Sandy Brown Jazz

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On A Night Like This, The Story Is Told ...

Al Capone and Fats Waller


Al Capone

Al Capone courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution


This picture of the gangster Al Capone was taken in 1925. It was taken by the New York police after Capone was apprehended in connection with a shooting when he was 26 years old. Looking at pictures of Capone he seems older.

'Alphonse Gabriel Capone was born in New York City in 1899 to Italian immigrant parents. He joined the Five Points Gang as a teenager and became a bouncer in organized crime premises such as brothels. In his early twenties, he moved to Chicago and became a bodyguard and trusted factotum for Johnny Torrio, head of a criminal syndicate that illegally supplied alcohol - the forerunner of the Outfit - and was politically protected through the Unione Siciliana. A conflict with the North Side Gang was instrumental in Capone's rise and fall. Torrio went into retirement after North Side gunmen almost killed him, handing control to Capone. Capone expanded the bootlegging business through increasingly violent means, but his mutually profitable relationships with mayor William Hale Thompson and the city's police meant he seemed safe from law enforcement.'

At 26, Al Capone, became the new boss of an organization that took in illegal breweries and a transportation network that reached to Canada, with political and law-enforcement protection. His use of violence increased as did his criminal empire.

'Capone often enlisted the help of local blacks into his operations; jazz musicians Milt Hinton and Lionel Hampton had uncles who worked for Capone on the South Side of Chicago. A fan of jazz as well, Capone once requested clarinetist Johnny Dodds to play a number that Dodds did not know; Capone split a $100 bill in half and told Dodds that he would get the other half when it was learned. Capone had also sent two bodyguards to accompany jazz pianist Earl Hines on a road trip.'

Fats Waller was making a name for himself at this time - here he is in a Soundie (date not shown) with Your Feet's Too Big:




Capone's connection with jazz also appears in this month's story. The same tale is told by many, but this version and picture is from


Fats Waller party picture



'At 21, Fats Waller left New York for a series of gigs at the Sherman Hotel in the Windy City. He was a huge hit, and his fame spread quickly there. After a performance one evening, Fats felt a gun in his side and a couple of thugs breathing down his neck. They pushed him into a black limousine and told the driver to head to East Cisero. After they arrived, they prodded him into an exclusive club and demanded that he play for the party - one that was already in full swing. Some accounts say Fats heard him laughing, others say he saw the infamous scarred face, but either way, the party was for Al Capone.'

'Capone's "Boys" had decided to surprise Al Capone with Fats Waller as a birthday present. According to one account that claims to be from Fats' son, he was paid $100 a song, and given limitless, expensive champagne and food, and "partied" with Capone for 3 full days. He slept at his piano between sets. When he was set free and pushed back into the limo, Fats not only went home with his life, he was several thousand dollars richer. Unlike Capone, Fats was a preacher's son and never got in trouble with the law, himself. Although he did like a good, gallon of bootleg whiskey, and he once joked that he wrote the song, "Ain't Misbehavin'" in a jail cell, because he forgot to pay some alimony.'



The claim that the story was told by Fats' son is confirmed just one minute into this video documetary when Maurice Waller tells the story:




It is equally interesting that Fats was only about twenty-one years old when this incident happened. Was he scared or was he accustomed to the scene at the time? He had already been married and divorced and at twenty-one married for the second time. His popularity at The Sherman hotel was such that he was probably riding on a wave. 'I've seen Fats Waller enter a place, and all the people in the joint .... would rave and you could see the gladness in their faces ... honest ... and Fats wouldn't be in the place a hot minute before he would tell them a fine joke and have everybody holding his side from laughter ... Haw, haw, haw, haw, he kills me.' (Louis Armstrong).


Here's Fats Waller and his Rhythm in 1941 with Honeysuckle Rose.




Fats died from pneumonia in 1943 at the age of 39. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered over Harlem from an aeroplane piloted by an unidentified African American World War I aviator.

Al Capone died four years later at the age of 48. His reign as crime boss lasted for seven years. He was imprisoned in 1932 at the age of 33. Upon his arrival at Atlanta, he was officially diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhoea. He was also suffering from withdrawal symptoms from cocaine addiction, the use of which had perforated his nasal septum. His health deteriorated over the following years with a stroke, heart attack and a mental disorder resulting from syphilis and although he was one of the first American patients treated by the new drug penicilloin, it was too late for him to reverse the damage in his brain.

It is the young ages of these two people that stands out for me in this story. On screen, Al Capone has been played by older people - e.g. Rod Steiger in Al Capone; Stephen Graham in Boardwalk Empire. The 2020 film Capone starring Tom Hardy is interesting in that rather than concentrating on his gangster years, the movie deals with Capone's life and mental state in his later years. This clip, a mixture of hallucination and memory, brings in the jazz element with Troy Anderson playing Louis Armstrong:




As Fats would say: "One never knows, does one".

References: Wikipedia : : Hear Me Talkin' To Ya (Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff)

Alyn Shipton writes: 'Yes but as Laurie Wright says in his book Fats in Fact, he was unable to find any evidence that this was true. Only Maurice's account exists, and he is, how shall we say, somewhat unreliable in other respects. For example he says here "Fats was a preacher's son and never got in trouble with the law, himself". But Fats was jailed - on a two-year sentence but bailed out after a few weeks by Gene Austin - in August 1928 for non-payment of alimony, and abandoning his wife and son - one Maurice Waller...'


© Sandy Brown Jazz 2021

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