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Jazz historian Marshall Stearns begins his 1956 book, "The Story of Jazz," with a well-known anecdote:

"In reply to the sweet old lady's question, `What is jazz, Mr. Waller?' the late and great Fats is supposed to have sighed: `Madam, if you don't know by now, don't mess with it!' "Jazz pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller - composer of classic songs like "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Ain't Misbehavin"' - died in 1943 at the age of 39. The words "Don't mess with it" fit his effervescent personality perfectly, even though he may never have uttered them.

The story of his clever response circulated during his lifetime, though, and variations have been repeated in jazz histories ever since.

For example, Dave Dexter's 1946 book, "Jazz Cavalcade," gave this version:

"A young woman approached him to ask his definition of jazz. Fats' massive hands struck a discord as he turned to the inquiring dilletante. `Honey,' said Fats obligingly, `If you don't know what jazz is by now, then you've got no business messin' with it.' "

As far as I know, the story, which I regard as an urban legend, never has been verified by anyone present during the supposed incident.

Two jazz histories from the early 1950s disagree about whether Fats said, "Lady, if you has to ask, you ain't got it!" or "Lady, if you got to ask, forget it, give it up!"

A 1959 article in Downbeat magazine called it "an oft-told tale," then rephrased Fats' comeback slightly as, "Lady, if you don't know, don't mess with it."

Robert Paul Smith, writing in Saturday Review in 1966, seemed to know something that other historians didn't. He said that he was unable to quote Fats exactly "even in this non-family-type magazine," so he settled for paraphrasing the punchline as "Lady, don't mess with it!"

Apart from writings about jazz, the Fats Waller anecdote has been used to illustrate the general problem of defining the indefinable. In a 1978 London theater review I found this:

"Style is difficult to define, for the same reason Fats Waller gave when someone asked him what swing was - `If you got to ask, you ain't got it.' "

Now the question has become "What is swing?" Fats must have turned over in his grave at that!

Even worse, a rival jazz pianist sometimes gets credit for the witty reply. For example, in a 1959 symposium concerning American leftist politics, one speaker said, "In the words of the late Jelly Roll Morton, `If you gotta ask what it is - don't mess with it!' "

Yet Louis Armstrong eventually became the jazzman most closely associated with the story. Many interviews and feature articles attributed the saying to Satchmo, either giving it as, "Lady, if you got to ask, you'll never know," or the familiar, "Don't mess with it."

So common was the link to Louis Armstrong that Time magazine once captioned a photo of Armstrong, "Don't mess with it," and offered no further explanation.

A different anecdote about a jazz musician appeared in a 1959 Downbeat article that was headlined, "If you gotta ask. . . ." The story told of a high-school student yelling at clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre during one number, "Where's the rhythm?" Giuffre's answer was said to be, "It's understood."

The typical mechanism of folkloric variation is illustrated by the fact that when retelling this story I've sometimes inadvertantly given the question as, "Where's the melody?"

Semanticist and former U.S. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa attached a deeper meaning to the "Don't mess with it" reply. Referring to the Louis Armstrong version, Hayakawa once said (or, at least, so I once read), "It's a beautiful proper non-Aristotelian rebuke to an asker of an Aristotelian nonsense-question."

If you have to ask what that statement means, then don't mess with it.


(C) 1990 United Feature Syndicate Inc.