Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy

Singer, Musician, Showman

Hear selected cuts from the CD compilation 'If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!'

Fats Waller was often called the clown prince of jazz

hide captionFats Waller was often called the "clown prince" of jazz, but the showbiz bluster sometimes overshadowed his unparalleled skill at the keyboard, both as a composer and performer.

SONY BMG Music Entertainment
Waller with Lena Horne, his co-star in the 1943 musical 'Stormy Weather'

hide captionWaller with Lena Horne, his co-star in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather.

SONY BMG Music Entertainment

A comic showman who delighted crowds with his playful stage antics, Fats Waller was the beloved "clown prince" of jazz during a golden era of the genre, leading up to World War II.

Yet Waller's talent as an entertainer overshadowed tremendous gifts as a musician and songwriter. A new three-disc collection of his recordings focuses on the music behind the merriment.

Waller was an imposing figure with an especially muscular playing style.

"As they say in the jazz world, he could lift the bandstand," says jazz critic Stanley Crouch. "So if you were up there with him, and he started playing, you were going to play better — if only to keep from being overshadowed..."

The CD collection, titled If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!, divides Waller's musical life into three compartments. Original songs fill one disc. Another features instrumental-only compositions. The third offers Waller's interpretations of hit songs by other composers of the era.

Some of those "interpretations" showcased Waller at his impish best, ad-libbing funny lines into more solemn tunes. It's easy to see how audiences and even contemporary critics could miss a deeper side of Waller — his sophisticated ear, and his love of Bach's compositions for the pipe organ.

Waller died of pneumonia in 1943 on a train headed east after a performance in Hollywood. He was 39. In later years, plenty of arguments have erupted over who, if anyone, is the next Fats Waller.

But maybe such debate misses the point. "I think rather than worry about him as an influence, you just enjoy him as a talent," producer Orrin Keepnews says.

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If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!

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  • Album: If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!
  • Artist: Fats Waller
  • Label: RCA Victor
  • Released: 2006
 

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