Faces of the Harlem Renaissance

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Fats Waller

1904-1943 / Pianist, vocalist, composer

Born and raised in Harlem, Thomas Wright Waller worked as a delivery boy for a delicatessen run by brothers Connie and George Immerman. The pair later opened Connie's Inn, a Harlem nightclub that brought the all-black musical revue Hot Chocolates—and its talented composer, Fats Waller—to audiences before it moved on to Broadway.

Waller learned to play the piano at age six. With his minister father preaching at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Waller's first audience was the local congregation.

His first paid gig was to accompany silent movies on the pipe organ at the Lincoln Theatre; from there, he moved on to playing at rent parties and in cabarets.

Waller's true genius lay in composing. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra performed several works of his creation, notably "Whiteman Stomp." His partnership with lyricist Andy Razaf resulted in such famous songs as "Honeysuckle Rose," as well as hit musicals that included Keep Shufflin'. Razaf and Waller also collaborated to produce Hot Chocolates in 1929; with trumpeter Louis Armstrong headlining its Broadway cast, the musical brought fame to the Waller-Razaf tune "Ain't Misbehavin'."

If an exuberant stage presence was Waller's trademark, musical innovation was his legacy. He raised the Harlem stride style of piano playing—characterized by an oompah beat in the left hand and syncopation in the right—to a fine art. Fusing elements of blues, classical music, boogie-woogie, and ragtime with stride, Waller fashioned a new sound that was uniquely his own.