Skip to main content


Melodic Invention

By Steven Budiansky | HUMANITIES, July/August 2000 | Volume 21, Number 4

Fats Waller's rise to fame as an entertainer was still several years off when, in November of 1926, the Victor Talking Machine Company invited Waller to its Camden, New Jersey, studio. Victor, like other record companies, had only recently made the remarkable discovery that "hillbilly" and "race" music could be big business, and Waller was one of many Harlem musicians whom Victor was eager to record.

Waller was then twenty-two years old, and already well known in Harlem as a pianist on the party and nightclub circuit, but he had made only a few recordings, mainly accompanying blues singers or playing in pickup ensembles. The Camden studio was a deconsecrated church that Victor had bought for its acoustics, and with the building came a church organ, which the recording company overhauled and expanded. The plan was that Waller would accompany a black vocal group singing the spiritual "All God's Chillun Got Wings." But to warm up, Waller rattled off two tunes on the 2,000-pipe instrument: W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and a piece of his own, "Lenox Avenue Blues," also known as "The Church Organ Blues." The Victor engineers recorded those performances, and company executives were sufficiently impressed that over the next three years they brought Waller back for a half dozen more sessions.

None of the resulting records sold particularly well, however, and as Waller's fame as a singer and an entertainer grew in the 1930s, and Victor pressed him to crank out far more commercially appealing jazz-band treatments of Tin Pan Alley standards, these earlier solos faded into obscurity.

Waller's vocal performances of "Ain't Misbehavin'," "The Joint Is Jumpin'," "Your Feet's Too Big," and dozens of other songs have never gone out of print, but his organ solos were unavailable for decades. They resurfaced in the 1970s as French RCA began releasing a complete set of Waller's recordings on thirty-six LPs, and most of the organ solos are now out on a 1998 Jazz Archives CD as well. It is safe to say, however, that they hardly rank among his most popular recordings.

That is a shame, because they are brilliant proof of a side to Waller's musical genius that has often been ignored, or even denigrated, in the years since his untimely death from pneumonia, in 1943. If nothing else, Waller's organ performances are technical tours de force that reveal an almost wizardly mastery of what is surely the most ungainly instrument ever pressed into the service of jazz. It would be hard to invent a musical instrument less well suited to jazz performance. Stroke a key, bang a key--it's all the same to the organ. The instrument's sound-generating mechanism has two modes, on or off, wind flowing through the pipe or wind stopped, and there simply is no way to swing a beat by making one note of a measure louder than any other. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that even with modern organs, the player experiences a tiny delay between the depression of a key and the emergence of a sound. Any hall big enough to hold a pipe organ has a natural reverberation of as much as several seconds, which adds to this disorienting sensation. Somehow Waller did make the pipe organ swing. By age seventeen Waller was giving Bill "Count" Basie lessons on the Lincoln Theater organ. He was also doing things that classically trained organists would say are almost impossible to pull off artistically: playing staccato, playing slurs and slides, playing clustered chords and arpeggios. All these effects require split-second judgment and an incredible sensitivity to tone and touch.

But the pieces are more than vehicles for Waller's technical flash; they are compositional gems, flights of melodic and harmonic invention that reflect Waller's musical genius in its purest and most concentrated form.

Such improvisational performances have not generally been thought of as "compositions"; jazz in the 1920s and 1930s was still evolving from a largely unwritten tradition, and the very spontaneity of performances would seem to argue against the idea of composition at all. Waller himself learned to play a number of pieces by the master of the "stride" piano style, James P. Johnson, by slowing down player-piano rolls that Johnson had made and placing his fingers over the keys as they dropped down. Although each stride pianist had his own style, and might never play the same piece exactly the same way twice, a few particularly well-known numbers became standards. Every stride pianist learned, for example, Johnson's classic rendition of "Carolina Shout."

The obvious care with which Waller worked out his organ pieces offers a good argument for treating them as genuine compositions. And a volume of seventeen transcriptions of Waller's organ, piano, and vocal performances, to be published later this year as part of the American Musicological Society's Music of the United States of America (MUSA) series, may go a long way toward establishing Waller as an important, even great, American composer. His organ works in particular have a balance, structure, and movement that can seem almost classical, with series of increasingly embellished variations, often in very different styles and forms, welded together into beautiful, coherent wholes by their carefully laid-out harmonic underpinnings and interlocking melodic themes. Call-and-response passages, witty countermelodies, and Waller's rich exploitation of the many different voices of the organ to orchestrate different passages all suggest a meticulously planned performance that nevertheless retains its improvisational quality. With the publication of the MUSA volume, called Fats Waller: Performances in Transcription, several of Waller's organ works will be available for the first time in a definitive written form for study--and they may even become part of the classical organ repertoire, just as Scott Joplin's piano rags are now an established part of the classical piano repertoire.

The problematic difference between Joplin and Waller is that Joplin (like other ragtime composers) really did compose: he sat down at the piano, wrote out the notes, and published his pieces as sheet music. Although Waller's style of stride-piano playing was a direct descendent of ragtime, Waller rarely wrote out his pieces in full; not until the mid-1930s did he even write down so much as a skeleton of the parts for both hands. In general, he would write only a simple melody line and the most fragmentary additional notations of the overall dimensions of the piece. (All that was required to copyright an original tune was a melody and a title.) Waller did record some rolls for player piano, but these are considered unreliable sources, because rolls were often modified after they had been recorded, by having extra holes punched in them. A few of Waller's more popular piano pieces were published as sheet music during his lifetime--but, says Paul Machlin, author of the MUSA volume, these are "deeply simplified" versions cranked out by "some Tin Pan Alley hack" who listened to Waller's playing and came up with at best a rough approximation. The recordings of Waller's performances are the only authentic sources for producing a written score.

