Resurrecting Fats

New transcriptions of Fats Waller's pipe-organ and piano solos could ensure that Waller is remembered not just as an entertainer but as a great composer

FATS Waller's rise to lasting fame as an entertaining singer with a witty twist on the popular songs of his day was still several years off when, in November of 1926, the Victor Talking Machine Company invited Waller to a recording session at its Camden, New Jersey, studio. Victor, like other record companies, had only recently made the remarkable discovery that "hillbilly" and "race" music could be big business, and Waller was one of many Harlem musicians whom Victor was eager to record.

Waller was then twenty-two years old, and already well known in Harlem as a pianist on the party and nightclub circuit, but he had made only a few recordings, mainly accompanying blues singers or playing in pickup ensembles. The Camden studio was a deconsecrated church that Victor had bought for its admirable acoustics, and with the building came a church organ, which the recording company overhauled and expanded with many new ranks of pipes. The plan for the November session was that Waller would accompany a black vocal group singing the spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings." But to warm up Waller rattled off two tunes on the 2,000-pipe instrument: W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and a piece of his own, "Lenox Avenue Blues," also known as "The Church Organ Blues." The Victor engineers recorded those performances, and company executives were sufficiently impressed that over the next three years they brought Waller back for a half dozen more sessions, recording two dozen other pipe-organ solos.

None of the resulting records sold particularly well, however, and as Waller's fame as a singer and an entertainer grew in the 1930s, and Victor pressed him to crank out far more commercially appealing jazz-band treatments of hundreds of Tin Pan Alley standards, these earlier solos faded into obscurity.

Waller's vocal performances of "Ain't Misbehavin'," "The Joint Is Jumpin'," "Your Feet's Too Big," and dozens of other songs have never gone out of print, but his organ solos were unavailable for decades; they resurfaced only in 1964 -- on a British LP -- and even then were known primarily to aficionados. The Camden performances became more widely available in the 1970s, as French RCA began releasing a complete set of Waller's recordings on thirty-six LPs, and most of the organ solos are now out on a 1998 Jazz Archives CD (Fats Waller Vol. 3: Young Fats at the Organ, EPM 159262) as well. It is safe to say, however, that they hardly rank among his most popular recordings.

THAT is a shame, because they are brilliant proof of a side to Waller's musical genius that has often been ignored, or even denigrated, in the years since his untimely death from pneumonia, in 1943. If nothing else, Waller's organ performances are technical tours de force that reveal an almost wizardly mastery of what is surely the most ungainly instrument ever pressed into the service of jazz. It would be hard to invent a musical instrument less well suited to jazz performance than the pipe organ. The rhythmic emphasis to which the piano lends itself so naturally is not even part of the organ's musical vocabulary. Stroke a key, bang a key -- it's all the same to the organ. The instrument's sound-generating mechanism has two modes, on or off, wind flowing through the pipe or wind stopped, and there is simply no way to swing a beat by making one note of a measure louder than any other. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that even with modern organs, which use pneumatic or electrical (as opposed to purely mechanical) linkages to connect the keyboard with the valves that admit air into the pipes, the player experiences a tiny delay between the depression of a key and the emergence of a sound. Any hall big enough to hold a pipe organ has a natural reverberation of as much as several seconds, which adds to this disorienting sensation. It's hard enough to play Bach when your fingers are doing one thing and your ears are telling you another; trying to play a swing rhythm under such conditions must be like juggling on a unicycle while watching your reflection in a fun-house mirror.

Somehow Waller did make the pipe organ swing. (There is a great moment during his recording of "Sugar" on the Camden organ, accompanying the blues singer Alberta Hunter, when she chimes in during his solo, "Plonk that thing, Fats!") Waller's organ technique was almost entirely self-taught, acquired by hanging around the musicians at Harlem's Lincoln Theater and ultimately wangling his way into filling in when the regular organist took a break. By age seventeen Waller was giving Bill "Count" Basie lessons on the Lincoln Theater organ. He was also doing things that classically trained organists would say are almost impossible to pull off artistically: playing staccato, playing slurs and slides, playing clustered chords and arpeggios. All these effects require split-second judgment and an incredible sensitivity to tone and touch.

But the pieces are more than vehicles for Waller's technical flash; they are compositional gems, flights of melodic and harmonic invention that reflect Waller's musical genius in its purest and most concentrated form. Many of the tunes, of his own composition and not, are fairly standard Tin Pan Alley formulas, but Waller subjected them to a theme-and-variations treatment that milked their possibilities to the utmost. He could take an ordinary folk tune like "Careless Love" (it appears as "Loveless Love" on Waller's recording) or a standard like "I Ain't Got Nobody" and dissect it in a series of improvisational inventions that are themselves the strongest answer to the criticism -- still sometimes heard from jazz historians who focus on Waller's later success and superficially buffoonish stage persona -- that Waller was formulaic and "commercial," not a true artist.

Such improvisational performances have not generally been thought of as "compositions"; jazz in the 1920s and 1930s was still evolving from a largely unwritten tradition, and the very spontaneity of performances would seem to argue against the idea of composition at all. But part of the tradition, especially for keyboard players, involved learning the performances of the masters, if for no other reason than to be able to "cut" them at the sort of free-for-all competitions that took place on the Harlem party circuit. Waller himself learned to play a number of pieces by the master of the "stride" piano style, James P. Johnson, by slowing down player-piano rolls that Johnson had made and placing his fingers over the keys as they dropped down. Although each stride pianist had his own style, and might never play the same piece exactly the same way twice, a few particularly well-known numbers became standards. Every stride pianist learned, for example, Johnson's classic rendition of "Carolina Shout" -- if only to out-Johnson Johnson at it.

The obvious care with which Waller worked out his organ pieces offers another good argument for treating them as genuine compositions. And a volume of seventeen transcriptions of Waller's organ, piano, and vocal performances, to be published later this year as part of the American Musicological Society's Music of the United States of America (MUSA) series, may go a long way toward establishing Waller as an important, even great, American composer. His organ works in particular have a balance, structure, and movement that can seem almost classical, with series of increasingly embellished variations, often in very different styles and forms, welded together into beautiful, coherent wholes by their carefully laid-out harmonic underpinnings and interlocking melodic themes. Call-and-response passages, witty countermelodies, and Waller's rich exploitation of the many different voices of the organ to orchestrate different passages all suggest a meticulously planned performance that nevertheless retains its improvisational quality. With the publication of the MUSA volume, called Fats Waller: Performances in Transcription, several of Waller's organ works will be available for the first time in a definitive written form for study -- and they may even become part of the classical organ repertoire, just as Scott Joplin's piano rags are now an established part of the classical piano repertoire.

THE problematic difference between Joplin and Waller is that Joplin (like other ragtime composers) really did compose: he sat down at the piano, wrote out the notes, and published his pieces as sheet music. Although Waller's style of stride-piano playing was a direct descendant of ragtime, Waller rarely wrote out his pieces in full; not until the mid-1930s did he even write down so much as a skeleton of the parts for both hands. In general, he would write only a simple melody line and the most fragmentary additional notations of the overall dimensions of the piece. (All that was required to copyright an original tune was a melody and a title.) Waller did record some rolls for player piano, but these are considered unreliable sources, because rolls were often modified after they had been recorded, by having extra holes punched in them. A few of Waller's more popular piano pieces were published as sheet music during his lifetime -- but, says Paul Machlin, the author of the MUSA volume, these are "deeply simplified" versions cranked out by "some Tin Pan Alley hack" who listened to Waller's playing and came up with at best a rough approximation. The recordings of Waller's performances are thus the only authentic source for producing a written score.

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