On the eve of World War Two, Fats Waller was, after Louis Armstrong, the jazz musician and jazz entertainer best known and most loved by the American and English populations at large. In recent years, however, Waller’s reputation has declined, possibly because the jazz canon has room for only one cut-up: Armstrong. The recent issuing on three compact discs of Waller’s alternative takes (1923-41)means that all his recordings are available concurrently for the first time, which makes this an ideal moment for a reappraisal of the artist – a term Waller wouldn’t have used.
As singers and jazz entertainers, Waller and his good friend Armstrong often had to modify or tear apart and rebuild inferior Tin Pan Alley material in a manner analogous to the ways in which Modernists such as Picasso begot paper collage, wood assemblage and metal sculpture. ‘I’m king of the ragpickers!’ Picasso proclaimed gleefully around 1930, after he had created Woman in a Garden, his first welded tin and scrap iron sculpture, proof that machines and Tin Can Alley do not ‘rule the world’, as Leopold Bloom laments over noisy newspaper printing presses in Ulysses. Cut-up is the operative pun for Armstrong and Waller – as well as Picasso and Braque, inventors of the papier collé in 1912, and Calder, whose vernacular raw materials included sheet metal, copper tubing, wire, pipe cleaners, corks, plywood, driftwood, coffee tins and string, all put to canny use. Punning represents the royal ragpicker’s challenge and Modernist recycler’s ambition: to create two or more words and meanings where there had been one, to make something memorable out of almost nothing.
As extroverted singers offering discursive material, Armstrong and his contemporary Waller present striking, instructive contrasts. (Armstrong was born in 1901, Waller in 1904.) Waller mounted frontal comic assaults on every sort of song, while Armstrong the trouper usually did the best he could with silly, dubious or offensive lyrics. His first recording of ‘When It’s Sleepy Time down South’ (1931) is a perfect example of fakelore transformed by the singer’s plangent sincerity. Armstrong expressed disapproval obliquely. A chorus of scat could by implication reduce dumb or demeaning lyrics to nonsense, and his trumpet solo would then scatter the remains, as in the coon song ‘Shine’ (1931, ‘Just because my teeth are pearly,’ it begins). Like the Elizabethan clown, Armstrong’s and Waller’s personae of joy – genuine or cartoon rictus smiles, who could tell? – enabled them to take splendid liberties. ‘I’m a ding dong daddy from Dumas! And you oughta see me do my stuff,’ sings Armstrong in 1931. After another silly line, he suddenly croaks: ‘Oh, uh, umm [sounds to that effect, verbal treading of water], and I done forgot the words!’ He confesses with more glee than guilt. Did his listeners understand that Armstrong was declaring the song too stupid for words? Does this constitute cultural criticism of (white) Tin Pan Alley’s hold on America? This surely can be said of Waller’s singing, though it wasn’t what he set out to do as a serious youngster devoted to the piano, classical as well as jazz.
Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller – ‘Tom’ or ‘Thomas’ to his friends and family – had formidable technique, akin to a great athlete’s, and an exhaustless inventiveness and capacity to delight. His articulation of notes was impeccable, however fast the tempo. His dramatic sense of dynamics allowed two-handed thunderstorms to give way suddenly to delicate raindrops struck by his right hand – waxing poetic quite overtly, a risk that Waller was willing to take whenever he played the pipe organ, from Bach (unrecorded) to ‘St Louis Blues’ to traditional Negro spirituals. The powerful oompah of his left hand could serve alone as his rhythm section. At a time when live music was the rule, Waller the one-man band found steady employment in and around New York City from the age of 16, much to the chagrin of his very proper parents. If he had been independently wealthy or had a Lincoln Center appointment, he would have performed as an organ or piano soloist exclusively (for the latter, listen to ‘A Handful of Keys’, ‘Numb Fumblin’’ and ‘I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling’ from 1929, all composed by Waller, who famously squandered his great gifts as a songwriter). To make a living, however, he drew on a comedic side further stimulated and loosened by the alcoholism that had set in by his mid-twenties. Waller’s destiny as a jazz entertainer was determined by the successful 1932-34 run of his own radio show Fats Waller’s Rhythm Club on WLW, a Cincinnati station which blanketed the Midwest. Although he had made records since 1922, only in 1934 did RCA Victor launch Thomas Waller the ‘personality’ and his newly formed sextet, the Rhythm, as a regular recording and performing group.
