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.
“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.