Historical Essays
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Fats Waller At The Pipe Organ
by Thomas Cunniffe
Part 1
  

Between 1926 and 1939, Thomas “Fats” Waller recorded 73 sides on pipe organs at the Victor studio in Camden, New Jersey and at St. George’s Hall and the HMV Abbey Road studio in London. Waller was the first musician to record jazz on the pipe organ, and part of the success of the recordings is how Waller tamed the huge instrument and gave it its own unique swing.

Before discussing the recordings, there are a number of questions regarding the Victor sessions, and some of them must be worked out by educated suppositions. In 1918, Victor purchased the Trinity Baptist Church in Camden, New Jersey (left) with the intent of building a “recording laboratory”. The building was at least 50 years old, and the existing pipe organ was in need of restoration and improvements. In 1921, Victor hired the Estey Pipe Organ Company to redesign the instrument for recording, including several features usually found solely on theatre organs. Fortunately for historians, Estey assigned opus numbers to its organs, and each revision to the instrument led to an additional opus number being issued—as a result we also know that the Estey in Camden had three major revisions between 1921 and 1926.

It’s important to note that the organ was designed for recording and not for church services. Had it been a church organ, the console and pipes would have been in the same room. Instead, the pipes were placed in a separate room, which was presumably sealed off so that outside noises would not affect the recordings. Compounding the problem was the organ’s inherent delay between the pressing of the key and the sound being produced by the pipes. Thus, the organist at the console would only hear a muffled and delayed version of what he was playing. What made recording at Trinity even more challenging was that the cutting turntables were located on an upper floor because the speed of the turntable motors were controlled with weights instead of electricity (AC power was considered too unreliable at the time) and the weights required several feet of dropping room so that they would continue running for the duration of the recording.  

So, with all these obstacles in place, just how did they record the Estey at Camden? First of all, we know that the Victor engineers were unable to make any satisfactory recordings of the pipe organ (right, in the only existing photo) using the old acoustic recording method. Yet, acoustic recording’s successor, electrical recording, opened up a number of possible solutions. With the Estey on the ground floor, the cutting tables upstairs, and the pipes in some other room, a monitoring system must have been set up so that the organist could hear what he was playing. We know that a buzzer had been set up between the Estey and the recording booth to inform the organist that recording had begun—it can be heard on several Victor 78s of the period. Therefore, it’s not beyond reason that a rudimentary speaker or headphone system may have been set up for the organist to monitor his own playing. In order to sync the other instruments to the delayed beat of the organ, my educated guess is that those musicians would perform in the pipe room. I stand by this theory despite the quotes of Garvin Bushell, who played on the Louisiana Sugar Babes session with Waller. Bushell claimed that “the organ pipes were in one room and we were in another” and also stated that during recording, Waller was in a room “about a city block away” from the rest of the musicians. This would indicate a total of three rooms: one for Waller and the console, another for the remaining musicians, plus the organ pipe room. The synchronization issues in such a scenario would have been a nightmare, even with a monitoring system!

Then there’s the whole issue of playing jazz on the pipe organ. As a boy, Fats Waller had played the organ at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and later worked as the house organist at the Lafayette Theatre. He’d undoubtedly experimented with making the organ swing. By 1926, Ralph Peer—who had supervised Waller’s first piano solo recordings—was the recording supervisor for Victor’s “race records” department (read: Black music) and he was anxious to sign Waller to Victor. That Waller’s first recordings for Victor were organ solos was hardly a coincidence. Just two weeks before his Victor debut, Waller played a reed organ on Fletcher Henderson’s Columbia recording of “The Chant”. Even though Waller’s contribution was rather small, it was his first recording on the organ, and that might have spurred his thoughts to recording on the newly-restored Estey at Camden. Indeed, recording on the Estey may have been the final negotiating point leading to Waller’s long association with Victor.

Yet, Peer couldn’t have simply brought in Waller for a jazz organ date without raising a few eyebrows at Victor (after all, this was uncharted territory). The discographies tell us that on November 17, 1926, Waller, as part of the “Six Hot Babies” recorded four attempts at “All God’s Children Got Wings”, and none of the takes were issued or survived. Was this recording of an old spiritual a cover for Peer’s actual intention—to record Waller’s first pipe organ solos? Rather than proposing jazz organ to his superiors at Victor, Peer could well have decided to try the spiritual first, then record Waller’s organ solos “to salvage the date”, then let the recorded results determine whether to continue with further jazz organ recordings. Whatever the intention, Waller’s mastery came through on the records and he recorded another 8 sessions on the Estey pipe organ before the Camden studios were closed in 1935.

