2000 Volume XXX, No. 1
Life with Fatha
by Jeff Taylor
The first time I saw this album, at my local public library, I was a teenager caught up in the ragtime piano revival sparked partly by the 1973 movie The Sting. My interests had been slowly expanding to include the work of the great stride players, particularly Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. Earl Hines was a new name for me, but I was convinced any jazz piano record from the late 1920s would be worth investigating.
My first listening left me in shock. I recognized the stylistic bedrock of the music—the rich left-hand tenths and “oom-pah” rhythm of stride, the tricky figurations of novelty piano, the inflections of the blues. But this familiar language disintegrated periodically into a maze of twists and turns: melodic ideas would gather strength and dissipate, short phrases would be volleyed between the two hands, and thick chordal passages would give way to single-note runs. Momentum would suddenly grind to a halt, and in an extended tremolo or elaborate break the beat would evaporate—only to be recovered a measure or two later. I found Hines’s ideas bizarre, his edgy virtuosity relentless, and his steadfast refusal to complete a chorus without messing up the time rather irritating. “Why can’t he play anything straight?” I thought. I returned the record the next day.
Today I smile when recalling this episode, not just because I have spent a good part of my professional career studying, writing about, and playing Fatha Hines’s music, but because those very traits of his artistry that so upset me are now what I treasure most. There is something deeply moving about a musician who attacks each performance, regardless of the context, as if the Bomb were about to drop. Even at a battered, out-of-tune upright, playing “Basin Street Blues” for the thousandth time, Hines found it impossible to loaf. And though he tested the ears of his audience, I suspect he always challenged himself even more. As I near the end of a years-long project related to Hines—a critical edition of twelve piano transcriptions, part of the Music in the United States of America (MUSA) series—I feel an undiminished awe at this musician’s imagination, and a sense his unique genius is underappreciated.
Transcription is both a maddening and exhilarating task. Once one has dealt with the troubling ideological implications of a process that, among other things, must merge a distinctive African American art with Eurocentric conceptions of a musical score, the simple fact that jazz cannot be fully represented on the printed page is always a gnawing presence. Hines’s solos mocked my attempts to capture them in notation, and it was not unusual for me to spend an entire afternoon wrestling with a single eight-bar phrase. Yet, though the best transcription can be but a pale shadow of the original, I am now struck by the wonders these twelve scores have helped unlock. The process of transcription, as an analytical technique and a “meditation” on the music,1 has at times proven as enlightening as the product. Yet both have shown me facets of Hines only partially perceived by the listening experience. And when I consider that Hines himself was strongly influenced by written music in his early years, from classical piano repertory to the many popular styles available in sheet music in the 1910s and 20s, returning his improvisations to one of their “sources”—the notated score—has a strange logic.
Above all, transcription has heightened exponentially my appreciation of Hines’s rhythmic ingenuity. Even a casual listener will observe that the pianist often sounds rhythmically “off.” A phrase will start too soon, an arpeggio will sound curiously askew, or, to borrow an evocative phrase from Gunther Schuller, a “careening rush of notes” will obscure the beat entirely. And in many of Hines’s solos there is a vaguely disturbing tension between the improvised lines and the underlying pulse, especially when he moves in and out of double-time (that is, a rhythmic feel where the background beat temporarily moves twice as fast). These features can be heard on the recordings themselves, but although rhythmic subtleties cannot be precisely notated, laying a gesture out on the page in a measured “grid” of 4/4 time brings Hines’s rhythmic gift clearly into focus. Few jazz musicians have boasted such an exquisite internal sense of time, and it was this aspect of his talent that most frequently arose in my conversations with musicians who worked with him. Often when tackling a particularly fanciful passage I felt certain I had finally discovered the place where Hines “lost it” rhythmically, only to determine that each measure had precisely the right number of beats. Hines might wander a bit in a chord progression and he might play himself into a melodic blind alley, but in these twelve pieces at least, he never, ever, lost the beat. One justly admires the dazzling melodic and harmonic inventiveness of a Teddy Wilson or Nat “King” Cole, but this is virtuosity of a different sort: less familiar, perhaps, but equally stunning.
The transcriptions also help show how Hines signified on the existing jazz piano idiom. In most jazz piano of the 1920s (with perhaps the exception of Jelly Roll Morton's work) there is a clear hierarchy between the hands. The left maintains a firm foundation, and the right provides figurations above it. In the greatest players, the bass rhythm is supple and infectious, but once in motion, it is not given a great deal of thought. Even though stride players were fond of throwing in rhythmic catches and cross accents in the bass, one of the joys of listening to a Fats Waller solo is the security provided by that rich, unwavering left hand. In his recordings of the late 1920s, Hines continually erodes that sense of security with a light and rather reckless left-hand technique. I encountered this feature particularly in his middle-range chords (that is, the “pah” of the “oom-pah” stride bass). On frantically fast tunes such as the 1928 “My Monday Date” he has a tendency to throw his left hand rather carelessly toward the center of the keyboard. This casual approach draws attention to the melodic line of the right hand, and forecasts the lighter touch that both Hines and swing players such as Wilson and Jess Stacy would cultivate in the 1930s. I had always noted this aspect of Hines’s early recordings, but was never quite able to pinpoint the source until I tried to write the left hand down—a supremely frustrating task. In the end I elected to correct the left hand to conform to the overall harmony, after slavish attempts at accuracy were replaced by visions of jazz scholars praising Hines’s innovative use of tone clusters. Yet, the very process illuminated a specific characteristic of Hines’s style that had previously eluded me.
