Friday, February 15, 2013

Fats Waller, “Ain't Misbehavin'"

As seen, among other places, in the movie Stormy Weather, an early 1940s movie musical now somewhat forgotten at large—though not by jazz or film historians, or the Library of Congress—in no small part probably due to its sometimes uncomfortable proximity to minstrelsy and stereotyping. But it deserves to be saved just for these four minutes: the elastic contortions of Fats Waller's garishly expressive eyeballs, the smile that stretches on forever, and the casual knowledge of the piano—the huge stride piano bass jumps tossed off without even looking. (They say that Horowitz wept when he heard met Art Tatum.)

Eudora Welty wrote the much-anthologized short story "Powerhouse" after seeing Waller play, as she said in her Paris Review interview:
I wrote it in one night after I’d been to a concert and dance in Jackson where Fats Waller played. I tried to write my idea of the life of the traveling artist and performer—not Fats Waller himself, but any artist—in the alien world and tried to put it in the words and plot suggested by the music I’d been listening to. It was a daring attempt for a writer like me—as daring as it was to write about the murderer of Medgar Evers on that night—and I’m not qualified to write about music or performers. But trying it pleased me then, and it still does please me.
And from the second paragraph of that story:
Powerhouse is not a show-off like the Harlem boys, not drunk, not crazy—he's in a trance; he's a person of joy, a fanatic. He listens as much as he performs, a look of hideous, powerful rapture on his face. When he plays he beats down piano and seat and wears them away. He is in motion every moment--what could be more obscene? There he is with his great head, fat stomach, and little round piston legs, and long yellow-sectioned strong big fingers, at rest about the size of bananas. Of course you know how he sounds—you've heard him on records—but still you need to see him. He's going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book. 

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