Fats Waller- one never knows...
Maybe the easiest way for someone not familiar with him to understand Thomas "Fats" Waller is to make some of the obvious Louis Armstrong comparisons. Both are jazz icons though most of the pop audience knows them mainly as ever-smiling novelty singers from way back when. Also true for both is that beyond those unfair cliches, they were both remarkable musicians and touchstones for generation of not only pop but also dance artists who followed in their wake. Maybe Satchmo gets more play because he lasted longed and was able to build up more of a legacy but Waller certainly deserves at least a couple of pages in the chronicles of American music.
Though box sets are by definition not for beginners, the wonderful 3-CD set If You Got To Ask, You Ain't Got It (Bluebird/Legacy) is priced at less than $25 so I'd say it's a great place to start for anyone who wonders what was behind this great man's mischievous grin. Other than the extensive notes and nice photos you'd expect from a box, legendary jazz producer Orin Keepnews collects not just his best known songs (the indelible "Honeysuckle Rose," "The Joint Is Jumpin'," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and many others) but also a whole instrumental disc to remind people of his prestidigitation on the keyboards (not just his famous piano but also ghostly organ, the likes of which David Lynch used to score his nightmarish masterpiece Eraserhead). True, he wasn't as agile as Art Tatum (as he'd admit) but who was? I liken him more as a spiritual daddy to Thelonious Monk, doing these lovely little deceptively simple piano lines- as Monk said though, "simple ain't easy." And as icing on the aural cake, you also get a disc of Waller going through Tin Pan Alley faves ("Somebody Stole My Gal," "You Rascal You" (which Armstrong also did a great version of), "Darktown Strutters Ball," "The Sheik of Araby"). What I always loved the most about his music is what he could set a scene with his own little sound effects (the riot in "The Joint is Jumpin'" or the hotel going-on's in 'Loungin' at the Waldorf").
It's just so damn gratifying to see such a lovingly selected set that shows the scope of an important artist like this. Put it on your Xmas list for your friends or just give yourself a present. It's joyous and full of life beyond words.
The one thing I regret about the box is that there's no video documentation of Waller. In a pre-MTV music video of "The Joint is Jumpin'" done decades before the network was founded, you see his rolling eyes, cheeky grin, wide smile, carefree manner on display that just can't be captured the same way in photos. There's a house party that Fats is providing entertainment for and later, the cops come to break it up but eventually join in the fun (kind of like Lionel Ritchie's "All Night Long" video much later). Sad to say, there's no single video collection (at least that I could find- please correct me if I'm wrong) of Waller so you'd need to rent Stormy Weather (with Lena Horne and Cab Calloway) or the Harlem Renaissance to see Waller in action. Trust me, it's worth it and you can then appreciate the full entertainment factor of the man, only part of which comes across on record.