“The Jitterbug Waltz” (1942) Fats Waller

“The Jitterbug Waltz”

Composed by Fats Waller.

Recorded by Fats Waller and His Rhythm for Victor on March 16, 1942 in New York.

Thomas “Fats” Waller, Hammond organ, directing: John “Bugs” Hamilton, Courtney Williams, Joe Thomas, trumpets; George Wilson, Herb Flemming, trombones; Gene “Honeybear” Cedric, clarinet and tenor saxophone; George James, Lawrence Fields, alto saxophones; Bob Carroll, tenor saxophone; Al Casey, guitar; Cedric Wallace, bass; Arthur Trappier, drums.

The story: In an era when many outsized personalities and talents were presented to audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere, Thomas “Fats” Waller stands out as being even more outsized and talented than most. Waller was a large man, standing some six feet tall and weighing 300 pounds. He was gregarious, and at times boisterous, outrageous, and hilarious. To say that he was charismatic would be an understatement. When he walked onstage, audiences applauded before he said a word or played (or sang) a note. When he entered a room, it lit up. But at the core of all of this external flash and magnetism was an extreme musical sensibility. Melodies poured out of him. He was a marvelously talented keyboard artist. Nevertheless, his virtuosity as a pianist and organist was often overshadowed by his booming personality.

In a rigidly segregated America from the late 1920s until his premature death in 1943, Waller the entertainer was constantly in demand in-person by white audiences. His recordings and radio broadcasts were hits among both white and black audiences, as were the films he appeared in. Like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Cab Calloway, Waller was a hero to black people in the United States. He was an example of how great talent and hard work could make a black man successful in a white-dominated, segregated society that was often hostile to black people.

I am quoting (with a few of my own parenthetical comments) the excellent, concise biographical essay written by Paul Machlin which can be found with much other information (and photos) about Fats Waller the man, musician and entertainer at the website http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/ijs/fw/fatsmain.htm  This website was created and is maintained by The Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University at Newark, New Jersey. It is a wonderful resource for people who want to learn about Fats Waller. I highly recommend visiting it.

“The Harlem that Thomas Wright Waller was born into on May 21, 1904 was already well on its way to becoming the largest and most important urban community of African-Americans, though it had yet to acquire the cachet that would mark it as a center for African-American culture in the 1920s. Waller’s parents, Edward and Adeline, had come to New York from Virginia in 1888, and by 1902 had permanently settled in Harlem. ‘Fats,’ as he would come to be known in his youth, was the youngest of the couple’s five surviving children. (There were eleven Waller children. Six died in childhood. Thomas was the seventh born of the eleven. MZ) Like many of their peers, Edward and Adeline were devout and regular churchgoers, and deeply musical as well. Indeed, music in a religious context informed much of their daily lives. This exalted regard for music evidently had a more profound impact on young Tom than on any of their other children. (As a child, he could play most tunes on piano or harmonium soon after hearing them.) Possibly as early as his fifth or sixth year he was already at work playing the harmonium to accompany his family’s singing at street corner sermons delivered by his father. (Tom’s mother to whom he was very close, died in 1920 when he was 16. It was a severe blow to him.)

Waller’s musical education intensified in his teenage years. (He studied string bass, violin and piano in public school.) By 1920 he was studying stride piano in earnest with the most important practicioner of the style, James P. Johnson. (Waller was also very much a part of the Harlem piano performance scene of the time, which included much interaction with other stride style pianists including Willie “The Lion” Smith, Luckey Roberts, and the youngster William Basie.) At about this time he also began to play organ regularly at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater. The young audience there undoubtedly brought out the comic and the theatrical in his persona. During the next few years, as a result of his increasingly frequent public appearances, Waller came to be recognized as one of the most gifted and inventive of the younger generation of stride-style pianists. He made his first recording late in 1922. Other early performance activity included accompanying several different blues singers on recordings and cutting numerous piano rolls in 1923. During the early years of The 1920s Waller continued to play for rent parties (*), but broadened his professional experience by performing at nightclubs (speakeasies) as well. And by the time he composed the music for two revues with Spencer Williams in 1926, he had also already written dozens of songs,though not all were published. (His first published composition was “Wild Cat Blues,” probably written in 1922.)

