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(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)

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.

Transcribing these musical sounds onto paper decades after they were recorded was a surprisingly difficult and exacting task. Machlin was motivated to try it, he says, in part because he was frustrated at how often Waller's work has been misunderstood by critics and historians who simply do not appreciate his formidable keyboard technique and his inventive genius. "You only really understand that when you write it down and look at it," Machlin says.

Machlin, a pianist and a graduate of Yale and the University of California at Berkeley, is a professor of music at Colby College, in Maine. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman. He became interested in Fats Waller in 1976, when he offered to teach a course at Colby on American music to mark the Bicentennial. That led to a course on jazz, and then to a year off, in 1980, when he began some serious research on Waller. His book Stride: The Music of Fats Waller was published in 1985. (When Machlin shifted his research from Wagner to Waller, a librarian friend remarked, "I couldn't help noticing you haven't moved out of the WAs yet.")

From the archives:

"Black and White Intertwined," by William H. Youngren (February, 1999)
A groundbreaking new history documents the rich collaboration between black and white players in the early decades of jazz.

Like many pianists, Machlin realized that Waller's keyboard works were something exceptional. He was dismayed by critics who said that Waller had "wasted his talent" or wasn't serious about his music. "There's a particular kind of white jazz historian who sees jazz as an expression of oppressed people," Machlin says. "And so when they see a commercially successful African-American, it somehow 'lessens the authenticity.'" Waller managed to get very rich. But Machlin insists that in Waller's case originality and authenticity were not at all incompatible with commercial success; even when Waller recorded "trivial" tunes, he managed to mark them with his genius, and his onstage antics were often a sophisticated and subtly sarcastic commentary. Waller had a way of mocking the saccharine lyrics of the popular songs that Victor wanted him to record ("I'm crazy 'bout my baby" became "I'm exasperated about my offspring" in one take) while turning even the most fatuous tunes into raw material for his "endlessly inventive melodic imagination," in Machlin's words.

The rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexity of the stride style is part of the challenge in reducing these performances to paper. In both ragtime and stride the left hand alternates low bass notes with chords near the middle of the keyboard. But in stride the bass figures are usually harmonically rich tenths rather than simple octaves, and the chords are often bluesy seventh chords with flatted notes and clusters of four or five notes in place of simple three-note chords. The left hand swings before or after the beat in a much freer rhythmic variation than the steady "oompah" syncopation of ragtime.

The real hallmark of stride is the dazzling improvisational embellishments by the right hand, known in the business as "tricks" -- fast-moving flourishes that break up or ornament the melody line. Waller's organ pieces adapt the stride style to the organ by using the pedal board -- a separate bass keyboard played with the feet, which sounds its own set of low-pitched pipes -- to accomplish the back-and-forth bass-note leaps, freeing up the left hand to do some fancier rhythmic and harmonic work. Waller fully exploited other unique capabilities of the organ in adapting his pieces to the instrument. On the organ, a note sounds for as long as the key is held down; that creates the possibility of introducing countermelodies against a sustained legato line, an effect Waller put to good use on several occasions.

Computer programs exist that can automatically transcribe musical sound into musical notation, but Machlin found they were of little use with Waller's music, mainly because they are not sophisticated enough to capture his rhythmic subtleties. So Machlin works the old-fashioned way. First he listens to a song until he has a basic picture firmly in his mind of its harmonic shape and of what the hands are doing in each phrase. Then he listens to one bar -- or sometimes half a bar -- at a time, writes down what he thinks he hears, and then tries it out on the keyboard to see if it sounds right. Then he goes back and fills in what he's missed. Sometimes he plays a tape at half speed to try to pick out what Waller was doing. Next comes an extensive process of editing and checking and seeking the opinions of others. "You have someone look over it and they question just about everything," he says. The low fidelity of many of the early recordings doesn't help. Because musical sounds contain natural overtones, it can be extremely difficult to tell whether all or only some of the notes of a chord were actually played. In a few passages, where "despite a lot of listening and agony" Machlin is still not absolutely sure, he has marked in brackets on the transcriptions what he thinks Waller was doing. It can take a full day's work to produce just a starting draft of twenty-four bars; transcribing a first draft of one complete piece can take weeks.








