It was eighteen years ago that Al Casey toured Europe with the all-star Satchmo Legacy Band, put together under the leadership of Freddie Hubbard. The band, which also included Curtis Fuller, Alvin Batiste, Kirk Lightsey, Red Callender, and Alan Dawson recorded two albums for the Italian Soul Note label. It was just before that tour that Mike Hennessey, who produced the albums, interviewed Al Casey to learn more about his association with the great Fats Waller.
Al Remembers Fats
|"He was a genuine musical genius"|
Guitarist Albert Aloysius "Al" Casey was a stalwart member of Fats Waller and his Rhythm for about ten years and was always Waller's first choice as guitarist. As British musician/writer Digby Fairweather has observed, "Casey's playful, chorded acoustic guitar solos were the most graceful feature of Fats Waller's Rhythm." And French critic Claude Oberg has described Al Casey as one of the rare guitarists of the thirties-along with Django Reinhardt and Teddy Bunn-to have invented a style of his own.
Casey remembers his time in the band with great affection. "I think about it every day," he told me from his home in New York. "Every time I get on the bandstand I remember those great days with Fats-no matter who I'm with. Fats was like a father to me. He bought me my first electric guitar and always treated me very generously."
Casey has absolutely no time for the people who describe Waller as "more of a clown than a musician."
"The truth," Al says, "is exactly the reverse. He was a musical genius -he did his clowning just to please the public, because he loved to entertain. That was his principal thing in life-to entertain the people and make them happy. And that's how the public mainly knew him. But, as someone who worked with him for many years, I can tell you that he was, without question, a truly great musician-a genuine musical genius."
Ask Al Casey if he would put Waller on the same level as Art Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Earl Hines, and he answers without hesitation: "Hell, yes! For what he played and for the way he played it. Of course, James P. Johnson taught Fats a lot about stride-they hung out together all the time. But, in the end, the pupil finished up outdoing the master. Fats could play just as fast as James P.-but he played prettier and cleaner. His piano style was a cross between that of Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith's, but, as far as I am concerned, he was by far the best stride pianist Jazz has ever known.
"He would take songs no one else wanted-pop songs of the moment which were pretty unremarkable-and he would transform them into fine Jazz vehicles, breathe new life into them. He was also a brilliant composer. He could write a song-a good song-in twenty minutes."
Casey remembers Waller, offstage, as a sensitive, serious-minded, very religious man who was sometimes saddened by the fact that he wasn't taken more seriously as a musician.
"The clowning, of course, was just a front-but he had to do what his public expected of him," Casey says. "He had more serious aspirations, though-particularly in the classical field. He loved classical music, and would have liked to play it more than he did. But I guess it wouldn't have put many dollars into his pocket."
Al Casey is in no doubt that Fats Waller would have been far more fulfilled as an artist if he could have achieved his great popular following by means of his consummate musicianship alone.
"Fats was such a dedicated musician. When we were on the road, he would take a hotel suite and hire a Hammond organ-that's how much he loved to play. And he'd play everything from Bach to Alligator Crawl," Casey remembers.
Al Casey, born on September 15th, 1915, in Louisville, Kentucky, was the adopted son of a musical couple. His foster mother played violin, and his foster father was a professional drummer. Al received violin lessons from his mother, but later switched to guitar.
"I first met Fats when I was still at school," Al recalls. "It came about because I had three uncles and an aunt who had this vocal quartet-the Southern Singers.* They had a regular gig on the Cincinnati radio station WLW at midnight each night in a show called Moon River, which featured Fats Waller. And, of course, they got to know him very well. When my family moved to New York in 1930, they took me on a visit to Fats's home and told him I played guitar. He said to me, 'Next time you come, bring your guitar and play for me.' Which I was only too happy to do."
Casey made many visits to the Waller home thereafter and was given a great deal of encouragement by Fats.
"I made up my mind that I wanted to play in Fats Waller's band-just leave school and go on the road-but when I told this to Fats, he said to me: "You'll never go on the road with me until you can show me a school diploma-finish your education first, son." That's the kind of man he was."
Casey made his recording début with Waller, Herman Autrey on trumpet, Ben Whitted on alto saxophone and clarinet, Billy Taylor on bass, and Harry Dial on drums on May 16th, 1934, when Fats recorded four sides for the Victor company-"A Porter's Love Song to a Chambermaid," "I Wish I Were Twins," "Armful of Sweetness," and "Do Me a Favor." They were the first of hundreds of sides Casey was to record with Waller over the next ten years.
Al recalls, "Fats made some great sides-ones that stand out are 'I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,' 'Your Feet's Too Big,' and, of course, 'Ain't Misbehavin' and 'Honeysuckle Rose.' " And, naturally, Casey has a soft spot for "Buck Jumpin'," his own composition, which Waller recorded in October 1941.
Apart from a spell of about one year, between March 1939 (when Waller left on a three-month visit to Britain) and July 1940 (during which Casey played with the bands of Teddy Wilson and Buster Harding), he was a regular member of Waller's Rhythm combo right up to January l943, when the band played its last date in Chicago.
The sidemen returned to New York, and Fats went on to Hollywood to make the musical Stormy Weather. For the rest of the year Waller played solo dates, finishing with engagements at the Florentine Gardens and the Zanzibar Room in Hollywood.
It was on December 15, 1943, when he was on his way back to New York by train to rejoin his family for Christmas, that Fats Waller died of what was later diagnosed to be influenzal bronchial pneumonia.
Says Casey, "I was completely broken up by the news-just stunned-because, as I've said, Fats had been like a father to me, and he was responsible for the happiest times of my musical career."
* In the Dictionnaire Du Jazz (Robert Laffont 1988), Claude Oberg refers to the group as the Southernaires, while Laurie Wright in Fats in Fact (Storyville Publications,1992) says the quartet was called the Southern Suns. Casey, however, insists that the correct name was the Southern Singers.
By Mike Hennessey
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