In Stormy Weather (1943), Fats Waller appears as a pianist at Ada Brown’s Beale Street Cafe. Alerted that impresario Chick Bailey is gathering acts for a new revue, Waller and his band prepare to impress him with a rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin.” There’s an emphasis on making the band look good – Ada brings a handsome instrumentalist stage-front and asks for a “lighting effect on the drums,” while another musician dithers over whether to wear his hat.
Finally, they launch into this marvellous rendition of Waller’s signature tune:
Unsurprisingly, jazz films often privilege visual performance over the music itself. Sometimes these visual elements locate the music within a cultural context (e.g. jungle rhythm, urban art, black expression). Often, we are being told how to receive the music onscreen and, indirectly, what to think about jazz as a musical form.
In this instance, jazz is good time music. Waller’s fluttering eyelashes and rotund phrasing provoke immediate laughter from the diegetic audience. As well as this, the song’s playful assertion of fidelity acts as a backdrop to Bill Robinson noticing, and being overlooked by, the glamourous Lena Horne. We see the music having something like a narcotic effect: one woman dances alone until her companions pull her back to the table, while a portly gentleman at the doorway shakes and shuffles until he falls over!
There is no condescension in this moment. It enjoys jazz. Sadly, it was to be one of Fats Waller’s final performances. Later that year, he contracted pneumonia on a cross-country train and died, just 39 years old. With that knowledge, this happy scene becomes even more precious.