Tag Archives: Thomas Waller


The legend that’s continued after Fats Waller’s untimely death is that he was marvelously creative but also an outlandish clown, especially when given poor material to record, undermining it with mocking asides and jokes.  But I treasure those times when he respected the song and showed us what a tender singer he was.  The performances below aren’t comic or anarchic; there are no uptempo stride extravaganzas.  But gentle feeling shines through every note.

FAIR AND SQUARE is a song I came to love through performances by Lueder Ohlwein of the Sunset Music Company, a whole rhythm section and glorious singer on his own.  The composer credits are usually given to Andy Razaf and Leo Robin, although one HMV record label assigns the song to Harry Woods, I think in error:

I first heard this very sweet song because of Melissa Collard’s 2004 memorable recording.  But Fats did it first:

This performance sounds as if Fats is going to launch into hilarious mockery, but he doesn’t.  The songwriters Charlie Tobias and Sammy Fain knew how to transform cliches.  Wait for the lovely piano coda:

Here, also, Fats trembles on the edge of amusement, but chooses to focus on the song’s essential sadness:

Lovely music and lovely sentiments from Thomas Waller.

May your happiness increase!


Everybody knows about fats:  margarine (toxic), avocado (much better), Thomas Waller (salvation on the darkest days).

But since Fats Waller has been gone since December 1943, and all his recordings have been collected and issued on some six CD boxes (JSP Records), it falls to living pianists and singers to carry on and extend his joyous tradition.

One of the finest examples is a WALLER’ING AROUND, new compact disc by the hilariously gifted stride master / singer / entertainer Jeff Barnhart, recorded in February 2010.

The cover picture should give you an inkling that the mood of the CD is not somber, apropos for Fats and his world.

Jeff would have been a wonderfully funny entertainer even if Fats have never existed — any man who can write and sing a new couplet (approximately), “I want you to put your feets between my satin sheets,” is my hero.

These days, much of what is passed off as “stride piano” these days is either crisp but formal transcriptions of the records (you know who you are!) or uneven and bumpy, loud and fast — not the way the masters did it.

Jeff’s time is steady, his touch and dynamics are splendid, and he can improvise with great ingenuity and delicacy at top speed.  And he improvises throughout.  This isn’t a devoutly repressed repertory project, FATS IN HI-FI.

There’s a good deal of sly humor and rent party fun on this disc, but Jeff also recognizes Fats as another romantic, so the disc is full of tenderness.  And Jeff understands Fats’ serious side as well.  One of the high points of the delightfully varied disc is a seven-minute instrumental rendition of BLACK AND BLUE that begins with Jeff explaining this lovely mournful protest song.

Jeff is also a truly agile singer — his tenor captures much of Fats’ voice — not the shouting of asides over the band, but the yearning romanticism mixed with satire.  It’s a particularly insinuating sound, and it never feels forced or mannered — perhaps because it is so close to Jeff’s speaking voice: expressive, amused.

All the Waller favorites are here — sometimes with the surprise of a verse I’d never heard (as in BLUE TURNING GRAY OVER YOU) — but the less-played numbers lift this disc up to the first rank.

There’s VALENTINE STOMP, dedicated to a Harlem house of pleasure, which Jeff both plays respectfully and improvises on; there’s the early composition (recorded by another newcomer named Bechet), WILD CAT BLUES, Jeff’s orchestral version of the 1927 ST. LOUIS SHUFFLE (first recorded by the Fletcher Henderson band), the joyous MIDNIGHT STOMP (with the lyrics!) and HOLD MY HAND (which Fats performed on the radio as a duet with his teacher James P. Johnson).

But best of all — a striding bit of wondrous Hot archaeology — is the premiere performance of a swinging Waller tune (again with hilarious lyrics) whose premise is that every time I get a new girlfriend, someone steals her away: EV’RY SWEETIE THAT I GET.  I had to play it over several times before allowing myself to proceed to the next track.


This one’s a keeper.  Lovely sound; you won’t miss horns or a rhythm section; there are articulate, funny notes by Jeff, and it will make you laugh and feel even better than usual.  It’s that fine Arabian stuff that your dreams are made of!

You can order this CD (it’s $20) directly from Jeff at his website: http://www.jeffbarnhart.com/cdsandorderform.html.

Pretend it’s your birthday.



P.S.  Let’s assume you’re out there saying, “Well, Michael, usually I trust your opinion, but I have never heard this Barnhart fellow.  Why should I spring for yet another compact disc?”  It’s a valid question — here’s Jeff playing VALENTINE STOMP in 2009, captured for us by the tireless Tom Warner:

Proof positive.  And (slightly afield) search out “A BEAUTIFUL LADY IN BLUE” with drummer Danny Coots — nephew of J. Fred, who wrote the song, where Jeff swings out like nobody’s business.  You’ll be hooked.  I am.


July 2009 New York 006

This wonderful jazz artifact emerged from an antique store somewhere near Hillsdale, New York — a hot little room with too much sheet music to go through in one visit.  (The double and triple copies of songs that must have been popular are always revealing: in Maine, everyone must have been singing CHONG, HE CAME FROM HONG KONG in 1931; here, I perceived a collective obsession with songs about Old Wyoming.  Go figure.)  I picked out about a dozen pieces of music — Ray Noble, Connee Boswell, and others — and took them to the counter to find out the prices the amiable proprietor had in mind.  Of course, when she began to mutter after every other sheet, “Oh, this one’s going to be expensive,” I knew I was in trouble.  But I had to have the Waller-Razaf one above.

I admire its Deco caricatures, top and bottom, as well as the list of other Waller-Razaf songs (all obscure) that made up the musical score.  And, of course, this post is another example of cyber cross-pollination: Ricky Riccardi — sole proprietor of The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong online — has been posting extensively researched segments on Louis’s recordings of the song from 1929 on.  Extremely rewarding reading! 

