Happy birthday Fats Waller: the king of Harlem stride

On this day 116 years ago, the jazz piano icon Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller was born in New York City. Beginning his musical journey at the six, he penned over 400 songs, many of them becoming part of the jazz canon throughout the 20th-century.

It didn’t take him long to show off his incredible chops and by the time he was 15, he was already a professional organist. In his short life, he became a pioneering figure of the Harlem stride, a style of jazz that sounds just the way you think it does. Fats Waller

Fats Waller, the iconic jazz pianist and pioneer of the Harlem stride was born on this day in 1904. We pay tribute to the man with an unmatched legacy in jazz.

The stride style is characterized by its strong adherence to the downbeats in the bar. This gives the music a sense of unstoppable forward momentum, with the left-hand rhythm keeping a metronomic clock for the melodies and improvisations of the right hand.

Such was his popularity, he was actually kidnapped at the age of 21 while doing a few dates in Chicago. He was taken by armed goons to the lair of Al Capone and forced to keep the infamous gangster’s party going for days on end. By the end of it, he was several thousand dollars richer.

He also made a massive contribution to the American songbook, with standards like Ain’t Misbehavin‘ and Honeysuckle Rose among hundreds of other compositions still making their way onto handstands all the world.

It was a short life for Fats, who died age 39 in transit from Los Angeles back to his native New York. But in that short life, he did more than most to change the course of 20th-century music.