The Joint Really Was Jumping

The memoir-biography of Fats Waller written by his son, Maurice, with co-writer Anthony Calabrese, is a loving and lovely, hilarious and amazing, detailed and personal portrait of the great jazz pianist-songwriter-composer-singer-organist-bandleader. So cinematic! So many scenes jump off the page and onto the screen of the mind’s eye where they unfurl in astonishing and vivid poignancy, drama, hilarity, racial strife, heartbreak, kindness — American life in the first half of the twentieth century. And — all that music!

Waller composed such delightful gems as “Ain’t Misbehaving,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Jitterbug Waltz,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling,” “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” and “The Joint Is Jumping,” as well as numerous tasty instrumentals in the stride style, of which he was a master, and the early-for-jazz protest against color prejudice, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” A charming comic singer — “Lulu’s Back in Town,” the jesterish-ly disrespectful “Christopher Columbus,” the outlandish “Your Feet’s Too Big,” many others — and a masterful pianist with a unique blend of power, buoyancy, and delicacy to his touch — Waller defies overpraise.

Anybody can find examples of Waller’s charm, charisma, and extravagant skills online. A fave of mine, a short film of the song “The Joint Is Jumping,” depicts a rent party, a typical scene from Harlem of the 1900s through the 1930s, where someone charges admission for a party featuring a professional musician, or more than one. The musician gets paid, the host makes their rent, everybody has a ball — that was the idea, and it worked for decades.

In the short film, which Maurice describes as having been made and subsequently lost, has since been found. Waller sings one of his best, and it’s self-descriptive, “The Joint Is Jumping.” Next line: “The piano is pumping.” Couples dance. A dancer grabs a drink from Fats. Fats breaks up a fight. There’s a rap on the door. The police! The party’s busted up — that’s the worry. But — not to worry! Three women approach the three stern policemen and — start dancing with them! Hilarious, charming, utopia, like a hobo fantasy from the 1930s of there being no police in heaven (“Hobo’s Lullaby”), or the cops having wooden legs on “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” except in this paradisaical vision, the police assimilate into the loving community without fuss. Check it out.

Maurice, who apparently had no idea of the content of the short film, other than that it existed, and it featured the song, inadvertently reveals that it was based on a true story when he describes an almost identical scene as having happened at a rent party where his father played. The police came to bust up a rent party and ended up enjoying themselves to much that they simply joined in.

‘Tis a pity that more of Maurice’s memoir doesn’t exist on film. The whole thing could make an eye-popping, heartbreaking, hilarious period piece and biopic. With myriad “set piece” scenes:

Waller was playing a Chicago club during Prohibition. One evening, a group of his regular well-dressed male fans pulled out machine guns and ordered everybody to freeze as they searched the room for their “friend.” Once they found him, they ordered everybody — a large group — into the men’s room. Maurice: “Dad was the first in and had to be persuaded to come out after the police arrived.”

A few nights later the thugs were back. Waller played a set, worried — no incident. After his set, no incident, relieved, he’s out looking for a place to get dinner, when, pow, the point of a pistol greets his gut. Terror. Has he inadvertently said something he shouldn’t? Has he offended people without meaning to? Ordered into a car, he gets in; they drive a while, to what looks like a hotel, and order him in, through a crowd of people, and to a piano. Play! It’s Al Capone’s birthday party, and Waller is their surprise “gift” to the boss. The boss, a Waller fan, is delighted! Fats stays for 3 days, enjoys his first taste of champagne, and finally gets driven home, “several thousand dollars richer.”

Another set piece: Waller has been jailed for failure to pay alimony to his first wife, Edith, with whom he had a son, whom Maurice didn’t learn of until his father died. (Fats raised Maurice and his third son with his second wife, Anita.) Waller’s friends — the great songwriters Spencer Williams, Andy Razaf (lyricist on many Waller gems, including “The Joint Is Jumping”), Clarence Williams, Perry Bradford — spread across Harlem to raise the exorbitant bail of $500 to spring him from the Brooklyn jail. Everybody loves Fats (except Edith); they raise the money and arrive to find Fats surprised and a little alarmed to see them. “Save your money, fellas. I’ve decided to serve my full sentence.” Waller’s been assigned a room with a millionaire who’s in for the same offense and who loves good piano playing. The millionaire has bribed the guards into bringing a piano into their cell, as well as regular steak dinners and “plenty of good whiskey.”

Another, in Maurice’s words: “Uncle Larry had come to the club to see Dad, and during a break between sets the two of them were outside the club enjoying a cigarette and some family gossip. Two white couples came out of the club and the women approached Dad for his autograph. Their dates didn’t approve and began cursing the women and Dad with equal fervor. My father didn’t want to create a scene so ignored their comments, but when the men began to slap the two women around, Uncle Larry intervened. One of the men drew a .22 pistol and fired at Uncle Larry, wounding him the leg. Infuriated, Dad charged the man with the pistol and proceeded to beat him unconscious. Somebody from the Yacht Club whisked Dad inside before the police or an ambulance could arrive. The incident was kept out of the newspapers because the people involved wanted neither a court appearance nor the attendant publicity.” The incident was “so ugly, in fact, that nobody in the family would talk about it. (My sources are Buster Shepherd [Waller’s longtime driver and roadie] and Harry Beardslee.)”

That’s some courage. Not the stereotype associated with Waller.

Waller died young — Hollywood likes that in jazz stories — but not particularly from self destruction — a probable Hollywood turnoff. Still, his end was cinematic. He died on a train, on his way home, having finally earned enough as a songwriter and recording artist to retire from touring, which he was looking forward to doing. A blizzard held the train up in Kansas City (“It’s blowing like Hawkins out there,” Waller said to his manager, referring to his friend the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins), and Waller was unconscious by the time they pulled in. His manager called a doctor, who pronounced Waller dead; an autopsy ruled pneumonia. In almost too-cinematic a coincidence, Waller’s good friend Louis Armstrong was stuck at the Kansas City railroad station on the next track, held up on his westbound journey. He saw the police and crowds on the next track and inquired about the cause. Maurice: “Louis told my mother that he cried all night long. He couldn’t believe that Dad was dead at thirty-nine.”

Tons more in the book — family scenes from Waller’s childhood, and even his parents’ childhoods — a thumbnail social history. Waller’s friendships with Joe Louis, George Gershwin, the eminent pianists James P. Johnson and Willie “the Lion” Smith, the Reverent Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Waller using his days off on tour to play for American troops, no matter where he was. Great scenes of Waller as a parent. Waller touring Europe, spooked by the Nazis. Waller playing organ in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, having been invited because of his gorgeous organ recordings of spirituals — the first — still the only? — jazz musician to have been so invited. Way too much for a movie, no doubt. PBS should do a mini-series.

Mostly, though — his music. Here’s to the great Mr. Waller, and to his loving son, and here’s to his deathless music.

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