King of Razz

Alfred Appel Jr

On the eve of World War Two, Fats Waller was, after Louis Armstrong, the jazz musician and jazz entertainer best known and most loved by the American and English populations at large. In recent years, however, Waller’s reputation has declined, possibly because the jazz canon has room for only one cut-up: Armstrong. The recent issuing on three compact discs of Waller’s alternative takes (1923-41)[*] means that all his recordings are available concurrently for the first time, which makes this an ideal moment for a reappraisal of the artist – a term Waller wouldn’t have used.

As singers and jazz entertainers, Waller and his good friend Armstrong often had to modify or tear apart and rebuild inferior Tin Pan Alley material in a manner analogous to the ways in which Modernists such as Picasso begot paper collage, wood assemblage and metal sculpture. ‘I’m king of the ragpickers!’ Picasso proclaimed gleefully around 1930, after he had created Woman in a Garden, his first welded tin and scrap iron sculpture, proof that machines and Tin Can Alley do not ‘rule the world’, as Leopold Bloom laments over noisy newspaper printing presses in Ulysses. Cut-up is the operative pun for Armstrong and Waller – as well as Picasso and Braque, inventors of the papier collé in 1912, and Calder, whose vernacular raw materials included sheet metal, copper tubing, wire, pipe cleaners, corks, plywood, driftwood, coffee tins and string, all put to canny use. Punning represents the royal ragpicker’s challenge and Modernist recycler’s ambition: to create two or more words and meanings where there had been one, to make something memorable out of almost nothing.

As extroverted singers offering discursive material, Armstrong and his contemporary Waller present striking, instructive contrasts. (Armstrong was born in 1901, Waller in 1904.) Waller mounted frontal comic assaults on every sort of song, while Armstrong the trouper usually did the best he could with silly, dubious or offensive lyrics. His first recording of ‘When It’s Sleepy Time down South’ (1931) is a perfect example of fakelore transformed by the singer’s plangent sincerity. Armstrong expressed disapproval obliquely. A chorus of scat could by implication reduce dumb or demeaning lyrics to nonsense, and his trumpet solo would then scatter the remains, as in the coon song ‘Shine’ (1931, ‘Just because my teeth are pearly,’ it begins). Like the Elizabethan clown, Armstrong’s and Waller’s personae of joy – genuine or cartoon rictus smiles, who could tell? – enabled them to take splendid liberties. ‘I’m a ding dong daddy from Dumas! And you oughta see me do my stuff,’ sings Armstrong in 1931. After another silly line, he suddenly croaks: ‘Oh, uh, umm [sounds to that effect, verbal treading of water], and I done forgot the words!’ He confesses with more glee than guilt. Did his listeners understand that Armstrong was declaring the song too stupid for words? Does this constitute cultural criticism of (white) Tin Pan Alley’s hold on America? This surely can be said of Waller’s singing, though it wasn’t what he set out to do as a serious youngster devoted to the piano, classical as well as jazz.

Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller – ‘Tom’ or ‘Thomas’ to his friends and family – had formidable technique, akin to a great athlete’s, and an exhaustless inventiveness and capacity to delight. His articulation of notes was impeccable, however fast the tempo. His dramatic sense of dynamics allowed two-handed thunderstorms to give way suddenly to delicate raindrops struck by his right hand – waxing poetic quite overtly, a risk that Waller was willing to take whenever he played the pipe organ, from Bach (unrecorded) to ‘St Louis Blues’ to traditional Negro spirituals. The powerful oompah of his left hand could serve alone as his rhythm section. At a time when live music was the rule, Waller the one-man band found steady employment in and around New York City from the age of 16, much to the chagrin of his very proper parents. If he had been independently wealthy or had a Lincoln Center appointment, he would have performed as an organ or piano soloist exclusively (for the latter, listen to ‘A Handful of Keys’, ‘Numb Fumblin’’ and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling’ from 1929, all composed by Waller, who famously squandered his great gifts as a songwriter). To make a living, however, he drew on a comedic side further stimulated and loosened by the alcoholism that had set in by his mid-twenties. Waller’s destiny as a jazz entertainer was determined by the successful 1932-34 run of his own radio show Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club on WLW, a Cincinnati station which blanketed the Midwest. Although he had made records since 1922, only in 1934 did RCA Victor launch Thomas Waller the ‘personality’ and his newly formed sextet, the Rhythm, as a regular recording and performing group.

Waller would go on to become famous and recognisable as a Hollywood star, featured in ‘all-coloured’ musicals such as Stormy Weather (1943). From May 1934 until his sudden death in 1943 at the age of 39, he recorded a staggering 402 numbers for RCA (plus radio transcriptions), only 20 of them as a piano or organ soloist. During the same period, Armstrong recorded 235 numbers for Decca, the most commercial of the major labels. Decca never ran out of ideas, many of them poor, for variously teaming their contracted artists – e.g., Armstrong’s ludicrous 1936-37 recordings with two clunky Hawaiian groups, The Polynesians and Andy Iona and His Islanders, part of a Hawaii-South Seas boom in tourism and popular culture. These are arguably the worst records Armstrong ever made, and Waller’s disc ‘Why Do Hawaiians Sing Aloha?’ (1937) could challenge Armstrong’s worst. Such plunges locate exactly the problem then faced by popular artists of talent: the dearth of first-rate songs. Benny Goodman, the only contemporary of Waller’s who recorded more than he did, employed the best arrangers to make truly poor dance numbers sound perfectly mediocre. Even if Waller could have summoned the discipline to write more songs as fine as his ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, ‘Keeping out of Mischief Now’, ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ and ‘Blue Turning Grey over You’, he still couldn’t have come close to satisfying the demands placed on him by his own success and the executives at RCA Victor.

Waller’s band could readily produce great lyrical, instrumental recordings – ‘Blue Turning Grey over You’ (1937), for instance, Gene Sedric playing the alto sax sotto voce to please Debussy, it seems – but the RCA executives deemed vocals a commercial necessity. Their fiscal mindset is clear in the alternate takes of the oft-sung ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby’ (1939). The mediocrity of the first take, a comic vocal duet with the teenage Una Mae Carlisle, must have moved Waller to ask for a second, without Carlisle, which is lifted by one of his most inspired piano solos. The record producer opted for the first take – lyrics and laughs make cash registers ring, which sounds like a business motto. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, a pop music machine cranks out rhymed songs non-stop – ‘for me’, Waller might well have moaned.

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[*] Network, RP2003, RP2004 and RP2005, £13.99 each, 19 June 2001.