The pace of Waller’s already energetic career picked up noticeably in 1929. In that year alone, he was involved in numerous extensive recording sessions for Victor (on an ad hoc basis, he would not secure a continuing Victor contract for another few years), at the company’s newly refurbished studios in Camden, New Jersey (which was a former church with a fine pipe organ and good acoustics), sometimes doing as many as five takes of one song, switching in some cases between pipe organ and piano. 1929 was also one of Waller’s most productive years as a composer: he completed some of his finest songs during this year: ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ ‘I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,’ ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ ‘What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?,’ ‘The Minor Drag,’ ‘Numb Fumblin’,’ and many others. From late 1930 through the first half of 1931 he appeared on radio (the CBS network flagship station WABC), and from 1932-1934 he broadcast his own show regularly for superstation WLW in Cincinnati, being billed as ‘Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club.’ (This radio show was pivotal in Waller’s career. It led directly to him being presented on tour throughout the Midwest on the RKO theater circuit. Fats also performed anonymously on WLW’s Wurlitzer organ on a late night show called ‘Moon River,’ where he played romantic classical and semi-classical works.) All of this work on radio—most of which required him to talk constantly when he was not playing and which offered an unparalleled opportunity to sing, satirize, and provide a running commentary while he was playing—caused Waller to sharpen his already considerable verbal skills as a comedian and entertainer.

Waller’s (first one-year contractual) association with Victor Records in 1934 ushered in a new, stable, but ultimately destructively hectic phase of Waller’s career (that would last until his death). The number and kinds of engagements he was offered increased markedly: he went to Hollywood in 1935 and again in 1943 for appearances in films; he toured throughout the United States under what can only be considered brutally challenging circumstances; he made two successful but densely packed concert tours of England and Europe in 1938 and 1939, and to appear with extraordinary frequency in nightclubs and on radio, all the while continuing to make recordings for Victor. Much of this frenetic activity was organized by Waller’s last manager, Ed Kirkeby, who officially took over that position in 1938, though he had probably begun informally assisting Phil Ponce (Waller’s previous manager), as early as 1935. (By the late 1930s, Waller had joined the very select group of black entertainers/musicians that included Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington as top earners. Nevertheless, because of racial discrimination, they earned less than many white bandleaders.) Yet despite Waller’s grueling regimen of work, he still found time to compose individual songs, and a suite for solo piano, as well as the score for the show Early To Bed, which occupied much of his time in early 1943. Occasionally, he would relieve the banality of Victor’s diet of Tin Pan Alley songs (many of which he parodied), with recordings of spirituals, folk songs, and stride interpretations of excerpts from well-known operas.

Waller traveled to Hollywood in October 1943 to appear at a club known as the Zanzibar Room. During the course of this engagement, he became ill, probably with pneumonia. His health, already severely taxed by overindulgence in food and alcohol, as well as by his (long-time) punishing pace of overall performing activity, deteriorated markedly over a very few weeks. Returning to New York from Los Angeles aboard the passenger train the Santa Fe Chief, Waller succumbed to pneumonia during the night of December 14-15, at some point prior to the train’s arrival in Kansas City, Missouri. His funeral was held in Harlem; over 4200 people were in attendance. As the Reverend Dr. Adam Clayton Powell remarked in his eulogy, ‘Fats Waller always played to a packed house.'”

(NOTE: The image at right contains Waller’s answer when asked to explain jazz.)

The music: Here we have Fats at the Hammond organ playing his melody “The Jitterbug Waltz.” This performance starts with him going into the descending main theme after a four-bar introduction. Aside from a few strums from Al Casey’s guitar early on, Waller is supported only by the gently brushed snare drum of Arthur Trappier through the first chorus. As the second chorus begins, we hear Gene “Honeybear” Cedric on clarinet playing the melody, often with Waller shadowing him subtly from the keyboard. In this chorus, Casey’s tasty guitar is prominent. The other instruments come in for the third chorus, with Waller playing along with them on the organ. The overall pattern of the arrangement is one that builds gently, with more instruments playing as the performance progresses.

Waller’s organ playing is every bit as nimble and swinging as his piano playing. He was a most fastidious musician. One rarely hears even the hint of any mistake in his playing. Despite this, he always swung. In the 1920s,’30s and ’40s when Waller was making records, the use of an organ by any jazz soloist or ensemble was almost completely unheard of. This made no difference to Waller: He had always had a serious musical relationship with the organ, and had been entertaining people by playing the organ since the mid-1920s. In time, other jazz organists would catch up with him.

Waller and Ada Brown in the 1943 film “Stormy Weather.”

The overall musical effect Waller achieves with his hypnotic melody and the 3/4 waltz meter is one of swirling gently. This is not music one wants to listen to after a night on the town and too many cocktails.

(*) Rent parties were a delightful Harlem custom of the 1920s and 1930s. When it was time to pay the monthly rent, and the tenants of apartments having a piano in their parlors were a little short, they would invite an exciting young jazz pianist, like Tom Waller, to play the piano in exchange for food and drink. Then the tenants would invite guests, lay in food and drink, and have a rent party. All invited guests understood that they would have to “feed the kitty” during the party until the hosts had collected enough money to cover all of their party expenses, and make up the rent shortfall.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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