Waller would go on to become famous and recognisable as a Hollywood star, featured in ‘all-coloured’ musicals such as Stormy Weather (1943). From May 1934 until his sudden death in 1943 at the age of 39, he recorded a staggering 402 numbers for RCA (plus radio transcriptions), only 20 of them as a piano or organ soloist. During the same period, Armstrong recorded 235 numbers for Decca, the most commercial of the major labels. Decca never ran out of ideas, many of them poor, for variously teaming their contracted artists – e.g., Armstrong’s ludicrous 1936-37 recordings with two clunky Hawaiian groups, The Polynesians and Andy Iona and His Islanders, part of a Hawaii-South Seas boom in tourism and popular culture. These are arguably the worst records Armstrong ever made, and Waller’s disc ‘Why Do Hawaiians Sing Aloha?’ (1937) could challenge Armstrong’s worst. Such plunges locate exactly the problem then faced by popular artists of talent: the dearth of first-rate songs. Benny Goodman, the only contemporary of Waller’s who recorded more than he did, employed the best arrangers to make truly poor dance numbers sound perfectly mediocre. Even if Waller could have summoned the discipline to write more songs as fine as his ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’, ‘Keeping out of Mischief Now’, ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ and ‘Blue Turning Grey over You’, he still couldn’t have come close to satisfying the demands placed on him by his own success and the executives at RCA Victor.
Waller’s band could readily produce great lyrical, instrumental recordings – ‘Blue Turning Grey over You’ (1937), for instance, Gene Sedric playing the alto sax sotto voce to please Debussy, it seems – but the RCA executives deemed vocals a commercial necessity. Their fiscal mindset is clear in the alternate takes of the oft-sung ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby’ (1939). The mediocrity of the first take, a comic vocal duet with the teenage Una Mae Carlisle, must have moved Waller to ask for a second, without Carlisle, which is lifted by one of his most inspired piano solos. The record producer opted for the first take – lyrics and laughs make cash registers ring, which sounds like a business motto. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, a pop music machine cranks out rhymed songs non-stop – ‘for me’, Waller might well have moaned.
The demand for fresh material for Waller was largely filled by ‘novelty songs’, as this musical fodder was charitably termed – a way of making light of weightlessness, and all the artists traded in it, were challenged by it. Who knows or remembers that Benny Goodman, ‘The King of Swing’, recorded ‘Eeny Meeny Miney Mo’ (vocal by Helen Ward) shortly after the great ‘King Porter Stomp’ (1935)? Waller and his group typically recorded six or eight new numbers every two months. Often he’d see the music for the first time at the recording studio. A brilliant quick-study, Waller would set up a number in fifteen minutes – inventing and humming riffs to his musicians, sequencing their solos, then reading the song’s lyrics through a second time. There was rarely time for rehearsal, and the reissued alternative second takes of his records reveal that Waller the pianist never made a mistake – his band members did. The record producers always had plenty of sandwiches and gin on hand, though sessions weren’t necessarily a joy. Sometimes Waller would rail against a notably weak song, and storm around the studio shouting that he couldn’t possibly record such junk. But he did. He was, after all, a fellow with a job to do. (Whose job is always satisfying?) But he could be inspired by the worst material, as though he had to live up to a motto or manifesto: Never Let a Sleeping Dog Tune Lie. To pun on this last word is to contemplate musical and verbal corruption, and to pinpoint the challenge to Waller the cut-up.
