As legend has it, the jazz pianist and songwriter Fats Waller was once kidnapped at gunpoint by Al Capone’s henchman and forced to perform at the mob boss’s birthday party. Though likely apocryphal, the element of the story anyone could believe is the irresistible appeal of Waller’s infectious music. His songs and story are being celebrated in “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” at Georgia Ensemble Theatre this month through Nov. 21. S. Renee Clark is the show’s director, and she joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with pianist and actor Louis Heriveaux, who plays the role of Waller.
On getting to know the real Fats Waller:
“’Ain’t Misbehavin’’ was done with a cast of five on Broadway in the ‘70s … It was interesting in approaching the actors to get started, with the designers and everybody, everybody said ‘I know what this is. I know how many times they change clothes. I know how many times they change wigs. I know what the songs are supposed to be.’ And I said, ‘But did you study Fats? Did you go back to the source? Let’s go back to study him…’ And there we found something fresh and new,” said Clark. “Fats would have been over a hundred years old right now, and his music still lives. So let’s find out why, and bring that to the stage.”
“Fats is so known for his personality, his big, bubbly personality. I thought that was just a show. I thought that was just his gimmick. You know… that was really him,” Clark said. “Like, from five years old, that was his personality. He was just a showboat with his parents. That’s the way he got out of trouble with his mother. Any time he was asked to entertain as a teenager, he just went to that space, and it worked for him.”
“It became larger than his musicianship, and he really wanted people to respect him as a musician, not just as a showman. But there’s just so many beautiful and wonderful stories about him just going into this character, to get himself out of trouble or to get himself through the door. Even all of the adlibs that you find in his recordings – they’re all funny, but they’re very serious. He mostly adlibbed when he didn’t like the material he was performing, and he let it live with the recording,” said Clark.
The tall order of playing piano like Fats:
“It was quite the challenge, because during Fats’ time, what the pianist would do would be called the ‘stride piano,’ and what that involves is the left hand playing on beats one and three, kind of bass notes, and then a leap up into the middle register of the piano to play a chord,” said Heriveaux. “Pretty much everything that he plays at all times has this left-hand thing going on, which makes that much more difficult for the right hand to have the freedom to improvise and play melodies while this left-hand thing is continuous. Even if there is a bass player and a drummer, this left-hand thing is the driving force of the music.”
“It’s just as I expected – it’s wonderful but challenging at the same time. A jazz musician typically likes a challenge,” Heriveaux added.
On the delicate balance between showmanship and making a profound musical statement:
“I think his music, in general, walks that line between being a serious musician and being entertainment. And oftentimes, that’s the best music, in my opinion, is to have that virtuosity or that integrity from an artistic standpoint, but also entertaining,” said Heriveaux. “This music, it does have a couple of pieces that, in my opinion, deal with serious issues. ‘Black and Blue’ is in the story, and I like the fact that that’s included in the program and that they really bring life to that.”
“[The audience] should take away what a composer he was, what a musician he was. And a lot of times, when we see this Ain’t Misbehavin’, it is a caricature of a caricature of a caricature, and we really wanted to come to deal with the heart of that; to deal with how smart he was, how talented he was, how serious he was,” said Clark. “I approach the play as a journey of Fats’, or any person’s, journey where you start off in a little speakeasy, you’re starting off in a small area, and you grow… By the time we get to the end of the piece, he has his own voice.”
“Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical Show” is currently performing at Georgia Ensemble Theatre, at the Roswell Cultural Arts Center, until Nov. 21. Tickets and more information are available at https://get.org/aint-misbehavin/.