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Fats Waller's Playful Jazz Piano Legacy

A comic showman who delighted crowds with his playful stage antics, Fats Waller was the beloved "clown prince" of jazz during a golden era of the genre, leading up to World War II.

Yet Waller's talent as an entertainer overshadowed tremendous gifts as a musician and songwriter. A new three-disc collection of his recordings focuses on the music behind the merriment.

Waller was an imposing figure with an especially muscular playing style.

"As they say in the jazz world, he could lift the bandstand," says jazz critic Stanley Crouch. "So if you were up there with him, and he started playing, you were going to play better -- if only to keep from being overshadowed..."

The CD collection, titled If You Got to Ask, You Ain't Got It!, divides Waller's musical life into three compartments. Original songs fill one disc. Another features instrumental-only compositions. The third offers Waller's interpretations of hit songs by other composers of the era.

Some of those "interpretations" showcased Waller at his impish best, ad-libbing funny lines into more solemn tunes. It's easy to see how audiences and even contemporary critics could miss a deeper side of Waller -- his sophisticated ear, and his love of Bach's compositions for the pipe organ.

Waller died of pneumonia in 1943 on a train headed east after a performance in Hollywood. He was 39. In later years, plenty of arguments have erupted over who, if anyone, is the next Fats Waller.

But maybe such debate misses the point. "I think rather than worry about him as an influence, you just enjoy him as a talent," producer Orrin Keepnews says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.