Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quotes of the Day (Eudora Welty and Gary Giddens, on Fats Waller)

“Of course you know how he sounds--you've heard him on records--but still you need to see him. He's going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.”—Eudora Welty, “Powerhouse,” in A Curtain of Green, and Other Stories (1941)

“His greatest joy was playing Bach on the organ, but he buttered his bread as a clown, complete with a mask as fixed as that of Bert Williams or Spike Jones. It consisted of a rakishly tilted derby, one size too small, an Edwardian moustache that fringed his upper lip, eyebrows as thick as paint and pliable as curtains, flirtatious eyes, a mouth alternately pursed or widened in a dimpled smile, and immense girth, draped in the expensive suits and ties of a dandy.”—Gary Giddens, “Fats Waller (Comedy Tonight),” in Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998)

My exposure to the joyous songbook of Thomas (Fats) Waller—born on this date in 1904—dates back to a 1992 performance of the revue based on his work, Ain’t Misbehavin’, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. If you love jazz, it’s almost impossible not to come across at least one cover version of one of his standards, especially “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” and “Keeping Out of Mischief Now.”

But Waller’s death at the all-too-young age of 39 deprived us of more than a chance to experience additions to an already sizable songbook. It also deprived white America of the opportunity to see him under the circumstances he deserved, free to play his music before audiences undivided by race or class. (In her short story “Powerhouse,” Welty’s eponymous musician—a very thinly disguised version of Waller—plays before an all-white crowd in the segregationist South.)

Nobody who saw the elegance of Duke Ellington or the easy banter of Dizzy Gillespie is likely to forget those jazz masters anytime soon. Even the photo accompanying this blog misses something captured by Welty and Giddens in print—the insouciant artist in motion, whirling like a keyboard dervish, weaving his magic over audiences. For an idea of that, please see this clip from Stormy Weather.

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