Hines’s expansion of hand roles is particularly striking in densely contrapuntal passages. Just glancing over these scores I note many times when the left hand breaks free from its moorings and engages in a dialogue with the right. The result is an intertwining of the hands, often at the service of Hines’s innovative rhythmic ideas. One of the most intriguing moments occurs in the 1928 “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” the slowest of all the solos included in my edition, and therefore the most difficult to notate. At one point in this improvisation, Hines’s right hand makes a familiar move into double-time. Instead of maintaining a regular pulse, however, the left hand slowly begins to pick up the rhythmic feel itself, filling in gaps between phrases and commenting on the right hand’s melodic ideas. Not only do the hands become interlaced, but the left actually follows the right (see example).
The concept would be familiar to a bebop musician, but I know of no other pianist in the 1920s who would have attempted such a gesture. It was only the obsessive listening demanded by transcription that made me fully grasp the audacity of these passages and consider their ramifications for later jazz piano styles.
In his improvisations Hines delights in conversations with specific musical voices, both of predecessors and contemporaries, and transcriptions bring this home in an intriguingly visual way. An intricate two-handed break in fourths, such as that which appears near the end of “Stowaway,” resembles on the page a novelty solo by Zez Confrey. The pentatonic opening gesture of “Fifty-Seven Varieties,” performed in the ringing octaves of Hines’s famous “trumpet style,” could be a rendering of an Armstrong solo. In some passages one can almost hear Hines deciding, “OK, now I’m going to play like Fats,” and cascading sixteenth notes or chains of sequential triplets will parade across the page. Even Chopin is visited from time to time, particularly in the complex, cadenza-like gestures that occasionally obscure the beat. (In notating these with smaller noteheads, as Chopin did for the some of the passagework in his Nocturnes, I’ve emphasized that connection, and Hines’s own comments about the composer’s influence justify the method.) For all the considerable inadequacies of transcription, it is a fascinating way to see how these musical voices emerge and fade, and how they are integrated into Hines’s evolving musical vision.
When I move beyond musical details and consider the overall shape of these solos, I appreciate transcription as a guide to the ways musicians interact with pre-existing musical forms. The edition includes the original sheet music, where available, for the pieces on which Hines improvises. A reader may therefore examine how Hines transforms the original work and, in two cases, compare different versions of the same tune. As Hines playfully negotiates formal structure, one witnesses the spontaneous unfolding of a great musical mind. Gone are the carefully planned introductions, interludes, and tags of ragtime and stride piano; Hines seems to lodge a chord progression in his mind and just go. The result can border on the disastrous (in the 1932 “Down Among the Sheltering Palms,” for example, he loses his way after eight measures of the verse, deftly recovering by returning to the beginning of the section) but Hines always emerges unscathed. He also slyly blurs the lines between sections, although it is never entirely clear if this is intentional. Part of the way through “Fifty-Seven Varieties,” an improvisation on the changes of “Tiger Rag” (more or less), Hines improvises a four-bar passage that sounds like a modulatory interlude but ends up being part of the next chorus. And “Love Me Tonight” features metric displacements and truncated chord changes that completely undermine a clear sense of the original tune’s structure. This type of improvisation became familiar during the 1930s but Hines was one of the first pianists to treat repertory this way.
Stepping back from this project, and considering the entire sweep of Hines’s recording career, I find myself even more certain of the pianist’s stature, and thus slightly puzzled by the way his legacy has been viewed. Hines’s work with Armstrong in the 1920s, captured in timeless performances such as “Weather Bird” and “West End Blues,” always figures prominently in jazz history books, as does his unrecorded big band of the early 1940s, which featured the still-evolving geniuses of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Most jazz pianists acknowledge his role in the history of their profession. Yet, too often his artistry is praised for its catalytic influence on younger players, rather than its innate richness. Perhaps his talent was obscured by the near-canonization of Art Tatum, who rose to prominence in the 1930s just as Hines’s career was hitting a comfortable stride. Perhaps listeners find his idiosyncratic approach easy to admire but difficult to truly love. Whatever the case, Hines never seemed to inspire the intense devotion associated with Tatum, Wilson, Cole, and other pianists who followed his lead. Yet his recordings remain one of jazz’s great treasure troves, and deserve to be revisited often. They delight, challenge and perplex, but above all capture a musician’s deep commitment to his art and intense passion for his instrument.
Click on note number to return to its place in the text.
1For a fuller exploration of these and
other concepts, see Peter Winkler’s “Writing Ghost Notes: The Poetics and
Politics of Transcription,” in Keeping Score: Music, Disciplinarity,
Culture, ed. David Schwarz, Anahid Kassabian, and Lawrence Siegel
(University Press of Virginia, 1997), 169-203.