In jazz, it’s dangerous to your reputation to be too popular; we critics prefer the obscure and the daunting. Popular jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck receive subtle disdain, and even the towering Louis Armstrong—he of the electric grin and the pop hits as well as the astonishing artistry—has had to battle a reputation as too much of an “entertainer.” Particularly since jazz became a self-conscious “art form,” a musician’s legacy has been better served by a frown or an addiction that by a wide swath of joy.
If You’ve Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It, a three-disc compilation of the finest music made by jazz pianist, composer, and singer Thomas “Fats” Waller, has arrived to blow that algorithm sky-high. It is a mighty blast of joy and a hurricane of artistry, as fresh and light and sublime today as it was 70 years ago. If you have the slightest interest in jazz or the American pop song tradition, this box set should be your best friend and companion deep into the cold weather. It’s a warm blanket and a life support system, a perfect holiday gift and a cherished friend on a long slushy drive.
It’s a perfect smile to last you all night long.
The good news comes in three compact discs covering recording sessions between 1926 and 1943, the year Waller died of pneumonia at only 39. But Fats’ story is hardly a sad one—a Virginia-born African-American who learned to play classical piano and organ in Baptist church, then got shot full of stride piano by no less a legend than James P. Johnson and Willie “The Lion” Smith. Fats was a young sensation, and the earliest of these sides finds him playing “St. Louis Blues” on the pipe organ at the tender age of 22—a great collision of sacred and profane, yet Ray Charles hadn’t even been born yet!
Each of the three discs has a theme: “Fats Plays Fats”, “Strictly Instrumental”, and “Fats Plays Tin Pan Alley”. Though each is approached chronologically, the set doesn’t feel like a history lesson. Waller’s playing is fully formed from the start. By 1928, where we hear him again on organ along with Johnson on piano and Jabbo Smith on trumpet, he is already swinging free of convention on “‘Ssippi”, and the string of instrument piano solos recorded in 1929 are stellar examples of his art. The piano solos demonstrate from the git-go that Waller is a superb technician and player, quite aside from his legendary humor and singing. His interpretations of standard pop tunes of the day (“Stardust” and “Love Me or Leave Me”) are elegant and filigreed on the one hand, then funky and simple on the other. His influence on Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Nat Cole is plain as day. But the original compositions—from a 25 year-old!—are particularly imposing: “Numb Fumblin’”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Smashing Thirds”, “African Ripples”, “Viper’s Drag”, and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now”. An imposing, striding left hand is all rubber and bounce, and the right hand spins riffs and melodies out of thin air.
The instrumentals from 1934 onward feature Fats Waller and his Rhythm, the group that made the finest and most mature recordings of the pianist’s career. The individual players are all subordinate to Waller, but the group identity is sterling—the basic New Orleans sound of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm section, but with a focus on accentuating melody and piano work. It may have been the very best pre-swing small band in American music, and to hear them on a Waller classic like “Blue Turnin’ Grey Over You” is to understand why jazz—the real thing, not some watered-down slop—was an “art music” on its way to becoming genuinely popular.
But the set is dominated, understandably, by two discs of glorious Waller vocal sides. As a singer, Waller was no Pops Armstrong, but his appeal is undeniable. He sings with a humorous sneer much of the time—the jazz vocal equivalent of Jack Black’s charmingly arch rock singing. Of course, the famous Waller originals are classics—“Honeysuckle Rose”, “The Joint Is Jumpin’”, “Squeeze Me” and the like. Here they all are—in terrific audio fidelity and with Waller’s rhythm band in lip-smackin’ form. But the lesser-known Waller tunes are also to be savored. “The Panic Is On” is funny but also features a sweet riff melody and a smooth bridge. “A Hopeless Love Affair” is a relaxed mid-tempo stride that lets Fats play it tenderly straight, and “Hold My Hand” is a hidden gem where Waller sings like a hip muted trumpet—an exemplary ‘30s track by any standard.
The second vocal disc finds Fats doing pop tunes of the day—stuff like “Let’s Get Away From It All” and “Dinah”. But the repertoire is not the usual Tin Pan Alley of most jazz vocal discs. There are healthy doses of novelty numbers, yes, but also the kind of thing that a decade later would be called “jump music”—“The Sheik of Araby”, “Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)”, or “Darktown Strutters Ball”. These are the songs that largely disappeared from jazz after World War Two, and hearing them performed by Waller in such a rockin’ style makes you wonder . . . why? A tune like “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business” works on about every level. Purely as novelty fun, the tune ends on Waller’s signature gloss on the lyrics, with the pianist inventing his own monologue to expand on the written words: “You keep runnin’ your mouth—you have your orifice, and I handle my transactions. Yeah! I can’t tolerate that jive you’re handin’ out here!” But it also features a truly forward-looking first instrumental chorus, with Gene Sedric’s clarinet about as hip and blue as it can get. The first two vocal choruses are in that mode—models of R&B emotional restraint. That it all jumps with a characteristic stride groove reminds you the track was recorded in 1940, but that’s about it.
How about the flag-waving swinger that Waller makes out of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do”? Though it’s usually played slowly and for maximum ironic pathos—usually by female singers selling a kind of wounded femininity—Waller just jumps it from the very start, and the free flow of the rhythm is like musical helium lifting the performance and the listeners’ spirits.
That’s the effect of this great American music: to raise you up and make you feel great. The artistry—considerable pianistic prowess, huge songwriting chops, and vocal limberness of rare power—is all there to support your pleasure in listening.
That the formula still works after 70 years is a miracle, I suppose. The miracle of Fats Waller.