Waller sends up and sometimes saves trivial and stupid songs by sarcastic or falsetto delivery of the lyrics; mock-operatic singing, usually in the bass range; fulsome humming; heavy sighs; gospel-meeting exhortations; Bronx cheers; interjections in perfectly inflected Oxford, West Indian or Yiddish-American English; and a wide range of convincing sound effects. His ad-libbed punch lines or verbal codas at the end of a song are a signature flourish. ‘Git that basket fixed!’ he cracks at the end of ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ (1938), a very silly novelty song made popular by Ella Fitzgerald. ‘Don’t Try Your Jive on Me’, another 1938 recording, could be his warning to all songwriters. His ad libs can be funny and sharp social commentary, too, as in his apostrophe to an otherwise pretty gal, ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ (1939), when Waller adds, grandly, at the end, ‘Your pedal extremities really are obnoxious.’ His is the compensatory pomposity of insecure, self-inflating people everywhere, from preachers to police who have just ‘apprehended the alleged perpetrator’. The highfalutin’ tag is mordant, too, if Waller intends to demonstrate that the shallow ‘lookist’ he’s playing, whose grammar is black vernacular – ‘I hates you ‘cause your feet’s too big’ – also has the King’s English at his disposal. Had he lived, he could have had a major acting career – the black Zero Mostel, a lambent Falstaff. Waller was in truth well-read, and he travelled with a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. ‘One never knows, do one?’ are the very last words of ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’, the ‘do’ receiving heavy emphasis.
No African American jazz entertainer of the 1930s escaped the call to record racist or racially dubious songs. Even the reserved and refined Negro bandleader Fletcher Henderson, a college graduate, recorded his own arrangement of ‘Underneath the Harlem Moon’ (1932). Its opening choruses, before the band enters, consist of full-throttle solos by his star sidemen, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax and Rex Stewart on cornet, as though their deep, manly voices – their figurative brass – would distract listeners from the ensemble’s complicity and literal support of the song’s demeaning lyrics, sung by Katherine Handy (W.C. Handy’s daughter), which include ‘They [Harlemites] just live on dancin’/They never blue or forlorn!/And it ain’t no sin to guzzle down gin!/Now that’s just why darkies were born,’ the last line echoing ‘That’s Why Darkies Were Born’, the title of a song performed by the Caucasian Frank Munn in George White’s Scandals of 1931, a Broadway hit, and also recorded by the estimable Mildred Bailey that same year. Her friend Bing Crosby, a jazz-inflected singer then, who recorded a memorable ‘St Louis Blues’ with Duke Ellington’s band in 1932, nonetheless appeared in minstrel blackface in the same year’s musical short, Dream House. It went with the territory. Henderson’s saxophone and brass subsequently double the tempo in the recording, as though they’re trying to dash away from the compromising lyrics. They can’t, notwithstanding a lovely, full-bodied concluding coda by Hawkins, an Armstrong-like power play that seems to plead: ‘let this wash away those stupid words and absolve us.’
Fats Waller kills such songs and their relatives. Witness ‘Mandy’ (1934), an innocent in almost everyone else’s eyes and ears. ‘This ticklin’ is so terrific,’ Waller crows while playing ‘Mandy’, his punning verb covering the way he attacks the ivories and Irving Berlin’s song. He is surprisingly hard on the sweet little melody, with its banal – or cute (a close critical call) – rhyme scheme: ‘Mandy’, ‘handy’, ‘dandy’. Waller trills ‘Lalala-lee-lo’ quite sarcastically and scrambles the lyrics with an indescribable gurgling sound. ‘Mandy’ was featured in a new Eddie Cantor movie, Kid Millions, and the recording aimed to capitalise on this. Waller’s scornful attack is thus especially surprising, but probably had to do with the fact that ‘Mandy’ premiered as a blackface minstrel number in the Ziegfield Follies of 1919 and was now back with Cantor starring in blackface – too late in the game for this offensive jive, Waller seems to be saying. Bing Crosby’s blackface turn in Dream House should have been the end, its title telescoping the unreality of such stuff. But Kid Millions is minstrelsy nostalgia – a period piece, set at the turn of the century, featuring a show-within-a-show, the film’s big ‘Minstrel Night’ number. ‘You know, you’re lucky,’ Cantor says to his Negro servant while laboriously blacking-up for the number. His thoughtlessly cruel irony would seem to be answered on Waller’s recording of ‘Mandy’ when trumpeter Herman Autrey uncharacteristically brays and whinnies like a donkey and horse respectively – Spike Jones-like barnyard cacophony aimed at minstrel Eddie Cantor, Mandy’s plantation and Miz Scarlett herself, shortly before her arrival in Gone with the Wind. The enormous success of Mitchell’s 1936 novel (the film appeared in 1939) only increased the call for Tin Pan Alley ante-bellum nostalgia, a staple product since Stephen Foster’s day. Waller would wage uncivil war on any cotton corn that came his way.
