Channeling the spirit of Fats Waller


A highly effective approach to playing jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s is to channel the spirit of the great stride pianists like Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Stride piano is fun to play, and when I use this technique I generally like to evoke the spirit of these early jazz pianists, but I don’t try to copy their style exactly.

Although there are some pianists who try to sound exactly like a 1920s stride pianist, I find that this approach often limits the performer and makes the music sound a bit to “careful.” After all, jazz is about flow and playing what you hear, the instant the sound appears in your mind. But you can’t fully do this if you’re filtering everything through the lens of “would Fats Waller have played this?”

Here’s an example:

Let’s say you’re playing a nice stride pattern with your LH, and your hand goes toward a colorful 13th chord rootless voicing, the kind that Bill Evans popularized in the 1950s – 60s. Well, what do you do? Do you play it or not? Even though Fats Waller didn’t ordinarily use these types of voicings, they still sound great in stride, and I’ve heard masterful jazz pianists such as Marian McPartland and Billy Taylor use them in musical ways. In other words, they sound great and if they arise
“in the moment,” they’ll add to the natural energy of the music. But if you constantly change your voicings to play only triads and 7th chords, after a lifetime of playing 9ths, 13s, etc., there’s a real risk that your music may sound a little dull or lifeless. It will sound “correct,” but without any real spark.

This is just my opinion, of course, and at times it can be fun and interesting to try to improvise exactly in the style of one of our musical idols. But I’ve found that a middle ground, using the famous pianist as inspiration, is what generally results in the best music. Following the spirit of the style rather than every single detail.

Check out this video to see what I mean. The overall sound very much evokes the feeling of early jazz, but I didn’t let my analytical brain interfere with the flow of the music. I hope this inspires you to play some stride piano today!

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