Historical Essays
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Fats Waller At The Pipe Organ
by Thomas Cunniffe
Part 2

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Morris, King and Waller were back in Camden on December 1, 1927, with Jimmy Archey replacing Irvis and guitarist Bobbie Lecan added to the ensemble. It sounds like Lecan provides all of the accompaniment on the opening choruses of the master take of “He’s Gone Away” (if Waller is present, he is only playing organ pedals). Waller is definitely playing the full organ on the alternate and the tempo seems to drag again. Waller’s piano solo holds the tempo better than any other spot on the recording, and Lecan’s guitar adds needed instrumental color to the group. Archey is the weakest player of the lot and he doesn’t seem to fit in with the rhythmic style of his fellow band members. Morris’ playing on this track relies less on effects and more on melodic statements. Still for some reason, the band only played this one number before taking an extended break to allow Waller to record two solo organ pieces. (There could be any number of reasons for this unusual break in the band’s recordings. My guess is that the issue was technical again: not only was the band not staying together, the next song the band recorded featured vocals by Waller and one of the other members of the group. Thus, there were more technical obstacles to overcome.)

The first solo, “I Ain’t Got Nobody” was a song that Waller returned to nearly a decade later at a solo piano session. As on the solo version of “Sugar”, Waller starts with 8 bars of the song and then moves directly to the verse. Once he returns to the chorus, he plays the melody with tenderness, but spices things up with witty dotted eighth/sixteenth note asides. He picks up the tempo for the second chorus and offers a rhythmic variation on the melody in lieu of an actual improvisation. Both takes of “The Digah’s Stomp” seem to drag through rhythmic mud. Waller holds the tempo throughout, but the alternate is a bore and the master only comes to life in the final two choruses. Unlike the earlier compositions Waller played on the pipe organ, “Digah” relies more on riffs than on typical keyboard patterns.  The riff patterns simulate a big band in the final chorus, and on the master take, Waller sets up the finale with a fine chorus played pianissimo.

When the band reassembled, they recorded another three songs, “Red Hot Dan”, “Geechee” and “Please Take Me Out Of Jail”. “Red Hot Dan” has the first recorded Waller vocal, but close listening reveals that another musician sings responses to Waller’s scat. Overall, the band seems to play better together. Even Archey appears to have better rhythmic control than before. They hold tempo better on the organ passages, and on the master take of “Geechee”, there is a marvelous ensemble passage where the rhythm is tight and clean. “Geechee” also features delightful organ breaks and superbly executed piano solos in both takes. The angular melody and complex arrangement of “Please Take Me Out Of Jail” presented some problems for the band, and the alternate take is quite ragged. The master take shows the benefit of a little woodshedding and rehearsal. Here, they nail the ensemble parts, and Morris and Archey play a stunning double break near the end. For his part, Waller’s opening organ solo swings especially well, and there’s hardly a difference in the swing when he switches over to piano midway through the recording.

In 1928, Waller and James P. Johnson collaborated on the Broadway show, “Keep Shufflin’”. In addition to writing songs for the score, the two played in the pit orchestra and entertained the audience during the intermissions with improvised 2-piano duets.  Peer brought Johnson, Waller, and two soloists from the orchestra, cornetist Jabbo Smith and reedman Garvin Bushell, to Camden to record music from the show. The Camden studio had only one piano, so Johnson played it and Waller moved to the organ. The recordings were billed as the “Louisiana Sugar Babes” (no one knows where they got the title) and with its unusual instrumentation (with Bushell doubling bassoon in several spots), it was the prototype of jazz groups with odd instrumental combinations led by Red Norvo (1933), Edmond Hall (1941) & Jimmy Giuffre (1958).

Two things are evident from the outset of this session: first, all of the sidemen are more advanced in instrumental technique and swing than the Tom Morris group, and second, the ensemble swing of the Sugar Babes is grounded in Johnson’s stride piano rather than Waller’s organ pedals. Waller uses the Estey as a color instrument throughout the session and his countermelodies behind the soloists are delightful and inventive. Jabbo Smith was Louis Armstrong’s only real competition at the time, and Garvin Bushell had distinct tone qualities on each of his reed instruments: clarinet, alto sax and bassoon. The graceful melody of “Willow Tree” is passed around the band, with most of the solo spots being elaborations of the tune rather than full-fledged improvisations. Waller’s inventive use of registration helps smooth over the edges of the many changes in instrumental color. On its master take, “’Sippi” has a lovely rendition of the melody by Smith (with superb accompaniment from Waller), followed by Bushell playing the first jazz bassoon solo on record. Bushell gets the double reed instrument to swing rather well, and the counterpoint behind him by Johnson and Waller is quite fascinating. On the alternate, Johnson joins in on the accompaniment of Smith’s melody statement and Waller lays out behind Bushell. Once the songs from “Keep Shufflin’” had been recorded, the group moved on to two popular songs of the day, “Thou Swell” and “Persian Rug”. The two takes of the Rodgers and Hart standard are sheer delight, with fine solos by Waller and Bushell, a extraordinary duet by Smith and Johnson, and a powerfully swinging final chorus. Only a few cases of tempo rushing on the alternate separates it from the master in terms of quality. Waller has a little fun with the pseudo-Middle Eastern theme of “Persian Rug”, using exotic sounding registrations throughout. He also provides a dancing counterpoint to Bushell’s bassoon solo, and the organ/piano duet that closes the side displays a remarkable similarity of tone between the two instruments.

