Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy Fats Waller was often dubbed the "clown prince" of jazz who delighted crowds with his playful stage antics — a reputation that overshadowed his gifts as a musician and songwriter. A new CD collection of his recordings focuses on the music behind the merriment.
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Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy

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Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy

Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy

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(Soundbite of music)


That's Thomas Wright Waller. You know him by the nickname Fats. Fats Waller was one of the country's most prolific piano composers and a beloved entertainer. A new CD collection of his work was released this week.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates listened to it and has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Dan Morgenstern is director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University and he's been a Fats Waller fan for decades. In 1938 he was barely nine years old, settling into life in Denmark after his family fled Hitler's Austria. As a treat, his mom took him to concert hall in Copenhagen one evening. That's where he got his first eyeful of Fats - all 6'2" and 285 pounds of him.

Mr. DAN MORGENSTERN (Director of The Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University): I had never seen anybody remotely like him, and of course he was an electrifying performer. And even though I didn't understand more than a few words of English, it was very easy to understand what he was communicating. And one of the things that he communicated was a tremendous beat that he had.

(Soundbite of music)

GRIGSBY BATES: This was not namby-pamby piano. It was, says writer and jazz critic Stanley Crouch, an especially muscular kind of music.

Mr. STANLEY CROUCH (Jazz Critic): He had an enormously powerful player. He could really like, as they say in the jazz world, he could lift a bandstand. And if you got - if you stood up there with him and he started playing, you were going to play better if only to keep from being overshadowed by your accompaniment.

(Soundbite of music)

GRIGSBY BATES: That ability is evident in If You Got To Ask, You Ain't Got It, a three CD compendium from Sony Legacy which contains some of Waller's best music.

Mr. ORRIN KEEPNEWS (Producer, "If You Got To Ask, You Ain't Got It"): You know, there are a number of wonderful instances of Waller pulling things apart.

GRIGSBY BATES: Orrin Keepnews has produced jazz records for more than half a century, including an earlier chronological compendium of Waller's music. He organized this set in three parts. In one, Waller sings and plays his own compositions. Two is a strictly instrumental section, and in part three Waller plays and sometimes attacks popular songs of the day.

Mr. KEEPNEWS: And one of my absolute all time favorites of his interpellations there's a Tin Pan Alley standard called, It's a Sin to Tell a Lie.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie")

Mr. FATS WALLER (Musician): (Singing) Be sure it's true when you say I love you. It's a sin to tell a lie. Millions of hearts have been broken, yes yes. Just because these words were spoken. Do you know the words that were spoken? Here it is. I love ya, I love ya, I love ya, I love ya. Ha ha ha.

Mr. KEEPNEWS: And that's about as good an example of Waller at his extreme best.

GRIGSBY BATES: These impish ditties led some people to assume this was the complete Fats Waller, not so says Stanley Crouch.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WALLER: (Singing) Oh, your feets too big . . .

Mr. CROUCH: So on the one hand you have a guy who becomes famous not so much for being the great piano player that he was but for being a great comedian in a musical context. I think that as Martin Williams, who's known as the dean of the jazz critics, once said, he was caught inside his persona.

GRIGSBY BATES: Dan Morgenstern agrees that the musician in Waller was sometimes given short shrift by people who didn't listen carefully.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MORGENSTERN: He was a brilliant entertainer. Sometimes the sophistication of what he was doing on the keyboard kind of got lost. It's a pity that he never got to record his favorite organ music, which was Bach. I mean he was a master of the pipe organ.

GRIGSBY BATES: Echoes of that can be heard in this version of the Rodgers and Hart favorite, Thou Swell.

(Soundbite of song, "Thou Swell")

GRIGSBY BATES: Waller died in 1943 on an eastbound train. He'd caught pneumonia while performing in Hollywood. He was 39 years old. And since then there's been plenty of argument as to who, if anybody, is the next Fats Waller. Producer Orrin Keepnews says that discussion is beside the point.

Mr. KEEPNEWS: I think, you know, rather than try to worry about him as an influence, enjoy him as a talent.

GRIGSBY BATES: Not a hard assignment at all.

Karen Grigsby Bates NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't Misbehavin'")

Mr. WALLER: (Singing) No one to talk with, all by myself. No one to walk with but I'm at the (unintelligible). Ain't misbehavin', saving my love for you, for you, for you, for you.

PESCA: Need some additional facts in your musical diet? We've got some nice selections at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WALLER: ...it's you that I'm thinking of. Ain't misbehavin', saving my love for you. Like Jack Horner in the corner, don't go nowhere. What do I care? Your kisses are worth waiting for. Believe me, I don't stay out late, no place to go.

PESCA: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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