Friday, November 09, 2018

'Sunniness and Subversion'

I’m happy to learn the Irish poet Michael Longley is a longtime lover of Fats Waller, an artist unafraid to make us happy. Some equate “happy” with “lowbrow” or “philistine.” That’s awfully puritanical for my taste. I reserve a private stock of happiness-inducing music for those days when I’ve had enough Morton Feldman. No surprises: Mozart, Louis Armstrong, Cyndi Lauper. In “A Perpetual One-Night Stand: Some Thoughts on Jazz and Poetry” (Sidelines: Selected Prose 1962-2015, Enitharmon Press, 2017), Longley tells us the first LP he bought was Fats on the Air, transcriptions of radio performances without the three-minute constriction of 78’s: “I loved the drive, the warmth, the apparent spontaneity, the insouciance, the dizzy humour, the hilarious demolition of sentimental material . . .”

That captures Waller’s charm nicely. Happy need not be stupid, and it helps when the artist appears to be enjoying himself as much as his audience. There’s nothing shameful about entertaining. Waller reminds me of a comedian and actor among his contemporaries, W.C. Fields. Both by nature are subversive, undercutting sappy material. Both mutter some of their best lines and had an aspect to their gifts that suggested discontent and, yes, unhappiness. Longley continues:

“. . . but I also sensed a dark and unsettling aspect, as though behind the twinkle Waller is issuing a challenge: ‘Yes, I’ll make you laugh and tap your feet, folks, but not until you’ve kissed my fat ass!’ Waller seamlessly combines sunniness and subversion.”

In Waller, as in many great artists, the strains are balanced. You can’t pick them apart. Longley shares my sole disappointment in Waller: “Sometimes I wish he had performed more often with musicians of his own calibre; that he had left us more of those tracks on which he keeps his mouth shut and just plays as a session-man or, as the composer of ‘Handful of Keys,’ ‘Clothesline Ballet,‘Jitterbug Waltz’ [on Hammond organ].  But most of the time I’m happy like everyone else to chuckle when Fats Waller sings and jokes.”  

Waller died in 1943 at the age of thirty-nine. What would he have made of bop? Would he make fun of Parker and his excesses, musical and otherwise? Imagine him playing a few years later with Dizzy Gillespie (another musician in whom artist and entertainer are one) Sonny Rollins or Paul Desmond.

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

Two words: Spike Jones.