There is a special place in jazz and popular music for singers who are equally adept pianists: Fats Waller, Nat King Cole, Nina Simone, Detroit’s beloved and much-missed Alma Smith, and many others. Among those keeping this art alive in Detroit, pride of place belongs to Alvin Waddles. A classical pianist from an early age, he received advanced classical vocal and piano training at Interlochen and at the U-M.
In 2004, Waddles put together a tribute to pianist, singer, and composer Fats Waller. Now he’s launching a new show that delves into the vast repertoire of another popular and often comedic singer-songwriter from the past: Louis Jordan.
Jordan and Waller had much in common. The younger Jordan learned much from Waller, who died in 1943, just as Jordan began to make some of his most successful recordings. Both used small combos at a time when big bands ruled popular jazz music, and both combined stellar musicianship with a raucous, often erotically suggestive sense of humor and hip jive language.
Jordan first made his mark as a member of Chick Webb’s orchestra at New York’s famous Savoy Ballroom, where he often shared singing duties with Ella Fitzgerald. By the early Forties he was out on his own, eventually recording many hits with his Tympany Five combo, singing and playing the various saxophones, primarily the alto. His popular bluesy jump tunes, based on swinging riffs and sometimes featuring electric guitar, became a major source for rock and roll. Indeed, Chuck Berry used Carl Hogan’s guitar introduction to Jordan’s 1946 hit “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman” note-for-note to open his 1958 classic “Johnny B. Goode.” Jordan became famous for his often-raunchy comical songs such as “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens,” “Caldonia,” or “Five Guys Named Moe,” in a singing style that owed much to Waller.
Waddles has an impressive piano technique and has mastered the early jazz and blues styles that call for the full use of rollicking left-hand rhythms. His roots clearly lie in the kind of stride and boogie patterns that were at the core of Waller’s style and were also used by Jordan’s pianists, including Wild Bill Davis, later known for his early adoption of the electric organ. Likewise, Waddles shares with his two predecessors a rich baritone voice; a boisterous, sly sense of humor; and a warm and outgoing stage personality. The move from Waller to Jordan therefore seems perfectly natural–several Jordan compositions, including “Caldonia,” are well established in Waddle’s repertoire.
Waddles premieres Jumpin’ Jukebox: A Salute to Louis Jordan in the company of his longtime friends bassist Marion Hayden and drummer Djallo Djakate at Kerrytown Concert House on March 7 at 8 p.m.