It would be 17 months before Waller recorded again on the Estey. Waller may have been incarcerated for some of that time (there were continuing issues with alimony payments to his first wife), and when he returned to Camden on March 1 and August 2, 1929, he recorded only on piano in solo and band settings. Two of the songs recorded as pipe organ solos on August 29 were also made as piano solos, and the pipe organ versions remained unissued until the 1970s. Only one organ solo from this session was released on 78, and as it was the last organ solo that Waller recorded for Victor, the title, “That’s All”, was strangely prophetic. Waller uses the volume pedal to extremes on both takes of “Waiting At The End Of The Road” and the closing choruses (the only ones that really swing) feature a rhythmic variation on the theme (much like “I Ain’t Got Nobody”). “Baby, Oh Where Can You Be?” is better overall, with an attractive rhythmic feel that swings and struts (is this how Erroll Garner would have sounded playing a pipe organ?), and an effective pianissimo section on the first take. Waller uses different registrations on the second take, but the first take’s choices sound better to my ears; however, there are moments on take 2 that out-swing the first. “Tanglefoot” was not recorded as a piano solo, and the two organ takes represent Waller’s only recording of the song. Waller swings well, but sticks close to the melody throughout, and the recordings are not very memorable. “That’s All” seems to sum up all that Waller had learned about making the Estey swing. His varied bass patterns all provide elements of the elegant swing he had recorded in his earlier sides, and there are effective dynamic contrasts, sparking registration choices, and even a few well-executed blue notes.

The Camden studios were closed in late 1935 as a result of the city’s newly expanded subway system. Such a project was probably planned a year or so in advance, and with the Estey soon to be retired, Waller made a final recording at Camden on January 5, 1935. Seven months earlier, Waller had launched the “Fats Waller and His Rhythm” sides, and so he brought the sextet along for the session. Whether the Victor engineers had found new solutions for recording the Estey with other instruments is hard to say, but the discographies indicate that the two sides with organ and “the Rhythm” were recorded in one take each. It was a long day, including a train trip from New York to Camden, and with the help of Waller’s supply of alcohol, the group was feeling no pain by the time they arrived at the studio. There was also a technical problem that came up early in the session, and Victor treated the band to an extended lunch while the glitches were fixed. With a full rhythm section in place, Waller barely uses the organ pedals, and the Estey is essentially a color instrument. Waller may have experimented with Hammond organs by this time, and most of the registrations sound like the ones he would use a few years later after moving exclusively to the electronic instrument. “Night Wind” features a full-chorus organ solo at the outset. While the melody predominates, Waller plays a fine variation in the final eight bars. Waller sings the melody more-or-less straight, with obbligatos by tenor saxophonist Gene Sedric and trumpeter Bill Coleman. “I Believe In Miracles” is a sweet little song with a bouncy rhythm and delicate lyrics. Waller makes the occasional jump into parody during his vocal chorus. Sedric (now on clarinet) plays the melody along with Waller in the opening chorus, and Coleman plays a lovely countermelody behind the vocal, before taking the lead in the final chorus.

Waller toured Europe in 1933, 1938 and 1939, and on the last two of these trips, he was invited to record on the Compton theatre organ (left) at London’s Abbey Road studio. On the first session, August 21, 1938, Waller recorded six tunes with “his Continental Rhythm”, a band made up of local musicians (For many years, American jazz artists appearing in the UK had to appear as solo “variety artists” to comply with rules of the British musician’s union). Waller was always the star of his own recordings, so the British sidemen—while not of the caliber of American jazz musicians—were suitable for these sessions. “Don’t Try Your Jive On Me” and two takes of the Waller anthem “Ain’t Misbehavin’” were recorded with the organ before Waller moved to the piano. “Jive” is a forgettable piece of pop tripe and Waller provides a serviceable performance with a full chorus of organ at the start of the recording and a listless vocal. There aren’t many registration changes, but Waller’s organ style retains much of his piano style including a smoothed-out 4/4 swing pattern in the left hand and wry, extended trills in the right. Near the end of the side, Waller tries to rally the band with a few vocal exhortations, but it’s clear that the band was as bored by this song as Waller. “Ain’t Misbehavin’” fares better. At first listen, the first take seems much too slow, but Waller’s sly counterpoint and sinuous melodic variations during his opening solo chorus makes the tempo seem absolutely right. The second take was chosen as the master, and the tempo is noticeably faster and fine on its own terms. In the last eight of his solo chorus here, he bounces the melodic variations between the organ’s three manuals with different registrations used for each. Waller must have sang this song a few thousand times during his career, but he still found fresh ways to sing the lines and to back them up on the keyboard.