Ante-bellum Waller is daring for its day, and still very funny because the objects of his parody are known to us still: Gone with the Wind, of course; the movie Jezebel (1938); and Foster and his progeny, including the creators of faux plantation songs such as ‘When It’s Sleepy Time down South’. ‘Oh, steamboats on the river!/Comin’ an’ goin’!/ Splashin’ the night away,’ Armstrong sings, proffering Depression-era pastoral balm akin to the American Scene Regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. ‘You hear those banjoes ringin’, darkies singin’’ Armstrong continues, the lyrics almost washed away by his majestic trumpet solo. The song looks worse, literally, in a 1935 movie short by trumpeter Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. It’s staged in an old-fashioned Mutoscope arcade whose customers peer into peep-show machines to watch successive songs visualised on film. The darky mammy, tiptoeing butler, and buck dancers of their ‘When It’s Sleepy Time down South’ are stereotypically wretched (see it on the 1994 video, Swing, Swing, Swing! Vol. 1). Such animate forms of plantation clichés help set up Waller’s attacks.
His ‘Floatin’ down to Cotton Town’ (1936) opens with the sounds of actual lapping, gurgling water and a steamboat’s whistle, setting up the Foster-like genre scene that Waller then sinks with spirited playing by all hands and a burlesque of the question-and-response jokes of a traditional minstrel act. ‘Brother Bones, why does a chicken cross the street?’ Waller asks, then answers himself: ‘They don’t cross any more. They stay over on my side.’ ‘Let’s get away from here, let’s get away,’ Waller says, dreamily, after the rambunctious music stops. The demise of ‘Old Plantation’ (1937), its lyrics dripping with sentimental nostalgia, is hastened by Waller’s comical mispronunciation of one word. ‘There’s an old plantation in the boot-eee-ful South,’ he sings with deadpan sincerity after the mock-syrupy humming of the opening. ‘Yes, there’s an old cabin’ he’s really longing to see. ‘Yessss,’ he croons sonorously at the end (he had a fine voice), adding his own commanding coda, ‘Drop that plough,’ at which point the genre scene is suddenly drained of colour.
Waller’s attacks on Dixie were unrelenting. In ‘My Window Faces the South’ (1937), he croons that although he’s far from the Swanee and it’s ‘snowin’ here’, he’s nonetheless ‘halfway to heaven’ and ‘never frownin’’ because he can still see ‘Fields of cotton smilin’ at me/‘Cause my window faces the South.’ After his piano solo, he tells the band, ‘Come on, open the window,’ and the clarinettist obliges with a raw, rasping, window-opening solo. ‘That’s it! Open all the windows,’ Waller yells as his trumpeter emits a strong, extroverted solo that’s aimed in a Southern direction. ‘Let’s get Southern atmosphere here,’ Waller says, the get serving as a forked, aggressive verb. ‘Toot it, son, toot it! Turn it on!’ he yells, as though they were riding through Georgia with General Sherman and his torch-bearing troops.
