A listening adventure
To begin, one must begin. And so, I begin again tonight. The general topic is music – one so vast that it’s almost an assemblage of life itself. That won’t fit into a small essay, but a tiny slice of the theme occurred to me as a topic recently. Since about the age of 14 I have been a devoted listener and frequent performer of the music of Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller (1904~1943) “Harlem’s mathematician of the keyboard”, as George Jessel once introduced him.
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In Dayton’s airspace (airspace where I was living in the years leading up to college) there was and is an FM radio station, based in the nearby storied village of Yellow Springs. That station is now one of the major NPR affiliates, but at the time it was as much a college community radio station that mainly did as it pleased. One of the things that pleased it was playing a regular serving of classic jazz every week, so it was inevitable that I would come upon Fats, at the time not realizing that though I knew of Fats Domino, Antoine Dominique Domino Jr. had anointed himself with the Fats moniker as an homage to the earlier Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller, despite a great difference in piano styles. Yet good music was just that, as I would discover.
I should point out that while Domino was perhaps the best-known boogie woogie player in general, Waller was the undisputed potentate of stride piano – a personification of swing music that used all the resources of the 88’s. In Waller’s music I heard visceral delights of tone, rhythm, and energy. This was given even more life by his incredible ability to add vocals that were screamingly funny, satirical, smart, and always musical.
It was truly the piano of Waller that held me in its trance – received as an emotional tour-de-force of melodic and harmonic layering which came, I was to learn later, from years at the pipe organ. Waller, usually recording for RCA Victor, performed his piano solos starting in the late 20s (although some of his work on piano rolls, pipe organ, and piano go back somewhat earlier) – almost all of which were masterpieces in their own right, so great was his control and brilliance. Aside from being a great performer, Waller, beginning in 1934, began recording with Fats Waller and His Rhythm from which big hit records flowed like Your Feet’s Too Big, The Joint Is Jumpin’, I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter, and his most loved song Honeysuckle Rose.
The solo work seemed to represent Waller’s soul, and somehow – mine also. As great as the group work was, my heart still rejoiced at any new-found solos in his discography. That initial collection of piano solos sounded like rides into the great city, tours of fin-de-siecle buildings, of images humming with warmth – of moods under amber light. They were fantastic sojourns back to the rooms where they had been recorded -- places resonating with the vibrations of late 20s and early 30s, sounding almost impossible. How could such immensity of beauty have been so thoroughly abandoned, so quickly? I had nonetheless tuned into genius.
I would react happily and instantly to hearing good, syncopated music, as there was so much good going on. This had begun for me as a child rejoicing in the sound of a saloon pianist at The Brass Rail on West 34th Street in New York. The man had a pedal that would drop tin plates down behind the hammers, and he’d use that on certain choruses, much to my delight. He was undoubtedly playing ragtime (or “honky tonk”), and I only knew that it drew me in completely. I requested the tin plates on every song. Later, it was Joplin records, appearances by Eubie Blake on The Today Show, and brief moments of excitement that came from these complex piano sounds. There was never enough of it.
At the time I was hearing Waller’s records I was in the middle of nine years of private piano lessons. The little Howard grand at home, formerly a player piano, while it had been built during Fats Waller’s rise to greatness, seemed to have none of the warmth and bounce I was hearing on these discs (recorded on big Steinways). My technique had also not developed to a point where I could freely take on what I was hearing, and I didn’t yet speak Waller’s pianistic language. I didn’t really know what was going on but had still managed to learn the introduction to Russian Fantasy (recorded in 1935) by slowing down the record. Yet when it came to the body of the song, I was dead in my tracks. The recordings remained mythical wonders.
What I can say now is that the mysteries of Waller’s magical approach have slowly revealed themselves – at least in his approach, although his artistry remains towering. Time hasn’t dimmed the impact.
I want to examine about a half a minute of one of my favorite Waller solo recordings made in 1929. Valentine Stomp was rendered in two surviving takes at RCA Victor – one issued at the time, and the other withheld in the vault for years until the LP age, when compilations began to appear.
During an evening of classic jazz over the same radio station, one of the hosts had begun to play a copy of Valentine Stomp. I happened to turn on the radio mid-disc and soon realized I was hearing the most astounding stride piano record I had encountered. I went racing to the radio in the kitchen where I had left a cassette recorder. Frantically tuning in the station, I managed to capture the last 30 seconds or so of the recording, followed by the host cheerily and casually announcing “That’s Fats Waller’s Valentine Stomp…” giving me the great task of finding the rest of that record. I listened and listened to the clip (possibly hundreds of times), wondering how anyone could play with such demonic proficiency. Soon, I found out that there were two very different takes of this remarkable piece.
Many years after having found all the Waller RCA solos – eventually reissued in convenient CD form – I realized that the unissued or alternate take of Valentine Stomp was not only exciting but infused with emotion that the issued take somehow lacked. There was a portion of the recording, almost two minutes in (on the 3-and-a-half-minute 78 side) where I heard the mourning chord sequences, sounding almost like a howl of pain, that were not included in the released take. As elegant as the previous take is (9 seconds shorter, interestingly) it never achieves the visceral texture of the alternate take. These chords show the mastery of Waller who knew how to build texture into his work.
To editors looking for songs to include on Waller LPs, length and quality of sound may have superseded any other considerations. For me the difference in these two takes is staggering, and happily both exist, but listen to these two clips from the first and second take (at about the same point) and note the emotionalism and intensity that is somehow missing in the other. They were recorded at RCA’s Camden plant on August 29, 1929.
The common take (more deliberate and careful):
The “unissued” take (charged with emotion and excitement):
Note Waller’s emphasis of the dark, C-minor aspect of this phrase. He explores it impressively and in successive layers. There are a few truly exemplary passages in Waller’s great discography, and this is possibly my favorite. It is, for me, one of the best recorded moments on the piano of the entire Swing Era, on which Waller was a large influence.
I believe the emotion in this second clip is almost the point for Waller - showing clearly the concept of Gustav Mahler “that were music is the devil must be”, as he once expressed to the New York Philharmonic during a rehearsal. In other words, art must come from the depths, and I believe this second clip helps to express just why Thomas Fats Waller’s stride piano recordings were so important to me. They were art. They were imagination.
Waller was by no means the only emotion-laden musical jazz artist of his era, but I think he was likely the most successful pianist to come equipped with such a brilliant inner palate. At the same time, Art Tatum burned up the keyboard with astounding excitement, Teddy Wilson danced perfectly on keys and become one of the great teachers, and Jess Stacy swung beautifully with fewer notes (to name a few examples), but Fats Waller painted more imagination and took his listeners for rides of fantasy, color and emotion that were somehow never surpassed.
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