack the Bear — these are amazing names. And pretty soon a competition would start up among these pianists. And according to almost all of them, Fats could put everybody away.
SPELLMAN: But Fats Waller was also a great writer and a great entertainer. We know him best as an entertainer and comic, but I don't think enough people know him as a pianist.
HORWITZ: I think you're absolutely right, A.B., and I guess we should mention two things. First, is full disclosure. Fats Waller has been a big part of my life because I helped create the Broadway show based on his work, Ain't Misbehavin'. So I'm speaking not only from my soul, but from my wallet here a little bit!
And the second thing is that you and I sort of abrogated an agreement. You wanted me to pick only piano solos and happily there is no CD of just Fats Waller piano solos. But there are a lot of solos on this disc, and I think you're absolutely right. I think you really want to appreciate Fats' musicianship and his technique and his compositional skills. Listen to his fingers before you start listening to his voice.
SPELLMAN: He was very serious about his instrumental music and about his writing and he made a point I think of writing very challenging pieces for himself.
HORWITZ: He did. And that's something you hear through all of the Fats Waller performances. You hear him composing even when he's soloing on somebody else's tune. He's trying to do something with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A lot of these piano pieces, though, were composed in order to show off one's own virtuosity. And that's true of some of Fats' most important solos, like "Handful of Keys," "African Ripples," and "Numb Fumblin'"
SPELLMAN: On this CD, we have a variety of things. We have Fats as a solo pianist.
SPELLMAN: But we also have Fats in a band with "The Joint is Jumpin'."
HORWITZ: He had a band called Rhythm, Fats Waller and his Rhythm, and that's what he wanted from them. They were probably not the greatest all-star aggregation, but boy, could they swing! And there were some gifted musicians in it, especially Al Casey the guitarist. You can hear some of their ebullience and the fact that they just swing like crazy on "The Joint is Jumpin'."
SPELLMAN: Now, I can think of no one who combined his musicianship and comedy as well as Fats Waller did. And that would come through in a piece like "Your Feets Too Big."
HORWITZ: You're absolutely right, A.B. I always tell people there's no jazz musician who made people laugh more than Fats Waller, and there's no comedian who played better jazz than Fats Waller. He's right where those two art forms meet, at the highest level.
SPELLMAN: All of this is why we recommend for your NPR Basic Jazz Record Library, Fats Waller, The Joint is Jumpin' on the Bluebird/RCA label. For NPR Jazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.
SPELLMAN: And I'm Murray Horwitz.