It’s not easy to make a pipe organ swing. When an organ key is touched, air is forced through a pipe, and the amount of pressure the organist places on the key does not alter the velocity of the air. Further, the organ does not have a percussive element like the piano, where strings are struck with a felt hammer. However, the amount of time that the organ key is depressed alters the sound, and Waller found that the combination of a light staccato touch on the keyboard and short, accurate pedal bass notes could give the pipe organ an elegant swing. What attracted Waller to the organ is the amount of color he could produce through various organ stops (and their combinations, known as registrations). The organs on which he recorded also had a theatre organ feature called “second touch” which allowed him to engage an additional set of pipes playing the same pitches by pushing further on the keys. Waller learned most of this by experimentation, and as each pipe organ had its own characteristics, it took awhile for Waller to find a way to coax jazz out of the instrument.

Note: I realize that musical analysis can be slow-going without the music it describes. Amazon has MP3s of all of the recordings discussed in this essay. The 1926-1929 sides may also be purchased on CD on the excellent “Fats Waller: The Complete Recorded Works” (Vols. 1 & 2, both on JSP). Both are reasonably-priced and superbly re-mastered 4-CD sets (Note that if you want to purchase MP3s from this set, the alternate takes are collected on the last disc of each box). The 2 sides with Fats Waller & His Rhythm were reissued in RCA’s complete Waller set, and the London performances (except the shortwave broadcast) were issued on DRG/Swing’s “Fats Waller In London” and MP3s are available under the same album name. The shortwave broadcast is part of the album "Fats Waller On the Air".

At the first Camden session, Waller recorded two takes of “St. Louis Blues” and a single take of his original “Lenox Avenue Blues”. On “St. Louis Blues”, Waller uses the 16-bar tango section (Saint Louis woman, with her diamond rings) as a framing device for the 12-bar main melody (I hate to see the evening sun go down). The tango section opens both takes, followed by two choruses of the melody and another rendition of the tango before moving into his improvisation on the 12-bar form. Waller was already learning the sounds of the Estey, and he effectively sets off contrasting lines with alternating registrations. “Lenox Avenue”, which despite its title is not a blues, finds Waller experimenting with the volume pedal and offering several variations on one of his favorite piano licks. What’s missing from both of these performances is the swing. The rhythmic feel is rather stodgy and the notes of the pedal and left hand seem too legato to create swing. Still, as noted, the recordings showed promise and reason enough to continue experimenting.

From the first notes of the first tune Waller recorded on January 14, 1927, there’s a new feel to the Estey. “Soothin’ Syrup Stomp”, the first of five solos recorded that day, displays a multi-strain compositional form, an excellent—if rather slippery—tempo and a light buoyant feel to the rhythm. Waller’s tempo holds better on the master take, and except for a couple finger fumbles, it is the stronger performance. The organ heaves and sighs on the alternate take of the medium-slow blues “Sloppy Water”, but the slightly brighter tempo of the master take lessens that effect and heightens the overall swing. Waller returns to the music of W.C. Handy with a single take of “Loveless Love”. The left hand and pedal patterns are wondrously varied on this recording, as are Waller’s choice of right hand registrations. Both “Messin’ Around With The Blues” and “Rusty Pail” have intricate formal schemes that mix 12-bar blues choruses with 16- and 32-bar song forms, and each uses recurring melodic material to tie the various parts together. Since Waller was playing solo, he had the flexibility to change his musical forms at will, and the two existing takes of “Rusty Pail” show a key variation in the order of blues and song form choruses.

Waller was back in Camden on February 16 for a short session that yielded two takes each of two originals, “Stompin’ The Bug” and “Hog-Maw Stomp”. “Stompin’” finds Waller alternating his bass patterns in the style of his mentor, James P. Johnson. The rhythmic feel on the alternate is more strut than the swing of the master take, and if Waller’s swing is still not consistent, it represents a large leap forward from the November, 1926 session. “Hog-Maw” is a joyous romp with many of Waller’s best organ style traits making an appearance (subtle dynamic variations with the pedal, effective use of the registration, and Waller’s best organ swing to date), along with a surprising break on the organ’s percussion deck. There is also evidence that the Victor engineers were still experimenting with optimum microphone placement, as there is noticeably more presence to the organ sound on the master take than on the alternate.

