Two pioneers of jazz piano, Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton are in the spotlight at a special concert at St James Theatre, the third of the series The Wonderful Music of the Jazz Greats (other dates below). Leading the performance is pianist Keith Nichols, one of Britain’s chief exponents of early jazz styles, this concert follows on from a successful ragtime-themed event last year. Stephen Graham writes
Keith Nichols, who also teaches early jazz styles to students on the jazz course of the Royal Academy of Music, admits it’s not a straightforward style to master. Speaking on the phone to me earlier this week, he explained:
“Both that of Jelly Roll Morton and the stride style of Fats Waller are technically quite hard to do. A lot of young musicians are not really encouraged to play that style unless they have really made an effort to study the whole period of music. Morton goes back to the ragtime era.
I suppose chronologically you go through Morton into the early jazz styles and then Fats Waller in the mid-1920s. If you listen to Fats Waller he was able to ape James P. Johnson’s style. He was thoroughly obsessed with learning the style which he did do very well and he took it on a little bit more than James P. But James P. Johnson was an absolutely fantastic composer and of course he developed the style of stride himself.
Other people like Willie ‘the Lion’ Smith came through James P. Johnson but Fats Waller was James P’s first pupil really. Johnson had written rags before. But by that time pianists had started to swing from about 1914 and that’s how James P. invented stride piano in the fact that it wasn’t straight playing like Scott Joplin but the whole rhythm moved.”
Nichols has firm ideas about how the two players are utterly distinctive.
“Jelly Roll Morton had a totally unique style because of his background. The mother’s side of his family were Afro-Americans and that provided the ragtime part and his father came from the French so you have that Creole side and I do believe he didn’t copy anybody – it just evolved. I consider him to be the first composer of jazz. I consider him very important and it’s wonderful to play any of his pieces like ‘King Porter Stomp’ later taken up by Benny Goodman.
“Fats Waller was a totally different type of person. He was slightly more self effacing than Jelly Roll who thought a great deal of himself. Fats was a totally different character beloved by everybody. When he heard Art Tatum he said: ‘This man is god!’ He wasn’t arrogant about his own stuff. Waller wasn’t inspired by Jelly Roll, Fats was such a follower of James P. Johnson. He would probably have played Jelly Roll’s pieces but not in his style. His style was reserved for Jelly Roll himself. Jelly Roll himself did not approve of stride and did not like Duke Ellington and probably Fats Waller, who was much younger, would be relegated by Jelly Roll as one of those young upstarts. Fats was so much into James P. Johnson and before him Eubie Blake.”
Nichols is joined at the concert by sax/clarinet player David Horniblow of the Chris Barber band (replacing an indisposed Trevor Whiting) and guitarist/banjo player Martin Wheatley. The concert will featuring music by Jelly Roll in the first half, and by Fats Waller in the second.
Nichols says: “We will also be doing pieces by their mentors. If Jelly Roll had a mentor it was Tony Jackson who was one of the early ragtime players and Jelly Roll approved of him. And we’re playing some James P. Johnson in the Fats Waller set.”
The Wonderful Music of Fats Waller & Jelly Roll Morton, featuring Keith Nichols and friends, is at St James Studio in SW1 on 12th November. TICKETS / DETAILS
This concert is part of the series The Wonderful Music of the Jazz Greats. The other dates in the series are:
Thursday 15th October
The wonderful music of George Shearing featuring Simon Brown
Thursday 29th October
The wonderful music of Duke Ellington featuring Alan Barnes
Saturday 21st November
The Wonderful music of Louis Armstrong featuring Simon Nelson’s DixieMix