While rehearsing for his second movie, King of Burlesque (1935), in which he played an elevator man, Waller boldly insisted that his scripted ‘Yassuhs’ be replaced with ‘Yes, Sir.’ ‘I’m Shootin’ High’ was his one musical number here. His famous, plaintive lament ‘(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue’ (1929, lyrics by Andy Razaf) was written for the Broadway show Hot Chocolates at the insistence of a producer who wanted a woeful number, and it’s uncharacteristic of Waller’s racial tacks. It was sung by a black woman in the original show, with an opening verse that was dropped long ago: ‘Brown and yellows/All have fellows/ Gentlemen prefer them light.’ His Dixie ‘fun’ was no doubt fuelled by memories of such compromising acquiescences, the sorry sociological truth of the lyrics notwithstanding.
Where women were concerned, Waller could be as shallow as the other fellows, as he demonstrates in his recording of a Cotton Club revue number, ‘She’s Tall, She’s Tan, She’s Terrific’ (1937), sung and declaimed with unadulterated enthusiasm, his piano solo rollicking but relaxed – in the groove, if you get my drift (wink wink, if Waller was at the keys). Unlike Armstrong, a prudent son of the South, Waller the performer is often King Leer on sexual matters, a dangerous gambit for a black man in the 1930s and 1940s – as late as 1956, Chevrolet, the sponsor of Dinah Shore’s show on NBC, wouldn’t let her sing a duet with Nat King Cole. Waller didn’t offend the racist community in 1934 when he sang the part of the pollinating ‘honey bee’ in ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, a flower of colour, but he treads less delicately in another Razaf/Waller song, ‘The Joint Is Jumpin’’ (1937): ‘Check your weapons at the door,’ he instructs the guests as they arrive at the party, which quickly turns wild. ‘Don’t give your right name, no, no, no!’ Waller cries at the end as the police raid the place, whistles blowing, sirens wailing – the African American id in the open, affirmed unselfconsciously.
Everything was fair game for the impressively colour-blind Waller. ‘Yes, I love my baby but she don’t love me,’ he sings on ‘Fats Waller’s Original E-Flat Blues’ (1940, words and music by Waller, hence the title). ‘She give me some squirrel juice! She’s got me runnin’ up a tree, up a tree,’ he sings, moaning facetiously as he burlesques the blues and intones ‘up a tree’ a third time, emphasising a definite position and truth: gritty, funky black soul brothers and sisters can deliver ‘authentic’ songs by rote just as easily as the tritest white writers and pseudo-folk performers in thrift-shop overalls. And race-based romanticism can be rot. ‘I’m the shook, the shake, the Sheik of Araby,’ Waller sings, grinding the song’s spurious desert exotica into so much camel feed. ‘The Sheik of Araby’ (1938) is one of his infrequent big band recordings, a reminder of the unhappy annual tours of one-nighters in the hinterlands he and his group endured with an expanded orchestra of strangers; even now, some hardcore jazz purists reject all big band music as a contrived commodity, debased folk music – the Marxist line in the 1930s. Waller was also wary of false consciousness. ‘Lord, there’s one of those Georgian Arabians,’ he exclaims with feigned surprise as Assistant Sheik Herman Autrey starts his trumpet solo. ‘Mercy! But watch out for them camels!’ warns the fastidious Waller. At the conclusion of ‘Spring Cleaning (Getting Ready for Love)’ (1936), he convincingly imitates a raucous old vacuum cleaner being revved up. The machine faces a daunting challenge if it hopes to suck in the bits and pieces of all the songs that Waller has decimated, and even a few camel droppings. Why didn’t an RCA publicist crown him the King of Razz?
