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Jitterbug Waltz (1942)

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There are relatively few jazz recordings of waltzes prior to the 1950s, so it was surprising to many when...Waller composed this tune in 1943.

- Chris Tyle

Rank 200
Written by Fats Waller

Thomas “Fats” Waller and His Rhythm introduced “Jitterbug Waltz” on their March 16, 1942, RCA Victor recording date.

When Waller composed “Jitterbug Waltz” he was 38 years old and at the high point of his career as a veteran recording artist for RCA Victor, making the occasional movie appearance, broadcasting on radio, and traveling the United States and Europe on an incredibly hectic and tiring schedule. It’s not surprising that by 1943, after years of work and overindulgence, his body gave out.


More on Fats Waller at JazzBiographies.com

“Jitterbug Waltz” was inspired by some piano exercises that Waller’s son Maurice had been practicing on the piano. Fats and his band were appearing at the Panther Room in Chicago in early 1942, a gig they had done the previous year which had led to Waller’s composition “Pantin’ at the Panther.” According to Fats’ manager Ed Kirkeby in his biography Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Story of Fats Waller, it was during the six-week stint at the Panther that Waller penned the number and Kirkeby came up with the title. Two months later Waller recorded it in New York.

Although Waller was mainly known as a pianist, he was a fine organist and had made many solo pipe organ recordings in the 1920s for Victor Records at their recording studio located in a former church in New Jersey. Waller loved playing the organ, which he had learned as a youth while a member of the choir at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. When he was on tour with his band and able to find an instrument he would delight in playing Bach for whomever might be listening. By the late-1930s and early ‘40s many recording studios had acquired Hammond organs, hence Waller’s use of it on his March 16 session.

Dinah Washington recorded a vocal version of “Jitterbug Waltz” in her 1957 Fats Waller Songbook with a lyric by Charles R. Grean and Maxine Manners which describes the dance:

You find a combination
Of a lovely waltz
That’s played in syncopation
And you have the jitterbug waltz

In 1978, as part of the Broadway musical on Waller’s life, Ain’t Misbehavin’, director Richard Maltby, Jr. wrote a new lyric for the piece. The lyric describes a pair of dancers, late in the evening at a band performance, and even though they are tired they still find romance in the waltz:

The night is getting on
The band is getting slow
The crowd is almost gone
But here we are still dancing

However, “Jitterbug Waltz” is almost universally performed as an instrumental. Only a handful of vocalists have taken on the challenging melody, although Abbey Lincoln performed Maltby’s lyric on her duo recording with pianist Hank Jones in her 1992 CD When There Is Love.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Recommendations for This Tune
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Erroll Garner
Jazz ‘Round Midnight
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1949

This early recording by Garner’s trio is elegant and slow, featuring lush block chords as Garner interprets the melody.

Art Tatum
Solo Masterpieces 3
Original Recording 1953

Pianist Tatum is both harmonically and rhythmically exploratory on this expansive performance. His signature displays of technique are largely absent, with his touch and ingenuity taking precedence instead.

Junior Mance
Happy Time
Original Recording 1962

Pianist Mance offers a swinging, elegant trio rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz.” Bassist Ron Carter and drummer Mickey Roker contribute to the bluesy, rhythmically playful feeling.

Eric Dolphy
Jazz World
Original Recording 1963

This performance is modern and edgy but not without reverence. In addition to a powerhouse flute solo by Dolphy himself, there are great solos by Woody Shaw on trumpet, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone and Eddie Khan on bass.

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy's Big 4
Original Recording 1974

Tempos and groove are toyed with here by trumpet giant Gillespie and his all-star sidemen, guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker. Between funk and multiple tempos of swing, the quartet plays effortlessly and creatively, with some particularly fine late-career trumpet work by the bandleader.


- Noah Baerman

Joe Sample
Soul Shadows
2004 Verve 283402
Original recording 2004
Ex-Crusader pianist Sample proves he has chops on this solo effort. His style and passion are reminiscent of the ragtime masters, and the result is a sharp, intriguing, contemporary interpretation of the song.
Abbey Lincoln/Hank Jones
When There Is Love
1994 Verve 314519697
Original recording 1994
Pianist Hank Jones slows the song to a mid-tempo, and Lincoln’s vocals cascade elegantly over the late night mood he sets. A warm and inviting rendition that revels in the lyrics.
Greg Osby
The Invisible Hand
2000 Blue Note 20134
Original recording 2000
Osby’s alto saxophone draws out some interesting figures as he paints the Waller piece with a bop brush. His off-tempo take makes for an interesting interpretation, a reinvention as invigorating as the original must have been in its day.
Peter Leitch
A Special Rapport
1994 Reservoir Records 129

Guitarist Leitch modernizes this Waller tune at a brisk tempo with bandmates pianist John Hicks, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith.

- Ben Maycock

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