On the May 20, 1927 session, Victor decided to make another attempt at recording Waller and the pipe organ with other musicians (The first attempt was, of course, the rejected spiritual at the initial Waller session). On the first part of the session, Waller teamed with vocalist Alberta Hunter (right) on three songs, “Sugar”, “Beale Street Blues” and “I’m Going To See My Ma.” Each tune was recorded as a pipe organ solo and as a vocal/organ duet; however, the solo version of “I’m Going To See My Ma” was never released and is now considered lost. The solo and vocal versions of “Sugar” are in different keys and the placement of the verse is changed from the opening section (solo version) to the reprise (vocal version). It is rather surprising to hear Waller doubling Hunter’s line on the vocal take—I can’t imagine Hunter needed it—but the singer obviously appreciated the solo chorus of her accompanist as witnessed by her vocal aside, “Honk that thing, Fats!”. On “Beale Street Blues”, another spoken aside is Hunter’s only appearance for the first 2 ¼ minutes, then she sings the final two choruses of the song. Waller gets a very legato sound from the organ on this take and there is a mighty chorus on the organ pedals right before Hunter’s entrance. The solo version is in a brighter tempo and it swings elegantly throughout. The pedal chorus moves to the end of the performance, and it is beautifully recorded by the Victor engineers. “I’m Going To See My Ma” is not much of a song (one could imagine Waller parodying it with his Rhythm a decade later), but Waller and Hunter create a decent, if rather uninspired, version. Waller takes most of the first two minutes of the recording, but comes up with little other than a few registration variations. Hunter plays with the rhythm of the song in her chorus and Waller finishes the arrangement with a short coda.

The greater challenge for the Victor engineers came after Hunter left the studio and Thomas Morris’ Hot Babies entered. This group with Morris on cornet, Charlie Irvis on trombone, Victor’s A&R man Eddie King on percussion and Waller on organ and piano must have been a logistical nightmare to record. Estey had upgraded the organ with an additional console so that the same musician could switch between the organ and Camden’s concert grand Steinway. However, we know that the console did not reach into the pipe room. With Waller playing piano, the engineers had to have an additional microphone by the organ and piano, plus the usual microphones in the pipe room. Whether the other musicians were set up in the pipe room or with Waller (again, using some sort of rudimentary monitoring system), we may never know. None of the instruments sound distant in the recording and somehow, two takes each of three tunes were recorded during the session.

Fats Waller Stomp” was the first song title to use Waller’s nickname, and the organist gives this recording its rhythmic impetus. Most of the first half is given to alternating ensemble episodes and solo breaks, but then all but King take full-fledged solos. Waller stays on organ throughout and his accompaniment is a delight. The pedal bass keeps the band together and Waller does his best to swing the band along. He holds a long note in the treble and plays dancing bass notes in the pedal under Morris’ solo, then Waller and King play sharp off-beat accents under Irvis. On both takes, Waller starts his solo with the same held high note, but from there, each solo takes its own direction. The ensemble choruses on “Savannah Blues” are dense and a little ragged on the first take (oddly chosen as the master). Waller changes registration and moves to the upper part of the keyboard on the second take and that seems to help overall. Waller also gets a piano solo on both takes, accompanied by King’s off-beat accents. Waller switches back to organ immediately and the off-beat accents continue under both horn solos. The tempo really drags during the final ensemble on both takes and it’s too bad that Peer didn’t ask for another try. On “Won’t You Take Me Home?” we can hear that Morris and Irvis were a well-matched team. While neither was particularly adept at swinging, their tones were similar, they were good in mutes and both could growl well. For the most part, Waller and King also played well together as a rhythm team (the beat does gets turned around during the organ solo on the master take), and if the constant off-beat accompaniment gets tiring, it should be remembered that many musicians (including Waller) were still learning the rhythmic lessons of Louis Armstrong.

Between the Thomas Morris sessions of May and December, Waller played organ on two recordings made as a memorial to Florence Mills. However, these performances by Juanita Stinette Chappelle and Carroll C. Tate have absolutely no jazz content and are not discussed here. They are included in the JSP CDs noted above.

                                                                                                                                                                                       Continue to PART 2