As ‘literary’ turns, Waller’s caprices and parodies are implicitly moral acts of character, the domain of traditional satire. He’s never a cynic or nihilist, and respected the idea of a serious subject. The lyrics of ‘Christopher Columbus’ (1936), a good swing instrumental, are so vacuous that Professor Waller must ad lib a redeeming history lesson at the end, declaiming: ‘In the year 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue – that’s what I think.’ No wonder so many writers have admired and loved him, including Hemingway, John O’Hara, Philip Larkin and Eudora Welty, whose ‘Powerhouse’, probably the best story about jazz, was written in 1939 (published in 1941) after she had seen Waller perform a one-night stand with a ragtag big band in her home town of Jackson, Mississippi. Her version of Waller turns out to be a multicultural Proteus and paragon long before the fact of any programme or call for action. ‘Sheik! Sheik!’ he is proclaimed by his men when he wraps a towel around his perspiring head. He looks ‘Asiatic, monkey, Jewish, Babylonian, Peruvian . . . African’, and his band is named the Tasmanians. Welty also recognises the Pagliacci, tragic clown Waller hinted at in his bleak, vocal-free pipe organ versions of the spiritual ‘Deep River’ (1938) and his very last record, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’ (1943), another old spiritual. ‘I wonder what the poor people are doing. I’d love to be doin’ it with them,’ he says unexpectedly during his dirge-like solo, a recycled old Waller and Armstrong ad lib that here effects an inappropriate, unfunny and jarring break in tone and mood – compulsive ‘humour’ that would dispel or ease putative despair?
Bookish folks can’t resist Waller’s range of verbal masks and comic turns, especially his send-ups of self-pity and the rhetoric of romance such as ‘If It Isn’t Love’ (1934); ‘I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter’ (1935); ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ (1935); ‘Somebody Stole My Gal’ (1936); ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie’ (1936); ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’; and ‘Until the Real Thing Comes Along’ (1937). In the middle of his delivery of its insipid lyrics (‘I’d move the earth for you’) Waller demurs – ‘You want me to rob a bank? Well, I won’t do it!’ – thereby drawing a limit to romantic hyperbole and dubious symbolic acts. ‘I – I – I – I ain’t got nobody,’ he sings at the end of the plaintive song, the repetition of the first-person pronoun emphasising ‘his’ singular, unsympathetic egotism. Such numbers are clearly not send-ups alone; hence their lasting appeal.
By today’s standards, ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’ could also be called sexist, but Waller immediately manages to be humane as well as humorous, achieving the equipoise of art, however it’s categorised and ranked. He opens the number alone at the piano, unaccompanied, treading gently. ‘Who’s that walking around here?’ he asks darkly, as the rhythm section enters. It’s her feet, ‘baby elephant patter’, he says, but the delicate tremolo he plays under these words says, in effect, big feet or not, she nonetheless moves with startling grace, like Oliver Hardy doing one of his wondrously light soft-shoe routines in movies such as The Music Box (1932) and Way out West (1937), or Jackie Gleason skipping with delight. ‘Somebody Stole My Gal’ reverses this course as Waller withholds his affecting touch until the last instant. He delivers the song’s sorry lyrics in a sobbing manner, with clownish ‘boo-hoos’, but does manage to tell us he’s sent detectives after the gal. ‘Quick, Sherlock, bring her back,’ he ad libs at the end, ‘bring her right back on roller skates – bring her! Bring her,’ he concludes in an altogether different voice. Waller has shifted gears unexpectedly with this repeated plea, which sounds urgent and heartfelt, emoted with the raw, piercing sincerity of a Jimmy Rushing, Count Basie’s great blues and pop singer. The comedy isolates and heightens the poignancy of ‘bring her’. Parody, according to Proust, is a ‘cleansing, exorcising pastime’.
There’s no tonal, verbal relief in ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie’ because lying is bad, simply said. ‘I love you, I love you, I love you!’ Waller declaims, with absolute insincerity. Each ‘love’ descends in pitch, from lying falsetto to lying basso profundo, punctuated by several hard, artificial laughs that sound like they’re lies, too, drawn from comic strip speech balloons: ‘HA! HA! HA!’ ‘Get out there and tell your lie,’ he continues, which could, today, be a cynical rallying cry for writers to live up to the rich narrative potential of the lie, as in Conrad, Ford, Nabokov and Welty’s ‘Powerhouse’. ‘What is it?’ (your lie), Waller addresses his audience, and, surprisingly, the band answers with compelling clarinet and trumpet improvisations, commendable non-verbal ‘lies’, vaporising the cynicism in the air. Waller casts a wide net.
