Fats Waller

Centennial Collection

by Robert R. Calder

17 June 2004


Waller -- the Public Image

This set’s by and large a sheerly technological update on the first model of Fats Waller 12-inch vinyl LP American RCA Victor produced in the ‘50s. With the exception of a two-LP set of studio recordings for radio broadcast, its pattern was followed through the decades of vinyl production. This CD simply has more titles (a radio session, an organ feature, and a neatly naughty item recorded for export to troops in time of war—understandably not issued at the time). The second disc in the box is a DVD. Beside an animation founded on Waller’s recording of “Your Feet’s Too Big”, there’s film footage of Waller in variety or vaudeville stage music routines (one from a movie, the others “soundies”, earlier more music-centred precedents of latterday pop videos). Great fun, but really the DVD tracks ought to be listed on the liner booklet beside the 22 items on the audio CD . Given the availability of other Waller collections on sometimes low-price CD, the DVD is surely the major buying point. There’s nothing else special about its re-representation of the commonplace Waller image, a vast cliche which locks out the depth of the man and the range of his music. It’s based on the commercial treatment of his talents on issued recordings (RCA Victor) from 1935 on, the year following what’s spoken of as his breakthrough.

There’s an enormous variety in Waller’s few dozen recordings (mostly for RCA Victor) from 1934 and before. Check www.allmusicguide.com for reference to collections from the whole of Waller’s recorded range—with a variety of ensembles of front-line and (daringly at the time in public, though commonplace after hours) both black and white musicians, as well as some piano solos. It took several vinyl albums for French RCA to pioneer the issue of all Waller’s pre-1934 recordings in chronological order. French RCA also collected all his solo piano recordings, belatedly, on LP. Other than a Scandinavian independent’s mostly bootlegged collection including studio and off-the air-recordings, the first LP of Waller piano solos was issued by Argentinian RCA Victor. Mike Lipskin has seen the piano solos all onto a 2-CD RCA set.

cover art

Fats Waller

Centennial Collection

(RCA Victor)
US: 20 Apr 2004
UK: Available as import

The public fed the American RCA Victor misconstruction of Waller was not, it seems, to be twitted, or given the idea dear ole Fats wasn’t predictable. For all that he’d done and continued to do, the formula was trumpet, saxophone/clarinet, guitar, bass and drums, on mostly the latest ephemeral pop-song with Waller vocal. One used to be told of amazing send-ups which redeemed the direst material. The direst material is irredeemable.

Most band numbers on this set make me think Waller was actually parodying his “stride” piano style by playing four-square and fustian when not being elaborately fanciful. There is a reliance on stock phrases, but why take routine seriously. Mike Lipskin’s reference to the untroubled ease with which tunes were turned into band performance underrates the group’s professionalism and ignores how little was usually involved. Why do different things on, respectively, tune A and tune B when you can’t tell the difference between tune A and tune B? (Tunes of A & B types are not represented here)

The opening track of the audio CD in this set is both clever and not clever. The announcer preceding Waller’s performance of “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” is a period touch. Waller’s first recorded performance of that song rescued it from oblivion undeserved or otherwise? In musical as well as comedic terms there’s at least one better version of which could have been used, Brrrrrlieve me!

There’s nothing from the November 7, 1934 recording date for Victor, which was the nearest Waller’s Rhythm came to having top-line personnel. The teenaged Al Casey (b.1915) was and remained one of the major jazz guitarists (his feature with Waller, “Buck Jumpin’”, ain’t here but ought to have been! It shows Waller clowning in the background without interfering with a first-rate musical performance). Bizarrely, Casey’s under-represented on this set—a disproportionate number of titles have the efficient John Smith on guitar. Incidentally the publicity bumph with this set refers to a guitar solo “from the rhythm” on one of the DVD titles. So why shouldn’t I think of the blurbist who penned that insult as a faceless wonder? The November ‘34 date also had Bill Coleman, unique lyric trumpeter. Waller’s usual reedman was Gene Sedric, overrated as a jazzman by Hugues Panassie but abidingly interesting for a St. Louis clarinet style his contemporary Norman Mason had to abjure (playing in Singleton Palmer’s band in their hometown) to meet public demand for a “Dixieland” style strictly of the tourist brochure.

Sedric and Waller had a little comedy routine useful when playing schmutter, a mock salon, palm court, or Balldorf Pasteuria style. The virtuoso flourishes, the phrasing in Waller’s clownings and parodies are incredible.

The piano solo “Original E-Flat Blues” is different, not only wistful but quiet (judging from the curious sound of the lower keys on the piano); the recording level might have been bumped up in the studio. Waller’s playing with Eddie Condon on the Commodore label is quiet and scarcely identifiable as his—and perhaps not only because he was moonlighting.

Why is the recording selected from radio archives “rare”? Is it perhaps because it’s one of the duller sets, with the solo piano feature “Hallelujah” maybe Waller’s tamest ever recording of it? He wasn’t tame in the “If You’re a Viper” recording the troops didn’t get to hear—and couldn’t have understood if unacquainted with the use, abuse, and effects of marijuana.

This CD isn’t all that bad a selection from the cross-section of orthodox Waller the public knew and loved, but while Charlie Shavers’s “Undecided” was a rare inclusion of better material in that repertoire, well, the performance is poor, rhythmically lumpy, the tempo amiss, with a performance matching all that could be done with some standard songplugger’s rubbish. November ‘34 had everything, from fresh comedy to good music, the ideal repertoire from all sides. We do have a long organ performance in a style which re-emerged full-blown at the feet and fingers of Count Basie on one of his memorable two-keyboard recordings with Oscar Peterson, a large sound nothing like subsequent jazz organists. On this 1927 title there’s modest vocal encouragement and surprisingly late in the performance a vocal from the admirable Alberta Hunter, “Beale Street Blues”. The closer, “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” (1940), taken at a brisker pace than usual, is one of the best performances by Waller and his Rhythm. There are even hints of the piano style that might have been to come.

Waller’s talents bespoke a considerable future as musician as well as entertainer and songwriter. He died not, I think, of “overwork rather than pneumonia”, as Mike Lipskin’s sleevenote has it, but of his whole way of life and situation. Not mentioned by Lipskin, in Paris in the 1930s Hugues Panassie found him a quiet enough spirit, with an enthusiasm for one vin du table which could only be accounted for by naivety and the effects of prohibition bathtub gin on his palate. Waller was entranced by the organ (the “God-Box”) in Notre Dame Cathedral, and in London he composed and recorded a suite of piano solos as well as (with Scottish, English and Caribbean musicians) more items on his standard recording pattern of the time. Waller toured in the USA sometimes with a more or less ad hoc big band, recording one masterpiece (which could have been here!) in “I Got Rhythm”. It has one of the only five or six soprano sax solos ever recorded by Emmett Matthews, a rare individual voice on that horn. The band itself hardly saw the inside of a studio, but its “I Got Rhythm” includes representation of Waller’s nightly on-stage duel with the staff pianist, the tiny sorely neglected Hank Duncan. It was modelled on the “cutting contests” which went on at those rent parties so much is made of in Professor Lipskin’s notes. The still earlier band called “Fats Waller and his Buddies” deserves mention too. On such music, Mike Lipskin also had a hand in some of the better efforts to represent Waller qua musician which can be found in the CD repertoire. See www.allmusic.com.

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