Fats Waller: The Cheerful Little Earful
Fats Waller: Cheerful Little Earful
by Alyn Shipton

Continuum Pub Group, 2002
ISBN: 0826457967

by Kevin Whitehead

copyright © 2002 Kevin Whitehead
first published in Jazz Notes

Pity the second biographer -- or, in this case, the fourth to attempt a long bio of Fats Waller (1904-1943) in English. Put yourself in the author's shoes. You're moved to write the book because no previous study quite did the job, else why bother? But those other tomes stand before yours in more ways than one, potential obstacles more than assets. Once there are say, five bios, you can pick and steal at will -- anyone with a dining room table could write a life of Armstrong or Goodman at this point. (Please don't.) When there are fewer than five, you have problems.

Only the worst biographies are devoid of worthy tidbits you wouldn't or couldn't have ferreted out on your own and which you'd be wise to appropriate. But to endlessly refer to other books makes you look overly dependent, and to silently plagiarize is unethical. (Plus you'll likely get nailed anyway for it anyway, by an expert reader if not the pilferee.) And to dig anew through the archival records often prompts the discouraging realization that your predecessors have already mined the ore.

In his 1988 Fats bio, and the 2002 revision under review, England's Alyn Shipton -- who's written a well-regarded recent jazz history and edited Danny Barker's fine A Life in Jazz -- takes an honorable and conscientious alternative course. Alas. Unlike some biographers who pretend rival bios don't exist, he calls the reader's attention at once to those by Fats's manager Ed Kirkeby, son Maurice Waller, and one Joel Vance, who traced his subject's exuberance as pianist, entertainer, and composer to a tragic lack of mother love. Shipton also nods to Joseph Machlin's musicological study Stride, and Laurie Wright's bio-discography Fats in Fact. He combed through other musicians' comments in interviews or memoirs, and conducted his own interviews with sidefolk and observers such as Harry Dial, Al Casey, Jabbo Smith, Sammy Price, and Franz Jackson.

Noting the gaps in the record, and vague dates, and charming but unverifiable anecdotes in the grand Kirkeby Maurice Vance narrative, Shipton resolved to caulk the gaps and correct old errors but avoid duplicating what's already out there. From the intro: "All this means that, in some respects, I have concentrated less than is customary on anecdotes about the larger-than-life aspects of Waller's career, and a little more on the extraordinary professionalism and skill he brought to every aspect of his music-making."Sounds reasonable, but he tips the boat the other way, laboring under an impression (false, I'd say) that for American critics Fats the clown has obscured Fats the virtuoso. Shipton's approach works fine if you read his book as a supplement to, say, Kirkeby's 1966 Ain't Misbehavin' (where the pixie is in plain view, but reams of invented dialogue speak to its strict reliability). But as a free-standing work Fats Waller is problematic. One gets the impression it's Shipton who's impatient with the wiseacre.

Waller's duality is central to his story: The jester who is also a brilliant musician is a jazz archetype largely established by Satch and Fats. (The nicknames alone are clues.) Did their cheery personae allow some contemporaries of limited imagination to infantilize or undervalue them? You bet. For decades. But we must be ready for a more nuanced approach by now. Can't our geniuses be jolly too? Doesn't that make them even cooler? Shipton performs a public service by spotlighting the hard-working Waller, but the big round man never really comes to the fore or to life. By organizing some chapters thematically rather than chronologically -- Fats on film, Fats in Europe, Fats on record -- he makes it hard for the reader to enter into the texture of his life, to make that essential leap of empathy.

The music's charms prove equally elusive. As Shipton helped Paul S. Machlin's 1985 Stride: The Music of Fats Waller get a UK publisher, and it's out of print (and trading for hefty sums), I wish he'd let himself capitalize on it more, expanding on some broader implications of innovations Machlin identifies. Waller's mutable forms -- in improvisation, or built into a composition -- pave the way for spontaneously deployed (if often less complex) modular structures used by Miles et al later. (Fats would lose or revise parts of a form on the repeat, or mingle the A and B strains or insert new material or a new chord progression during the improvising, or accelerate harmonic rhythm from a chord change every two bars to every one, say.) And Waller's occasional way of finishing up a thought with one hand while beginning a new one with the other mimics a cinematic dissolve.

