REPLAYING FATS WALLER'S HIP HARMONICS
"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?
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.
Putte Wickman's made-in-Sweden version, laid back but swinging, applies his own mellow touches to the kind of standard treatment that is broadly familiar.
Berlin-born Andre Previn, who played jazz before he began conducting symphony orchestras, takes off at a furious pace. He finds a new riff that builds, disappears, and returns like a motive in a Schubert allegro.
Hank Jones's ``Honeysuckle'' evolves slowly from haunting, many-layered chords. Its feeling is wonderfully Fats, whose lacy, impish version in the Smithsonian collection of piano jazz is also slow. But it bears fascinating traces of Jones's musical explorations for a half century beyond the early days when Waller, 14 years his senior, was a prime influence.
Count Basie, Waller's exact contemporary, learned the organ from him when they were in their teens. Fats was already playing the mighty Wurlitzer in a Harlem movie theater, and he invited Basie to sit beside him and work the bass pedals with his feet until he learned to use his hands on the keyboard. The kinetic riff ending Basie's theme song, ``One O'Clock Jump,'' comes from one used earlier by Waller.
THE Jones and Previn CDs together offer 14 different Waller tunes, including four that appear on both. The words are missing, but a recent biography of Andy Razaf, ``Black and Blue,'' honors the lyricist whom Waller called his ``favorite poet next to Wordsworth.'' The title echoes Razaf's own struggles (he got a flat $200 for the words to the all-time Glenn Miller hit ``In the Mood'') as well as his sadly eloquent lyrics for ``(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.'' It was Louis Armstrong's recording of this song that the narrator of Ralph Ellison's classic ``Invisible Man'' dwelled on in his underground isolation, ending his prologue with: ``But what did I do to be so blue? Bear with me.''
Biographer Barry Singer tells the legend of how ``Honeysuckle Rose'' was born when Waller and Razaf were commissioned to do some soft-shoe dance music for a show with Louis Armstrong and orchestra. They got started but were not finished when Waller had to leave to play at a nightclub. Razaf called him at the club and sang what Waller had just written. Neither of them could remember the eight-bar bridge. As they desperately hummed and shouted over the phone, ``Waller devised a new one on the spot.''
It was quite different from the Hollywood version of ``Tin Pan Alley,'' where two white stars, Jack Oakie and John Payne, are shown writing the song in prison. Razaf complained to no avail. Acting in another film, Waller was given stereotyped ``Yassuh'' (instead of ``Yes, sir'') lines that he insisted be changed - and they were.
Waller had become bankable enough to have a say. But in getting there, he virtually gave away many songs, often writing them just before they were to be performed or recorded. Once he played on a recording to pay for a dozen hamburgers he had eaten at one sitting.
Whatever his excesses, Fats himself left people as cheered as his music did - and does with each new playing.
Said Basie: ``I used to see him every Saturday night standing on the corner ready to go to work. He would have on his tuxedo and a new straw hat, and I never will forget how fine he looked and how good it felt just to be around him.''