How did the work of Thomas "Fats" Waller go generally neglected for over three decades? It's a question worth asking, as we try to evaluate his relevance to contemporary culture and his continuing importance. My personal experience may be instructive. In the late 1960's, I checked my first Fats Waller album (Valentine Stomp) out of the Dayton, Ohio, Public Library. As a teenaged jazz fan and budding comedy performer, I suppose it was inevitable that I would meet and fall in love with Fats's work. He is, after all, the point where those two art forms meet: he is the greatest jazz pianist who ever tried to make people laugh, and the greatest comedian who ever played jazz.

I spent the next ten years buying every Fats Waller record I could find: re-issues, 78s, pirate recordings, European anthologies. And the more I heard, the more frustrated I became. I literally could not understand why Fats Waller was not known by every man, woman, and child in the world. My annoyance became the best kind of artistic stimulus. With a great deal of good luck in finding the right collaborators, I was able to turn my passion into the Broadway musical, Ain't Misbehavin'. But the reason for the success of that show was overwhelmingly the excellence and universal appeal of Fats Waller.

It's not a fashionable idea in our time, this notion of "universal appeal." Ours is an age of demographics, focus groups, and sophisticated micro-marketing techniques. "Who's your target audience?" is the opening question to most artistic endeavors these days. (I'm having a lot of fun imagining what Fats's response might have been to that question.)

 

His target audience was all of us. Indeed, that's the very heart of his art - or arts, if you want to separate the music from the comedy. In both, Fats isn't just letting us know what the real deal is, he's reminding us that we already know what it is. And he's letting us know that he knows we know. (If this is starting to sound convoluted, hold on - it gets worse.) The only way that works is if, on some level, we all share some common traits, some values, some needs. Fats confirms that for us. He lets us in on it with his fingers, his smile, his voice, and his eyebrows, which, as I've written elsewhere, always let you know there was at least one more joke inside the one he'd just told.

We tried very hard not to name our show Ain't Misbehavin'. We figured anybody could name a Fats Waller show Ain't Misbehavin'. Ultimately, though, there was no other choice. As my partner, Richard Maltby, Jr., always says, "Ain't Misbehavin'" is the central Fats Waller joke. And maybe it's the central Fats Waller truth. "Ain't Misbehavin'," as Fats amply demonstrated, is a song best performed by someone surrounded by a lot of tempting beauties - in Fats's case, a man among a bunch of gorgeous women - to the one person who means the most to him. She knows he's misbehavin'. He knows she knows. She knows he knows she knows. And they both know she wouldn't love him nearly so much if he weren't protesting, so swingingly and melodically, that he's not misbehavin'.

If to be human is to be imperfect, then there is something deeply, universally human in all of this. It's not just an acknowledgment of our imperfections, it's a mechanism for dealing with them, and making something out of them that's profoundly amusing. But Fats doesn't stop there. In his pianism, in his compositions, in his voice, in his very physical presence, he continually contrasts a heavy assertiveness with a light elegance. Nobody has ever played stride piano better than Fats Waller. (Even that statement is a hedge, because of my own personal feeling is that nobody ever played it as well.) We think of the thunder in the left hand, but it is as much about the wit and suppleness in the right. Challenging the rhythm, swinging hard, balancing the heaviness and the lightness, Fats gives us a way to make sense of modern life. What is even more astonishing is that he makes us smile - and often laugh - as he does it.

What was true for that teenager in Dayton, Ohio, in the '60's will always be true: anybody who spends some time listening to Fats Waller will be touched, and made to consider life in a new way. So I don't fear for the future of Fats Waller, and I'm not worried about his continuing significance. As with any great artist, different aspects of him will be more or less important to different ages. Here's an example: one of the things that helps Fats nowadays is his impeccable visual style. Nobody - not Jimmy Rushing, nor Sidney Greenstreet, nor Oliver Hardy - was able to make obesity as attractive, as funny, and as expressive as Fats Waller. In "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," Fats told Una Mae Carlisle, "I got my tailor standin' right outside the door. He better keep me lookin' swell," and I believe he meant every word, because he always did look swell. Fats's sartorial style gave him an unmistakable visual statement, and an appeal to today's visually hipper audiences.

 

 

I have no doubt that some subsequent generation will find its own significance in his prodigious compositional achievement. At some other time, another generation will be more moved by his vocal style. One day, a less fastidious age than ours will give him his proper place alongside the other greats of the golden age of American comedy: W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, Burns & Allen, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and the rest. And, in every era, thanks to his recordings and piano rolls, there will always be that amazing piano playing, that has the ability to reach new audiences with its freshness, energy, and dazzle - not least because it will always, in the words of Dr. Billy Taylor, "sound like two guys playing the piano."

Difficult as it is to apprehend, all of these achievements - pianist, composer, singer, comedian, celebrity - came from a single, fine, brown frame ("my mother's 285 pounds of jam, jive, and everything"). And it is that man, with his incredible artistic range, who will ultimately ensure his own lasting legacy. Fats Waller was an irresistible force of humanity. He let us know - in ways nobody else had - that we're all in this thing together. He comprised high living, virtuosity, wit, vulgarity, imagination, spirituality, hedonism, slapstick, elegance, romance, innovation, discipline, recklessness, and much, much more in one enormous body over a span of only 39 years. You hear all of that in his music. You see and hear it in his comedy. He is one of the greatest of all American artists.

For a few decades following his death, maybe it was inevitable that Fats should have been neglected. After all, he was an artist of what was considered the disposable world of American popular culture. And even though a great deal of his achievement now qualifies as fine art, it will always be popular. He guaranteed that, because of who and what he was, what he had to say to us, and how he said it. People have often asked me to account for the large and lasting success of Ain't Misbehavin', and I have always said that it was like finding a golden door that had been passed over, unopened, for 35 years. I don't think it will ever close again. There is a big man leaning against it.
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