Waller, like Armstrong, frequently turns to the church for comedy and genuine sentiment. They do in fact appear together as cartoon angels in the animated film Clean Pastures (1937), a good-natured parody of the 1936 movie version of Green Pastures, Marc Connelly’s then famous Pulitzer Prize-winning play (1930), a heaven-based fantasy with an all-coloured cast. The angel Waller of Clean Pastures boasts a derby and halo, markers of his and Armstrong’s range as thespians. Armstrong is trumpeter to the devil in the equally segregated Cabin in the Sky (1943). However stereotypical and condescending Green Pastures looks today, with its great cotton candy clouds (wind-machines keep them moving), this film and Cabin in the Sky mark the central importance of the church and Biblical literalism in segregated but stable African American communities. They bought records, too, or Decca (the lowest-priced major label) wouldn’t have had Armstrong record ‘Jonah and the Whale’ twice (1938, 1958).
The unreligious Armstrong respects the idea of this community, but usually strikes a tricky Modernist balance when singing spirituals and gospel songs, delivering the sacred lyrics in tones that are lightly facetious (‘Lord, lord, wasn’t that a fish, hmm?’) or irreverent (‘Ezekiel was wailin’’), countered only by a brief melodic trumpet chorus or the sincere, plaintive reprise of one line or saving phrase, dramatically struck, usually at the end, as in the pacifist ‘Down by the Riverside’ (1958, with its well-known refrain, ‘Ain’t gonna study war no more’), where Armstrong interjects a sombre, gravely spoken ‘no more’ (war) that ought to reach every parishioner. This is analogous to the way Joyce respects the desperate, demanding piety of Stephen Dedalus’s dying mother while mocking the Catholic Church at every turn (a salmon-leap analogy of the kind that often mars deep discussions of popular art forms). My alliteration on d imitates a Joycean device that musically confers dignity, worth or pity on the mundane or undeserving. Transformation is the word.
Where Reverend Armstrong preferred production numbers with choirs on his ‘religious’ recordings – ‘Shadrack’ (1938), ‘Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Generosity’ (1938), and ‘Ezekiel Saw de Wheel’ (1958) – Waller favoured discrete outbursts of churchly fervour. (Armstrong’s more or less sacred numbers for the Decca label are collected on a recent reissue, Louis and the Good Book, Verve CD 549593.) ‘Rock, church, rock,’ he says quietly after Herman Autrey’s muted, surprisingly moving trumpet solos on ‘Sweetie Pie’ (1934) and Waller’s own ‘B-Flat Blues’ (1940 radio transcription), adding, impishly, on the latter, ‘I wouldn’t be nothin’ but a Baptist to save me.’ ‘Everybody latch on!’ Waller calls out when the band begins to riff on the self-pitying ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ – music as transport. ‘Mercy!’ Waller exclaims on countless numbers, his most ‘literary’ locution in that he intones the gospel tag so variously, registering ecstasy or prayer or comedy, or all three at once, as at the end of ‘Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells’ (1936) and the explosive ‘Dinah’ (1935) – one of the best examples of the extraordinary power this small group could generate. Waller’s ‘Mercy!’ at once tweaks unsophisticated religiosity and asserts that music-making is an act of faith.
Unlike Waller, whose father was a minister, nothing tempered Armstrong’s approach to the sanctified church. The preacher in ‘The Lonesome Road’ (1931) and Elder Eatmore, as his Dickensian name suggests, are greedy charlatans. These discs, and Armstrong’s recording of Stephen Foster’s ‘Old Folks at Home’ (1937, made with the Mills Brothers) respectively offer light and dark-toned extremes. Foster’s song is the lament of an ‘emancipated’ Negro who sadly roams the world, longing to return to the plantation: ‘Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary.’ Faced with these repellent old lyrics, Armstrong dons the mask of Baptist deacon and sends up the song with a ‘church service’ cast in bitterly caricatured and accented dialect, spoken after the crooning brothers have presented it straightforwardly: ‘That’s where my heart is turning, river!’ says Armstrong, interpolating the Swanee. ‘Yowsuh!’ he exclaims broadly. ‘Know one thing? My heart am still longin’ for the old plantation – sing, brothers,’ and they do, heartily. ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah . . . Oh, darkies,’ Armstrong intones. ‘Look-a here, we’re far from home. Yeah!’ he exults at the end, sounding like Waller. The Dixie diaspora had its charms, but comedy had better be a musician’s religion if old plantation/Swanee River songs were to be forced on him by record company executives because they sold well – to black buyers, too. ‘It ain’t over till the fat man sinks,’ a weary Waller might have punned, in a doleful blues evoking Old Man River. Armstrong in fact cried all night after he learned of Waller’s sudden death.
