If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It
The Best from an Early Jazz Showman
Thomas "Fats" Waller, the pianist, composer, and bandleader, represents a pinnacle of jazz as bug-eyed rampantly exuberant show music. Not art music. His band offered snappy arrangements and great soloists, yet for all its slickness, it mostly prized having fun—a kind of campy, shuffling fun that shoots through the music at a hundred miles per hour. Joking and cavorting, Waller and his bands—usually billed as "Fats Waller and His Rhythm"—specialized in a blithe, and instantly infectious, swing.
Along with Louis Armstrong, the new York–born Waller (1904–1943) was a key architect of early jazz. A prodigy on the piano, Waller was also schooled in the organ works of J. S. Bach, and received additional education from Harlem stride master James P. Johnson. Blessed with a light, effervescent touch, Waller linked elements of stride, boogie-woogie, and ragtime into jaw-dropping displays: Seek out the impressive "Honey Hush," recorded in 1939, to hear an early foreshadowing of jump blues and rock and roll, a simple tune propelled by a rollicking, bawdy beat. Waller's spry rhythm is just one part of his contribution: He's among the most prolific composers of his era, responsible for such immortal party-time themes as "The Joint Is Jumpin'." Several songs he wrote early in his career—including "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Honeysuckle Rose"—became instant standards, crucial to the repertoire of virtually everyone who played jazz in the 1930s.
Though Waller's recording career was brief, he managed to leave his mark across an impressive range of music. This set divides his output into three categories: There's a disc devoted to delirious originals he sang with a winking, insouciant air; another focusing on hardworking jazz instrumentals that showcase his pianistic flair and ability to swing intensely while his drummers play lightly with brushes; and a third that features his interpretations of popular songs by George Gershwin and others. Together they offer a complete picture of Waller as creative force and show-business wizard, a performer who could play circles around his competition and, with every step, spread his own brand of sheer delight.
Released: 2006, RCA
Key Tracks: "Honeysuckle Rose," "I'm Crazy About My Baby," "You Ain't the Only Oyster in the Stew," "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Catalog Choice: Handful of Keys
Next Stop: Jelly Roll Morton: Birth of the Hot
After That: Eubie Blake: That's Ragtime!
Book Page: 843