By Erica Chester
The weekend of Sept. 24, will be one of historical significance. Tens of thousands will grace the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum will display 3,000 of the 30,000 artifacts collected, covering a vast timeline of African Americans’ history and culture.
Kaiser Permanente is a founding donor and grand-opening sponsor of the museum. We work at an organization that believes diversity and inclusion are sources of strength for America and for the world, just like they are in our DNA at Kaiser Permanente. As part of our support, Kaiser Permanente is the title sponsor of the museum’s Sweet Home Café, which will feature a wide range of dishes, many with a healthy twist.
Maritha Gay, Executive Director of Community Benefit for Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States (KPMAS), was among a small group of KPMAS representatives who participated in a “hard hat tour” of the facility in advance of opening. As the group made its way to Sweet Home Café, a business-as-usual meeting suddenly became emotional for Gay.
A Surprising Connection
“My heart leaped! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Gay. Gay was referencing the museum’s tribute to her grandfather. After catching her breath and assuring the group that she was fine, she shared a piece of her family’s history — a story about a musician many jazz enthusiasts know quite well.
“My grandfather is Fats Waller,” explained Gay. “He was a famous jazz pianist whose music shaped the Harlem Renaissance and the Stride piano style. He also inspired the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ based on his song Ain’t Misbehavin’ and other work,” said Gay.
Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller is Gay’s paternal grandfather. Fats Waller was raised in Harlem, N.Y., and at the age of 10, began playing the organ at the church where his father was pastor. Fats Waller’s musical skills were noticed by many, but he was limited in what he was allowed to play outside of church.
“My great grandfather was a Baptist Minister, and he didn’t like my grandfather playing secular music. However, from what my father has shared with me, my grandfather and great-grand parents compromised. My great grandparents allowed my grandfather to play the piano to silent movies that were being shown at local movie theaters,” said Gay.
Stride Is Born
History tells us that the compromise didn’t last long. Fats Waller began playing in nightclubs and venues where audiences appreciated his talent. He became a legendary jazz pianist and one of the founders of “Stride.”
Stride is an evolution of East Coast ragtime infused with elements of the blues and was developed in large East Coast cities, mainly New York City, during the 1920s and 1930s. Many pianists believed that having large hands allowed pianists to play more of the keyboard. Stride pianists’ left hand often leapt greater distances on the keyboard, allowing them to play a wider range of tempos. This style of music, and his jovial personality, is what earned Fats Waller historical fame.
Gay shared that she loves music and what it does for the soul and society.
“Music brings people together. It’s therapeutic,” said Gay. “I learned about music and its various genres from my father. My grandfather, Fats Waller, was deceased when I was born.”
“It was my father, Maurice Waller, who was the most successful in following in my grandfather’s footsteps,” said Gay.
The Legacy Lives On
Gay shared that she’s honored to know that her grandfather’s legacy continues to be recognized and that generations to come will always know who Fats Waller was and what he meant to the jazz music industry.
“It’s an honor to know that the talent he was able to share with the world despite the many obstacles he faced due to discrimination are being recognized. I’m grateful that he’s part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” said Gay.
We encourage all employees to make time to visit the museum with their friends and families, and be sure to visit the exhibit that showcases Fats Waller while you’re there.