WALLERING IN NOSTALGIA
Mention Thomas "Fats" Waller and the phrase that leaps to mind is "fast liver". Sadly, at the end, it was more a case of collapsed liver: Fats liked his juice to be on the strong side of lemonade.
He visited London in 1938 and a recording session, organised by the jazz entrepreneur Leonard Feather, brought together in EMI's Abbey Road studios seven backing musicians colourfully dubbed the Continental Rhythm (yes, I know it sounds like an exotic contraceptive but people were a lot more innocent then). Among their number was a trombonist called Chisholm and, for part of the day, a drummer called Edmundo Ros. I wonder whatever happened to him?
Although studio dates are never quite as sparky as live gigs, we couldn't help but have a wild time that day, thanks to Fats' personality which was almost as huge as his frame. Rather than be shy about his vastness, he was happy to joke about it, seating himself at the stool and asking "Is you all on, Fats?". On top of the piano, almost as essential as the instrument itself, was his fuel. Fats' taste in whisky favoured a brand which managed to get itself a free plug on one of the takes. He had a little man with him whose job it was to look after every want, mostly to see that the glass was replenished every so often. At one point, he must have been slacking because Fats called out, "Man, gimme some more John Haig!". It's clearly audible on the disc, as is a reference to "Brother Chisholm" -nice to know I ranked alongside Haig in importance.
The size of the man governed the way he played. He had huge hands: if you can imagine two ordinary-sized hands stuck together, that would be one of Fats Waller's. That weight throwing itself at the keyboard had the equivalent impact of about five pounds of meat and he was capable of producing such a hefty sound that he didn't really need a bass player. But there was far more to his performing skill than mere volume. He had the ability to take pretty much any popular song and give it new life just when you thought you'd never want to hear it again. He was a marvellous composer too, penning some lovely tunes like "Ain't Misbehavin'" (which we recorded that day), "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Blue Turning Grey Over You", but he sold them all for a pittance in order to buy more bottles of the stuff he advertised on that session. Come to think, I've just advertised it too! And not a penny changed hands - so much for musicians' business sense.
After we left the studio, the music wasn't over as far as Fats was concerned and we ended up jamming in several clubs around London. He "sat in" some of the time and drank almost all of the time. Of course, I did my fair share too but eventually the sauce got the better of Fats. In 1943, he was found dead in the compartment of a train as it pulled into New York City. I imagine his autopsy produced the same degree of surprise as did Charlie Parker's when the age of the deceased was revealed. Fats could have passed for 50, but he died at 39.
Still, there was no denying the youthful energy and sense of mischievous fun he injected into his work, and I was lucky enough to see first-hand that it was genuinely a part of him, not something he just switched on for the punters.
In fact, my luck had taken a general turn for the better after the ups, downs and sideways (but not in that order) of life in the Teddy Joyce ensemble. The late 30s proved to be a busy time in the studios (well, busier than the mid 30s), including a session with Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins recorded in The Hague (as opposed to the Waller session which was recorded in the Haig).
Benny has often been referred to as "King Carter" and there can be few better candidates for musical royalty. An arranger, composer and multi-instrumentalist (mainly alto saxophone and trumpet but he's also been heard on tenor sax, clarinet, trombone and piano!), his working life began in the 20s, the original Jazz Age, and continued through the many twists and turns of the music over subsequent decades, not just keeping pace but often being at the forefront of the innovations - a complete musician capable of being both faultless and exciting, two factors that don't always go hand in hand.
The pre-war era found him in London, working with Henry Hall from the "Guest Night" of the same name. There seemed to be an unwritten clause in the contracts of visiting American musicians at the time that, come the end of the day job, they had to go down to the Nest Club in Kingly Street. Having made a habit of sitting in free of charge at various other jam joints of the day such as the exotically titled Palm Beach, the even more exotic Nuthouse and a place called Mother Hubbard's (these days it would probably be Freddie Hubbard's), I eventually got signed up at the Nest as part of the resident band, along with musos like the alto saxophonist Jock Myddleton, a huge baritone sax player named Derek Neville who eventually went off to be a taxi driver in Australia (he probably did well, it's a big place) and Duncan Whyte, the trumpeter with whom I made one of my first-ever recordings, "Humming To Myself", a rarity in that it features Chis on the celeste, one of those instruments like the tuba and the C-melody sax which don't seem to crop up in jazz so much now (well, you never see Courtney Pine using them).
One evening, the Nest boasted a gathering that included Benny Carter, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins and half of the great Jimmie Lunceford band, including Lunceford himself, all drinking and joining in. With such an intimidatingly talented guest list, us regulars stood up to leave the bandstand but Benny said to me, "No, you stay on". Anyone who was in the audience that night might remember these jazz giants filling the stage, along with this terrible little white Glasgow face in the middle!
Next thing I knew, I was saying goodbye to Ella and to London because Benny had offered me three months' work in Holland. It was my first proper trip abroad but I didn't get much of a chance to sample the native tongue (if you'll pardon the expression) because everybody there spoke better English than we did. Mind you, there weren't that many Englishmen among us, in fact it's hard to imagine a more cosmopolitan band than that one. Benny had managed to assemble on one stage a combo that included a Cuban, a Welshman, two West Indians and a Scot (guess which one I was).
Holland had a thriving jazz scene then and The Hague was blessed not only by Benny but also - working at a club just down the road from us - Coleman Hawkins, the first major exponent of the tenor saxophone, soon to record his definitive version of "Body And Soul". The man's ability to project a strongly free and individual jazz style without sacrificing the melody is typified in that classic performance which I'm glad to say is still available today on CD (this chapter's turning into a glorified commercial break; at this rate, I'll soon be extolling the virtues of second-hand Ford Sierras!).
Musically, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins had a lot in common but they were very different people. Benny was a gentleman while Hawkins was a hooligan! He was another one with a taste for liquid stimulants and I remember the heart-stopping sight of him in Holland, strolling along the quayside wall in a state of severe sozzlement, happily humming jazz tunes and seemingly oblivious of the fact that the wall was easily six feet high but barely four inches wide. It only needed him to put one foot wrong and the world would have lost its leading tenor player about thirty years earlier than it actually did.
Perhaps it was Benny's gentlemanliness that brought the devil out in Hawkins because he couldn't resist a joke at my temporary boss's expense. He used to come and see us play in the afternoon at an open-air seaside venue called the Kursaal (yes, it WAS summer) and he'd sit there, not opposite the sax section but opposite the brass section. Then after a while, he'd disappear only to return, tenor in hand, and come and sit in with us, not among the saxes but right in the middle of the brass where he'd spend much of his time egging me on to take solos. Benny bore it all with fortitude but he must have felt like a teacher whose class had been invaded by the naughtiest boy in the school!
I cursed my luck around that time because I'd managed to develop a fearfully swollen lip. There I was, about to record with these two giants and I was in too much pain even to play a note. It was so bad, they were going to lance it, then in stepped Dr. Coleman Hawkins who said,
"You come with me, I'll fix it."
So I followed him out into the other room where he handed me what looked like a half-pint glass of water. I'd whipped a good third of it down before realising it was vodka! After that, I didn't care what I played.
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