But there’s more.  Songs of that period had both choruses and verses — the verse serving to set up the song’s dramatic situation.  And the whole idea of chorus and verse was tied to theatrical presentation.  AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ has two simultaneous verses.  One I knew (as recorded by Seger Ellis and others) turns out to have been the boy’s part.  But I had never heard the girl’s . . .

Here they are, for your edification and for singing around the parlor piano.  Or perhaps in the car – – –

BOY:  Though it’s a fickle age, With flirting all the rage, Here is one bird with self-control; Happy inside my cage.

GIRL:  Your type of man is rare, I know you really care, That’s why my conscience never sleeps; When you’re away somewhere.

BOY:  I know who I love best, Thumbs down on all the rest, My love was given heart and soul; So it can stand the test.

GIRL:  Sure was a lucky day; When fate sent you my way, And made you mine alone for keeps, Ditto to all you say.

The Boy’s lines are slangy; the Girl’s much more sentimentally pedestrian (and perhaps the logic of her conscience never sleeping is awry) but they do Andy Razaf every credit. 

More purchases to share soon!


My title is a slight distortion of a Willard Robison song that Mildred Bailey did beautifully, and it’s also a statement of philosophy for this blog.  But I’m not going back into the Dear Departed Past, to quote Dave Frishberg, only back to last year — December 30, 2008, to be precise. 


In a December post, WAY DOWN YONDER ON CARMINE STREET, I urged my New York readers to come hear the singer Ronnie Washam (she’s Veronica on her return address labels) and her Friends at the Greenwich Village Bistro for a debut gig.  I made it to 1 and 1/2 sets that night.  And they were worth writing about. 

Ronnie’s Friends — not just an idle band title — are Sam Parkins, also known as Leroy Parkins, Albert-system clarinetist, scholar, record producer, raconteur, and writer; Pete Sokolow, pianist-singer, honoring Earl Hines and Fats Waller, and bassist Dave Winograd. 

When I got down to the Bistro (just south of the IFC theatre and around the corner — 13 Carmine Street), this little band was already strolling through S’WONDERFUL.  They proceeded to honor George and Ira Gershwin in a fond and musically articulate set.  The songs ranged from the tender (EMBRACEABLE YOU and OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY) to the affectionately satiric (THEY ALL LAUGHED, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT), the rueful (BUT NOT FOR ME), and the riotous (Sokolow’s tribute to “my hero,” Thomas Waller, in a piano-vocal I GOT RHTYHM that summoned up Fats’s band version of 1935 hilariously and effectively.

Ronnie was in wonderful form and fine voice.  I hadn’t heard her since the Cajun closed in 2006, when she was “The Chelsea Nightingale,” positioned off to the side of the bandstand as an accessory to Bob Thompson’s Red Onion Jazz Band.  Thompson, even then, was a solid drummer with a well-earned grasp of jazz history, but he called the songs Ronnie sang, and it was a pleasure to see her sing others at the Bistro.  I knew her then as someone who loved the melody and understood the words; with this more relaxed combo, I heard her as a far freer improviser, someone whose second choruses were developments of what she had sung in her first exposition of the theme.  Her time remains excellent; her diction is splendid.  But it’s her feeling that sets her apart from a thousand other singers trying to comvince us that they own the Great American Songbook.  Like Bing, Ronnie makes it seem easy: listening to her, one might think, “Oh, I  could do that!”  But that would be an error.  And she had an easy give-and-take with the band, being content to be one of them rather than the Star. 

The band — all three of them — was very pleasing as well.  The piano wasn’t perfect, but Sokolow covered every inch of it, graciously playing the right chords, delicately voiced, behind Ronnie and the other two players.  Dave Winograd sat on a high stool, his bass at an angle over his shoulder, impressing us all with his huge tone and fine notes.  Sam Parkins has all the Goodman facility anyone would want, but he isn’t the twenty-first century’s Peanuts Hucko: he uses those flurries to create his own sound-pictures, with lovely excursions into the horn’s lower register. 

Sam is also a not-quite-dormant showman and vaudevillian, so one high point of the evening was his rapid-fire delivery of I’M A DING DONG DADDY FROM DUMAS.  Who among us remembers all of those tongue-twisting lyrics?  Sam remembers them and puts them over, exuberantly.  It was a joy to watch and hear him, occasionally finishing his sixteen bars and deciding to hand the baton to another player, hollering, “Somebody else!”  It worked. 

The second set moved beyond Gershwin to a naughty MAKIN’ WHOOPEE, a tender TIME ON MY HANDS, a funny CONCENTRATIN’ ON YOU (a Waller-Razaf collaboration with an irresistible melody and irresistibly silly lyrics), a fervent ME MINUS YOU (in honor of Connee Boswell, one of Ronnie’s — and my — heroines), and a moving AM I BLUE, complete with the rarely-heard verse, where Ronnie showed just how compelling her understated delivery is.

I sat next to my friends Marianne Mangan and Bob Levin, and the three of us were beaming.  Others in the Bistro seemed to know just how good the music was, and the tip jar was filled with bills.  I hope this quartet has a new steady gig.  The ambiance, in itself, was worth seeking out, as if a group of talented friends was playing for their own enjoyment in someone’s living room, caring for the music above all.   

A postscript: Sam Parkins has been writing his musical and intellectual autobiography (he gave me some chapters from it when we were both regulars at the Cajun) and it’s wonderfully addictive.  You can find excerpts from it on his MySpace page:   http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=201966595.  He was there (I was just re-reading his piece on the death of Ellington bassist Junior Raglin) and he can write.  A rare combination indeed.