If music-making is an act of faith, then Waller and Armstrong are bishops in the Church of Lost Songs, where it is truly Christian to save a dog tune. ‘You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew’ (1934) is one of the most inspiring Waller rescue operations. (The title toys, of course, with the verbal saw ‘There are other fish in the sea.’) Waller sings the song charmingly: ‘There’s seven million people in New York/There’s fifty million Frenchmen in Pa-a-h-ree/Not to mention such/As English, Irish, Italians and Dutch/But you’re the only one for me,’ he sings. He then swings into his piano solo with uncommon speed, to compensate for the inept scansion. Instead of allowing his right hand to skate off alone, to improvise and outdistance the afflicted tune, as in ‘Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells’, Waller sticks to the melody and improves it with strong chording, dignifying the song’s storyline. The same thing happens in ‘Two Sleepy People’ (1938) and ‘My Very Good Friend the Milkman’ (1935), a potentially sentimental but credible and affecting direct-address proposal of marriage, à la Armstrong in its disarming sincerity. Waller’s concluding ad lib on ‘You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew’ is for once straight, addressed directly to the oyster herself: ‘Look out, babe, you’re not the only oyster in the stew,’ which is to say, you really are. ‘Oh, babe, mercy,’ he begs earlier, earnestly interrupting the lyrics. We’ve been waiting for Waller to undermine the song completely – there have been one or two hints – but it turns out to be a plaint, presented seriously all along as a rejected or dejected lover’s rationale and plea. The slightest note of sarcasm or musical burlesque would kill the emotion, and the number. The Oyster Stew doggerel is good enough for the poor guy in the song – water, as it were, seeks its own level – but the oyster is a pearl and so is Waller’s performance. ‘Let the band play “Here Comes the Bride”,’ he ad libs sweetly at the end of ‘My Very Good Friend the Milkman’, without a wink or grimace, it seems. ‘Goodnight,’ he says simply at the end of ‘Two Sleepy People’ after delivering its concluding line, ‘Two sleepy people, much too much in love to say goodnight.’ His good wishes are triply sweet and affecting in view of our expectations – a sleight-of-hand of a different sort, sentiment protected by comedy.
‘Oh, mercy, banish every care,’ pleads Waller near the end of another 1930s performance. He and Armstrong make you believe they wish this for each of us. In the coda to ‘Sweet Sue’ (1935), paramedic Waller begs for ‘One more beat! One more beat,’ and on some numbers it does kick in, as in his last-minute rescue of his shaken-up big band version of ‘The Sheik of Araby’, recorded by a touring ensemble hastily organised by his new manager to get him out of debt. After a bland trombone solo and his customary tomfoolery, the orchestral Waller assumes full command and swings the under-rehearsed ad hoc ensemble from the piano, their closing riffs surging and swelling with the medium-tempo tidal force of Count Basie’s band, drummer Slick Jones inspiring the jitterbugs and whipping the Sheik of Razz’s loping camel to a hard-earned victory – over the silly song, and over Waller’s antipathy to big bands. For once, Thomas Waller doesn’t let Fats ad lib at the very end. Music has the last word, so to speak. ‘Nighty-night,’ leers a spectral Waller, embarrassed by the crowning. ‘Gold-plated crown? Lay-away?’ he adds, rolling his cartoon-wide eyes toward drifting Clean Pastures clouds.