Transcribing these musical sounds onto paper, decades after they were recorded, was a surprisingly difficult and exacting task.

Machlin, a pianist and a graduate of Yale and the University of California at Berkeley, is a professor of music at Colby College in Maine. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Richard Wagner's opera The Flying Dutchman. He became interested in Fats Waller in 1976, when he offered to teach a course at Colby on American music to mark the Bicentennial. That led to a course on jazz, and then to a year off, in 1980, when he began some serious research on Waller. His book Stride: The Music of Fats Waller was published in 1985.

Like many pianists, Machlin realized that Waller's keyboard works were something exceptional. He was dismayed by critics who said that Waller had "wasted his talent" or wasn't serious about his music. "There's a particular kind of white jazz historian who sees jazz as an expression of oppressed people," Machlin says. "And so when they see a commercially successful African-American, it somehow 'lessens the authenticity.'" Waller managed to get very rich. But Machlin insists that in Waller's case originality and authenticity were not at all incompatible with commercial success.

The rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexity of the stride style is part of the challenge in reducing these performances to paper. In both ragtime and stride the left hand alternates low bass notes with chords near the middle of the keyboard. But in stride the bass figures are usually harmonically rich tenths rather than simple octaves, and the chords are often bluesy seventh chords with flatted notes and clusters of four and five notes in place of simple three-note chords. The left hand swings before or after the beat in a much freer rhythmic variation than the steady "oompah" syncopation of ragtime.

The real hallmark of stride is the dazzling improvisational embellishments by the right hand, known in the business as "tricks"--fast-moving flourishes that break up or ornament the melody line.

Computer programs exist that can automatically transcribe musical sound into musical notation, but Machlin found they were of little use with Waller's music, mainly because they are not sophisticated enough to capture his rhythmic subtleties. So Machlin works the old-fashioned way. First he listens to a song until he has a basic picture firmly in his mind of its harmonic shape and of what the hands are doing in each phrase. Then he listens to one bar--or sometimes half a bar--at a time, writes down what he thinks he hears, and tries it out on the keyboard to see if it sounds right. Then he goes back and fills in what he's missed. Sometimes he plays a tape at half speed to try to pick out what Waller was doing. Next comes an extensive process of editing and checking and seeking the opinions of others. "You have someone look over it and they question just about everything," he says. The low fidelity of many of the early recordings doesn't help. Because musical sounds contain natural overtones, it can be extremely difficult to tell whether all or only some of the tones of chords were actually played. In a few passages, where "despite a lot of listening and agony" Machlin is still not absolutely sure, he has marked in brackets on the transcriptions what the thinks Waller was doing. It can take a full day's work to produce just a starting draft of twenty-four bars; transcribing a first draft of one complete piece can take weeks.

The MUSA series, which is being supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and is being published by A-R Editions, is intended to highlight monuments in American music that have never been published in a definitive form. It is first and foremost a scholarly project, and by its very nature its primary audience is likely to be musicologists and historians of music who wish to study the scores, rather than performers interested in playing them. Volumes published so far or in progress include the songs of Charles Ives, John Philip Sousa marches, Ruth Crawford's chamber music, American fiddle tunes, slave songs, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Irving Berlin's early songs. The Fats Waller volume will include three organ performances ("I Ain't Got Nobody," "Rusty Pail," and "Waiting at the End of the Road") and several piano solos and popular songs ("Ain't Misbehavin'," "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," "Honeysuckle Rose"), along with some small-ensemble performances.

Will any organists or pianists play these solo works once they are available in standard written notation? The pieces are full of vitality, originality, and interest, and on those grounds it may be hard to imagine why they should not find a home in the keyboard repertoire--again, much as Scott Joplin's rags have, and for much the same reason: the pieces are not only musically rich but often very witty.

One reason that organists and pianists may not find themselves tempted to tackle Waller's solo works, however, is that they are very hard; the immediate impact of Machlin's publication may be less to encourage their performance than to generate renewed reverence for Waller's skill. Like all great performers, Waller made it seem easy, though it is anything but. The pieces are not for the faint-hearted; they are certainly much more difficult than Joplin's--though, as Machlin says, "that is part of their charm."

The other question is: Should anyone try to perform these works? The improvisational nature of Waller's style does make one wonder if imitating note-for-note what he did on one occasion is the equivalent of performing a written composition, or whether it runs the danger of winding up as something grotesque, like an Elvis impersonation. Machlin says "Some people say to me, 'Why should someone play those pieces when Fats Waller has already done it?'" Machlin says. "My answer is 'For the same reason you'd play a Chopin étude when Chopin has already done it.'"

About the Author

This article is reprinted with the permission of Stephen Budiansky. It first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in March 2000.

Funding Information

Since 1987, NEH has provided $587,980 to the American Musicological Society for its work on the Music of the United States of America (MUSA) series.