The son of a preacher at Harlem's famed Abyssinian Church, Fats Waller grew up playing church organ, absorbed the stride piano style of local heroes James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith, and honed his craft as a pianist in New York's silent movie theaters before emerging as a star of the pre-war vaudeville circuit — and the jazz world's own answer to W.C. Fields and Fatty Arbuckle. But Waller's physical bulk and outsized personality never obscured his equally obvious talents: Had he never played a note in public, Waller would still be honored as the composer of "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Blue Turning Grey Over You," "Honeysuckle Rose" and other standards. Happily, Fats was also a gifted recording artist, and the songs collected here find him holding his own against giants like Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon.
This compilation, which begins with a piano solo Waller recorded as a 17-year-old and ends with an original he recorded the year of his death, at the age of 39, isn't quite comprehensive. (It would have been nice to hear the maestro's own version of "Ain't Misbehavin'," or his definitive take on "T'aint Nobody's Biz-nezz If I Do!") But the renditions of "Honeysuckle Rose," "Reefer Man" and "I'm Crazy About My Baby" are classics, and the inclusion of five tracks recorded in a 52nd Street club afford a rare chance to hear Waller playing in front of a live audience. Had he lived, Waller would have celebrated his hundredth birthday in 2004. The passing years have done nothing to diminish the man's wit, warmth and ebullience.