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.

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.")

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.

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.'"