A giant of a man in every way, Waller was the outstanding exponent of the Harlem 'stride' style of jazz piano, drawing together the innovations of Willie 'The Lion' Smith and James P. Johnson into a coherent style, and taking it to the boundaries of technical possibility. He was also a major influence on the pianists that followed, including Art Tatum.
As well as being a brilliant pianist, Waller was a witty and entertaining singer, a bandleader, a composer of hundreds of songs, and a pioneer of jazz broadcasting. He began his career in Harlem as a teenager, playing organ for silent movies at the Lincoln Theatre. In the early 1920s he went on the road with singer Katie Krippen, and having perfected the art of vaudeville accompaniment, he made discs with several other singers including Alberta Hunter.
He made his first solo recordings in 1922, and other musicians began to record his compositions from the following year. By the late 1920s he was in demand as a recording artist, as the composer of stage shows such as Keep Shufflin' and Hot Chocolates, and as a guest organist at theatres across the USA. In 1929 he cut his greatest piano solo records, including Handful of Keys, that are a masterly document of the Harlem stride style at its best.
During the Depression, as opportunities to record declined, Waller began to broadcast, singing on air and on disc, and eventually leading to the formation of his sextet the Rhythm, in 1934. He made hundreds of discs with this band, ranging from brilliant jazz to sentimental songs, as well as dozens of numbers that were so banal that they were redeemed only by Waller's brilliant artistry and wicked sense of humour.
Songs such as My Very Good Friend the Milkman and Your Feet's Too Big were among his many hits, the latter being made into a short movie. Waller's other films included Hooray For Love and most importantly Stormy Weather, in which he starred opposite Lena Horne and Cab Calloway. Waller came to Britain in 1938 and 1939, making many discs in England, including his exquisite London Suite for solo piano, some hard-swinging band numbers with his 'Continental Rhythm', and some delicate duets with singer Adelaide Hall.
His gargantuan appetites, and a chaotic personal life which involved prison spells for non-payment of alimony, eventually caught up with this larger-than-life character, and despite professing his intention to slow down and spend more time at home, he died from pneumonia on the train journey back from an arduous West Coast trip to spend Christmas with his family in New York.