Friday, February 27, 2015

`The Maker of Immaculate Slapstick'

A reader who can also read my musical tastes brightened a dark afternoon with a choice selection from the Collected Works of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “That’s Ain’t Right” from Stormy Weather (1943). Waller is one of those rare artists—Louis Armstrong, P.G. Wodehouse and Fred Astaire are others—who dispense joy without compromising their art. They give pleasure without shame. They revel in their job – entertaining us. Philip Larkin said Waller “was in the laughter business as much as the jazz business,” and we love him for it. Larkin quotes Armstrong “Every time someone mentions Fats Waller's name, why, you can see grins on all the faces.” That’s what you would have seen in my office Thursday afternoon. 

In his first collection, No Continuing City (1969), the Irish poet Michael Longley included a suite of poems with a title adapted from Yeats, “Words for Jazz Perhaps”: “Elegy for Fats Waller,” “Bud Freeman in Belfast,” “To Bessie Smith” and “To Bix Beiderbecke.” The sequence is dedicated to Solly Lipsitz, the late trumpet player, music critic and record shop owner in Belfast. Here’s Longley’s Waller poem: 

“Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day,
Happy with so many notes at his beck
And call, he sits there taking it away,
The maker of immaculate slapstick. 

“With music and with such precise rampage
Across the deserts of the blues a trail
He blazes, towards the one true mirage,
Enormous on a nimble-footed camel
And almost refusing to be his age. 

“He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,
At the still centre of his loud dominion—

It’s not a great poem but it captures and celebrates Waller’s spirit. Jazz has inspired thousands of poems, most of them not worth reading to the final line. Like poetry, jazz attracts camp followers for whom the music is the password to the Hipster Room, where the Cool People live. Longley does something else. He honors Waller by adopting his tone of good humor tempered with brains. In a brief essay he wrote for The Guardian in 2011, Longley writes: “Fats must be one of the most musical human beings ever to have lived. I sense a dark, unsettling challenge behind the twinkle. Seamlessly he combines sunniness and subversion, and can be very complicated indeed.” In the poem, he nicely dubs Waller the “maker of immaculate slapstick,” a description that might apply with equal justice to Buster Keaton. 

In “Light from Two Windows,” a portrait of Longley painted by Jeffery Morgan, you’ll find a picture of Keaton hanging on the wall and another of Waller on the book about Charles Ives in the foreground. Look closely and you’ll see other traces of Longley’s interests – a picture of Billie Holiday, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Illiad, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944 by Lucjan Dobroszycki, books about Hokusai and Brancusi. Longley, born in 1939, includes “Old Poets” (“for Anne Stevenson”) in Snow Water (2004): 

“Old poets regurgitate
Pellets of chewed-up paper
Packed with shrew tails, frog bones,
Beetle wings, wisdom.”

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