• Fats Waller – Don’t Let It Bother You

As a pause in these posts is imminent, and it’s nice to leave a soundfile to fill the gap, I’m returning after too long a break to one of my favourite jazz pianists, Fats Waller.  I posted on his The Minor Drag, First Recordings, Stealin’ Apples (as composer) and The Spider and the Fly last August and September.  Here’s the track which has been top of my list ever since, as much because of its relaxed ensemble playing as Waller’s stride piano and mugging to mike. Grey skies?  La-de-da-de-da-de-da-da, zing, zing, zing!   My, my.  Yes, yes.

• Fats Waller – The Spider and The Fly

As I’m going into a virtual hermitage in order to meet an important deadline, this will be my last post for a month or so.

Given the stories about the large number of randy male spiders coming indoors this autumn looking for females (a fact about rural arachnids which I can verify), I thought that Fats Waller’s popular song from 1938 could hold the groove while I free myself temporarily from the web.

In Waller and Andy Razaf’s version, however, it is the male who has the parlour …

• Fats Waller – First Recordings

I’ve long been curious about Fats Waller’s musical origins, such as stories about him learning the repertoire of stride piano by sticking his fingers on the keys as the piano roll depressed them.  Well, now that I’ve the opportunity to explore his legacy of some 600 recordings, I thought I’d begin by posting two of the earliest.

Waller made his first recordings as a solo pianist.  On 21 October, 1922, when he was 18, he recorded two tracks with connections to Alabama in their titles.  The first, played apparently more or less at sight, was George W. Thomas’s Muscle Shoals Blues.  As a B side, Waller improvised Birmingham Blues (below), which makes it also his first recording as a composer.  The characteristic right hand riffs are already there as is his legendary left-hand spread and the relaxed, bouncy manner in which he plays.  It’s very fresh and natural.

I’ve also posted a modern Yamaha DiscKlavier performance from a transcription made by Paul Marcorelles (below).  It makes for interesting viewing, because it demonstrates visually what Waller did in his early years to learn how to play stride piano.  It also gives a good idea of both Waller’s right-hand ornamentations as well as the distance covered by the left-hand stride.

Jump over some 20 not-so-interesting recordings of Waller as an accompanist (with the exception of two off-the-wall tracks with kazoos, wood-blocks and piano – You Don’t Know My Mind Blues and West Indies Blues – recorded by him in May 1924 as one of the Jamaica Jazzers) and you come to Waller’s first ‘orchestral’ recording, The Henderson Stomp.  He made this as a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra on 3 November 1926.  Also in the line-up were Benny Morton (trombone) and three equally young clarinettists/saxophonists – Buster Bailey, Don Redman (also the arranger, below) and Coleman Hawkins.

The Henderson Stomp has the infectious energy and raw edge that characterise the shifting jazz performance styles between the early and late 1920s (note also the bass line: bands used the tuba before the string bass took over).  And Waller has developed a dance-swing style in his playing that fits in perfectly with Redman’s catchy chorusing.

• Stealin’ Apples

A variety of searches has led to today’s seasonal post.  Following up last month’s excerpt from John Clare’s A Shepherd’s Calendar (about a boy nicking fruit from orchards in the dead of night) and thinking about Eddie Condon’s career after recording The Minor Drag with Fats Waller, I’ve come up with this.

Consider the situation.  You’ve been asked to put together a new Encyclopaedia of Music with some crusty old professors.  Then someone tells you that there’s a new type of music that you must include in the book.  But you know nothing about it.  What do you do?  Simple.  Get involved with an attractive young night-club singer who knows about such things and who’s wanted by the police about her gangster boyfriend.  Of course, you must invite some of the practitioners of this new-fangled music to play some of it for you.  Imagine Grove 6 inviting the Sex Pistols around for tea and crumpet.

Then you film the results for international distribution.  Absurd?  Well, it’s been done.  Danny Kaye (Professor Hobart Frisbee!) and Virginia Mayo (Honey Swanson) are the acting stars in A Song Is Born (Howard Hawks, 1948).  And the musicians?  None other than Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell and Benny Goodman (‘disguised’ as Professor Magenbruch).

These last three star in the scene above (with the other two contributing to the introductory dialogue), rather archly set-up and hammed it’s true (watch the stop-time …), but it’s a brilliant performance of Fats Waller’s song Stealin’ Apples (1936).  There’s some great playing by Powell on piano and especially by Hampton on vibes.  It fair jingles along.

There are many other performances out there of this song.

• Benny Goodman’s performance in Los Angeles in 1961 of Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 arrangement is smooth, zippy, though the sound quality is poor in places; there are also some interesting audience shots <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evS47squKmM>
• Eddie Condon recorded it a year later in a TV studio with his All Stars septet, giving even greater prominence to the clarinettist (Peanuts Hucko) than in the other two videos <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKFEm9Qd1w>.

Thanks to enquiries made by Nancy Giffin, Bill Haesler and Adrian Ford, it’s also possible to bring you Andy Razaf’s lyrics, although it appears that Stealin’ Apples has never been recorded in its song form.

I was always taught that it was wrong to be a thief.
He who took his neighbour’s good would surely come to grief.
There’s exceptions to the tune I guess,
What I used to take brought happiness.

Apple time was always time for stealin’,
Just to be with you was so appealin’
Takin’ chances
Stealin’ apples with you.

We would wait and catch the farmer nappin’,
In his orchard anything could happen,
Takin’ chances,
Stealing apples with you

I could hardly wait until you would bite one,
For it meant a kiss if it was the right one.
What a joy dear, it would be,
If I could find myself once more back in wildwood,
Takin’ chances,
Stealin’ apples with you.

• Fats Waller – The Minor Drag

Well, I’m beginning to get the hang of dragging video and audio files onto these pages, so here’s the first non-YouTube audio.  Fats Waller is one of my all-time favourites, partly because I’d give almost anything to be able to play stride like he does and partly because he never fails to bring a smile to my face, whether he’s singing or not.

The Minor Drag is a classic example of Waller’s pianism and ensemble playing, with great contributions from the rest of the band (terrific secondary rag rhythms!).  It was recorded on 1 March 1929 (St David’s Day to us Celts), with ‘His Buddies’: Charlie Gaines (trumpet), Charlie Irvis (trombone), Arville Harris (clarinet, alto and tenor sax) and Eddie Condon (banjo).

In the photo (thanks to ‘Shiraz Socialist’ for this – I’ve never come across it before), Waller’s on the right.  Eddie Condon is second from left.  I don’t know who the other two are – any ideas?  The Minor Drag is significant because it was the first recording in which a black jazz musician had led a group which had a white player in the line-up (rather than the other way round).  In fact, it is probable that Condon put this session together, as he made a point of organising racially integrated recordings.  I hope it puts a spring your step as the leaves start to turn and fall this near-autumnal morning!

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