Thomas Waller, universally known as “Fats” for self-evident reasons, is one of the few great jazz musicians who was for a time popular with the public at large, though not for his hugely influential piano playing. In the Thirties and Forties, Waller led a combo billed as “Fats Waller and His Rhythm” that featured his maniacally gleeful singing of ephemeral pop songs. (This is my attempt to transcribe his vocal on “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”) Waller’s eye-rollingly comic side has always made priggish critics squirm, but it was in fact central to both his character and his artistry. Had he never sung a note, he’d still be remembered for the poise and fluidity of such unaccompanied piano solos as the exquisite “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” but it is because of his life-enhancing singing that he was–and is–beloved.
Most anthologies of classic jazz recordings appear to have been put together on the how-could-they-possibly-have-left-that-one-out principle, but the aptly named The Quintessence: New York-Camden-Los Angeles 1929-1943 (Fr