A week later, Waller returned to Abbey Road and recorded six organ solos. Four of the songs were authentic spirituals and the other two were pop songs inspired by spirituals. Waller, who was profoundly religious all his life, treats these songs with great respect, and creates a stunning suite in the process. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” opens with a long and flashy introduction, and the arrangement features rich registration, re-imagined harmony, a steady yet swinging beat, and an effective quiet coda. “All God’s Children” alternates a bouncing rhythm style with solemn, slow episodes. Waller’s choice of organ registration may seem over-the-top to modern ears, but one must remember that these recordings were made before lesser organists overused these sounds in accompanying soap operas and game shows. “Go Down, Moses” is the standout side of the suite, with a dramatic performance of the melody and glorious use of mixed stops. Waller creates great dynamic contrasts through the volume pedal, and for once, the effect fits the material. The coda is especially stunning with booming bass from the pedals and church-like registration leading to a sudden pianissimo ending. Waller fits “Deep River” with a steady quarter note bass pattern, interrupting the bass only when the melody demands a dramatic emphasis. Before he shifts to a quicker tempo for the coda, there is a brief episode with contrary-motion solo lines in the manual and pedals. On “Water Boy”, Waller sets off portions of the melody in unaccompanied rubato lines, then breaks the tension with a light-hearted, strutting variation for the next chorus. “Lonesome Road” concludes the set, and Waller takes greater liberty with the melody and plays his only full-blown improvisation of the suite. While some may question the jazz content of the suite as a whole, “Lonesome Road” features the greatest concentration of swing in the entire set.

Near the end of the session, vocalist Adelaide Hall joined Waller for two duets. Despite her brief tenure with Duke Ellington, Hall (below) was not really a jazz singer, and her sudden leaps in pitch on “That Old Feeling” seem like a nervous habit instead of a manner of jazz expression. Waller counters her exaggerated emotions with witty vocal asides. Hall was in on the joke to some degree: on the second chorus of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, she finishes the title line with my little fat baby; Waller responds “Oh baby, don’t talk like that!”  Waller seemed to like the format of this duet and recorded the song again the next year with the Rhythm and guest vocalist Una Mae Carlisle. Before Waller returned to the States, Hall and Waller reprised their duets for a shortwave broadcast from St. George’s Hall. While Waller was still playing a Compton organ at St. George’s, he uses different registrations here than he had on the organ at Abbey Road, and partially because of these registrations, the overall sound of the broadcast tends to favor the organ. Waller had recorded Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogie” on piano at the Continental Rhythm session and here he quickly adapts it into an organ/vocal duet that swings mightier than any of his other London organ sides. Hall sings with abandon, despite the fact that she had probably never sung the song before. The performance doesn’t really end; it just melds into a brief version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as the broadcast ends.

In 1939, Waller recorded his two final recordings on pipe organ during a return trip to London. On “Smoke Dreams Of You”, Waller sings the song straight, and in his instrumental chorus, he creates an organ effect that seems to emulate the smoke rings in the lyric. “You Can’t Have Your Cake & Eat It” is as undistinguished of a song as its title implies. Waller gives it the satirical treatment it deserves, complete with a break into a baby voice. But his brief improvised solo makes the whole side worthwhile: the powerful riffs and strong pedal bass makes the Compton sound like a big band, and the strong rhythmic impetus continues through the rest of the record.

Waller recorded several more organ sides before his death in 1943, but all of those sides were made on a Hammond organ he purchased around 1938. There were obvious advantages to the electronic instrument: Waller could play it at home (there are many tales of late night organ performances at his residence) plus he could bring it to recording sessions and live concerts. While the sound of the Hammond was not as mighty as the Estey or Compton organs, it seemed to suit him well and among the recordings he made on the Hammond, “Jitterbug Waltz” (with the Rhythm and a big band), “Someone To Watch Over Me” (a duet with Lee Wiley) and “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” (solo) are standouts. And in an eerie coincidence, Waller’s organ discography ends nearly where it began: with a solo performance of the “St. Louis Blues”. While the styles of the two recordings are quite different, the arrangements are similar. While he couldn’t have planned it that way (Waller was only 39 when he died), there is an odd symmetry to this portion of the Fats Waller discography.

Much of the information on the Estey organ was taken from Paul S. Machlin's book "Stride: The Music of Fats Waller" (Twayne, 1985). Online resources include The Estey Organs Opus List, Stokowski.org & VJM Jazz & Blues Mart. Thanks to Dan Morgenstern for general guidance.

                                                                                                                                                               Appendix: Estey organ specifications