From the archives:

"The Many Faces of Ives," by David Schiff (January, 1997)
This year's Charles Ives is another illustration of how protean our most American composer remains.

THE MUSA series, which is being supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is being published by A-R Editions, is intended to highlight monuments in American music that have never been published in definitive form. It is first and foremost a scholarly project, and by its very nature its primary audience is likely to be musicologists and historians of music who wish to study the scores, rather than performers interested in playing them. Some volumes are devoted to a single piece, others to a series of pieces; they include never-before-published works along with works that have been available only in badly edited or inconsistent editions. Volumes published so far or in progress include the songs of Charles Ives, John Philip Sousa marches, Ruth Crawford's chamber music, American fiddle tunes, slave songs, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Irving Berlin's early songs. The Fats Waller volume will include three organ performances ("I Ain't Got Nobody," "Rusty Pail," and "Waiting at the End of the Road") and several piano solos and popular songs ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," "Honeysuckle Rose"), along with some small-ensemble performances.

Will any organists or pianists play these solo works once they are available in standard written notation? The pieces are full of vitality, originality, and interest, and on those grounds it may be hard to imagine why they should not find a home in the keyboard repertoire -- again, much as Scott Joplin's rags have, and for much the same reason: the pieces are not only musically rich but often very witty.

"I Ain't Got Nobody" is one of the best illustrations of the Waller genius and wit in action: It begins with a slow, lush, theater-organ treatment of the verse, full of swelling chords and melodramatic retards, that is kept just on the near side of schmaltz by a subdued stride tempo coming steadily from the pedals. But, Machlin says, almost immediately we realize that Waller is having us on. By the time the chorus arrives, the left hand has started sneaking in with some off-beat syncopations, and a lilting little countermelody begins to mock the sentimentality of the lachrymose melody and lyrics. Then all pretense is dropped, the tempo picks up, and we're off on a bluesy flight of "tricks" and up-tempo stride figures, call-and-response choruses, and melodic variations.

One reason that organists and pianists may not find themselves tempted to tackle Waller's solo works, however, is that they are very hard; the immediate impact of Machlin's publication may be less to encourage their performance than to generate renewed reverence for Waller's skill. Like all great performers, Waller made it seem easy, though it is anything but. (Waller owed some of that skill to the fact that he had huge hands, which let him do things on the keyboard that few others could. The blind pianist George Shearing said that shaking hands with Waller was like "grabbing a bunch of bananas.") The pieces are not for the faint-hearted; they are certainly much more difficult than Joplin's -- though, as Machlin says, "that is part of their charm."

The other question is Should anyone try to perform these works? The improvisational nature of Waller's style does make one wonder if imitating note-for-note what he did on one occasion is the equivalent of performing a written composition, or whether it runs the danger of winding up as something grotesque, like an Elvis impersonation. Machlin says he hopes that pianists and organists will play the pieces, but he admits that some funny questions do arise. Dan Morgenstern, the director of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, has observed that Waller must have played a piece like "Honeysuckle Rose" every working day of his life, and he never played it the same way twice. "The recording becomes a frozen performance," Machlin says, "a benchmark -- willy-nilly, in spite of itself." But it's all we have to go on, and "whatever else you may speculate about, you know that that happened." Machlin also points out that Waller "certainly wanted to be taken seriously [as a composer] at the end of his life, very badly"; he began to put much more effort into reworking the new tunes and left-hand lines that he composed. "Some people say to me, 'Why should someone play these pieces when Fats Waller has already done it?'" Machlin says. "My answer is 'For the same reason you'd play a Chopin étude when Chopin has already done it.'"

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one.)


Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His book on code breaking in World War II, Battle of Wits, will be published in October.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Resurrecting Fats - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 100-104.