Much as Shipton makes of Waller's experience as a theater organist, whose duties included accompanying silent movies, the relationship between filmic syntax and jazz never comes up at all. Rightly celebrating Waller's freakishly brilliant 1927 pipe-organ solos, Shipton fails to note how right they sounded as audio backdrop to David Lynch's surreal Eraserhead. (RCA missed a bet by not reissuing them on LP with Jack Nance's big bad hair day movie poster photo on the cover. RCA never put them on CD either, but at least one European label has.) Fats's protomodernism is one reason his music endures -- that and charm and the impeccable timing reflected in his composing, asides and solos alike.

Machlin's nuts-and-bolts approach is a bit dry, but sometimes he conveys more of the excitement of Fats's Victor sessions than Shipton. The case of a staged battle with fellow pianist Hank Duncan on a 29 November 1935 "I Got Rhythm" is a dramatic example. Machlin's vivid five-page description (incorporating a passage from Maurice Waller's book) sends you scurrying back to the record. Shipton dispenses with it in a short graf that ends thus: "Not many pianists would be up to the challenge, but Hank Duncan was, and though the recording balance favors Waller it is still possible to hear what worthy opponents the two men were for each other." He has a tendency to state his case rather than make it. "He was unquestionably the greatest of the Harlem jazz pianists," Shipton writes, but some James P. Johnson loyalists would happily question that one. To my ears Waller was the greatest, but such things are never beyond debate. The adverb is a bully there, using attitude to fend off debate.

Shipton's revisionism at a distance does catch some peripheral movements others miss. He points up what a fluke Waller's particular theater experience was in the first place, as circa 1920 the Lincoln was the only pipe-organ-equipped Harlem theater where African-Americans were allowed south of the balcony. And while looking in detail at Waller's Broadway work he highlights the once close kinship between New York's jazz and theater scenes. He also puts some old tales to rest, discounting rumors of Waller's formal classical training. (In one interview, he'd claimed to have studied music with a stern tutor in Vienna at age 15.) And he does get his facts right: the only gaffe I spotted was teeny tiny -- TOBA is the Theater Owners' Booking Association, not Agency. But there are odd omissions. Shipton, who doesn't dwell on specific compositions much, doesn't even mention the long-held suspicion that Fats, known to sell a song for ready cash, and not (the accomplished) Fred Ahlert and Joe Young wrote the Waller-ready "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter." The compact-discographical info in the chapter on recordings needs a more exhaustive update. For that matter, any musician bio deserves at least a cursory reference discography, the way any travel book needs maps.

Sorry to be so negative. To be sure there's much to please the Waller specialist, but a general reader sucked in by the subtitle may long for a little more cheer, more meat on the bones.

Postscript: An over-enthusiastic copy editor is suspected, in connection with some nominal abuses of quotation marks. Willie the Lion Smith, the form he uses throughout his assisted autobiography Music on My Mind, here as elsewhere is Willie "the Lion" Smith. Not so grievous, although it's slower and fussier, and "Beetle" Henderson is probably OK, but when altoist Tab (short for Talmadge) becomes "Tab" Smith things have gone too far. By this editorial logic it'd be "Bob" Crosby and "Jimmy" Giuffre too. Not to mention "Count" Basie and "Fats" Waller,"but we're spared those.


C o m m e n t s

hank duncan 1 of 1
miltonberlin November 03, 02

Hank Duncan, that sweet little guy had been my friend when he worked at Nick's during the 40s and early 50s. Many a steak we had together. He was a one of nature's gentlemen. miltonberlin@msn.com

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