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REPLAYING FATS WALLER'S HIP HARMONICS

By Roderick Nordell / June 3, 1994



"One never know, do one?" Fats Waller used to switch to a lordly baritone to ask that question at the end of a raffish jazz tune. And one didn't know, did one, that the music he wrote and so blithely played in the 1920s, '30s, and early '40s would be reinterpreted today like that of a classical composer?

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To be sure, as he might mockingly intone, Thomas ``Fats'' Waller's own records remain to confirm just how elegant and subtle, as well as romping, his piano playing could be. I listened to those 78s of ``Fats Waller and His Rhythm'' when they were new. They belonged to an older student in our high school band, who'd spin them for us at his house after school, bringing the big-city world of jazz to our little Midwestern town. And in jazz there is sometimes a mustn't-touch attitude suggesting that no one can match the records of an originating performer like Ellington, Armstrong, or Waller, so why try?

But would anyone discourage other pianists from recording Chopin's music if Chopin's own performances were available on compact disc?

Waller's career, like Chopin's a century earlier, was brief. But he put his stamp on the swing era. (Waller defines swing: ``It's two-thirds rhythm and one-third soul.'') In recent years, his music has stayed alive in musicals named for his tunes - ``Ain't Misbehavin' '' and ``Black and Blue.''

The innovative Dizzy Gillespie marveled at Waller's ``bridge'' for ``Misbehavin' '' - the ``b'' in the a-a-b-a structure of four eight-bar segments: ``I haven't heard anything in music since that's more hip, harmonically and logically.'' Gillespie wrote in his autobiography: ``Fats Waller influenced me not only through his music, but his whole personality, because he was funny, and then you could sit him down at the piano and close his mouth and he'd play.''

FOUR decades ago, Louis Armstrong devoted an LP to Waller's music, ``Satch Plays Fats.'' Now, in honor of the recent 90th anniversary of Waller's birth (May 21, 1904), two wonderfully different pianists devote CDs to his music - ``Andre Previn Plays Fats Waller'' (Grudge Records) and Hank Jones's ``Handful of Keys'' (Verve). And I've just also listened to a new CD, ``Bewitched'' (Bluebell), by clarinetist Putte Wickman, Sweden's Benny Goodman, including vintage performances of two Waller tunes - one that neither of the pianists plays, ``Blue Turning Grey Over You,'' and one that everybody plays, ``Honeysuckle Rose.''

The three CD performances of ``Honeysuckle'' alone would suggest how much composer Waller gives his fellow musicians to work with, how much his music stimulates their imagination and propels their improvising. Charlie Parker's bop hit, ``Scrapple from the Apple,'' grew from the chords of ``Honeysuckle.'' On the simplest level, it's a tune that lends itself to different tempos: After the band plays it slow and languorous once or twice, a drummer like me often gets a chance for a four-bar break to double the speed as the dancers laughingly (usually) shift gears to catch up.

Waller was trained in the classics, his favorite instrument was the organ, and he longed to excel as an interpreter of Bach's ecclesiastical music. So maybe it's no more pixyish than Waller himself to suggest that ``Honeysuckle Rose'' might be discussed in the way composer Luciano Berio discussed ``closed'' and ``open'' classical music in this year's celebrated Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard University. Open music gains from the number of perspectives from which it can be understood. Stravinsky's ``Rite of Spring,'' for example, ``lives many lives in one.'' The current ``Honeysuckles'' show that Waller's music must be ``open,'' living many lives in one.