I have an affinity for the Great American Songbook. To clarify, the Great American Songbook is not a literal book (though there are compilations of tunes from the repertoire such as the infamous Real Books, which usually also include jazz and sometimes rock tunes) but rather a phrase commonly used to refer to the popular American music of the 1920s-1950s from Broadway shows and Hollywood movies. Sometimes the Songbook gets a bad rap, usually because there are tunes that have cheesy lyrics or pedestrian melodies. However, there was also a lot of masterful music produced in this era by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and others. While I enjoy the vast majority of the repertoire, there are some songs that resonate with me deeply. I recently wrote about my obsession with Vincent Youman’s “I Know That You Know” and had fun with the process of diving deep into a tune I felt passionate about. Here I will do the same thing, but with Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”


I was first introduced to this tune by my late mentor Bobby Jackson. I was captivated right away by the grand opening motive. I was also amazed by how bluesy the song was, yet it was not a blues in form. I discovered that this sound I was hearing was what is now my favorite chord, the IV7 chord, which is also a sound I heard over and over again in the music of Duke Ellington (one of countless examples being “Come Sunday”) but did not know what it was until years later.

“Jitterbug Waltz” was written in 1942 by pianist/composer/entertainer Thomas “Fats” Waller. He was inspired to write it by a piano exercise his young son was practicing at the time. While he had not recorded on it for decades, Waller chose the Hammond B3 organ for the first recording of this tune.

Thomas “Fats” Waller first recording “Jitterbug Waltz” on B3 organ.

Vocalist Dinah Washington recorded “Jitterbug Waltz” in 1957 with lyrics by Charles R. Grean and Maxine Manners. Jazzstandards.com (a website I have learned a lot from over the years) says the lyrics describe the waltz dance. While Washington’s performance was great and the arrangement compelling in its own quirky way, I was disappointed in the cheesy lyrics, which, as mentioned in the introduction, is a common generalization about the Great American Songbook.

Dinah Washington sings “Jitterbug Waltz”

Thankfully, the lyric debacle was rectified in 1978 by Broadway director Richard Maltby, Jr. for the musical Ain’t Misbehavin (later renamed Hot Chocolates) which detailed Waller’s life. The new lyrics describe a pair of dancers waltz through their tiredness late into the night.

The night is getting on, the band is getting show
The crowd is almost gone and here we are still dancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
Our feet can barely move, my legs are yellin'”Whoa”
But we’re in such a groove that love is still advancin’
Nothing to do but waltz
You can’t suggest that we could go on Jitterbuggin’
We’ve nothing left for moves more strenuous than huggin’
But we don’t need much room to gently cut a rug in we twoI’m tired and out of juice and yet from head to toe
My body’s feeling loose and warm and kind of supple
Nothing to do but waltz
The minutes slip away, my arms just won’t let go
I think I’d like to stay ’til we’re the only couple
Nothing to do but waltz
You never know how far this sort of thing will get you
We’re not as tired as we would like to think, I bet you
You’d stay up half the night with me if I would let you
So come let the waltz play again

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones recorded a stunning duo take in 1992 using the new lyrics.

Abbey Lincoln and Hank Jones on “Jitterbug Waltz” with the 1978 lyrics

Cécile McLorin Salvant recorded a dreamy, sensual take of “Jitterbug Waltz” with pianist Aaron Diehl on her 2013 Grammy nominated album WomanChild. This was the first version I heard with a vocalist, thanks to Bobby Jackson, and it has stayed in my listening rotation ever since.

Cécile McLorin Salvant and Aaron Diehl on “Jitterbug Waltz”

These 1978 lyrics have become the predominant ones for “Jitterbug Waltz.” I could not find the original lyrics online. Even when I searched specifically for Dinah Washington’s lyrics, I was only directed to the new lyrics, though I have not been able to find Washington ever recording a version with them.

While I have spent a great deal of time discussing the lyrics, “Jitterbug Waltz” is most commonly played as an instrumental tune because of its difficult leaping melody line at the beginning. Here are some instrumental versions I enjoy. There are many others, too many for me to list here. Is your favorite take of “Jitterbug Waltz” here?

from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1973 Bright Moments
Eric Dolphy waltzing on the flute
another take featuring Dolphy on the legendary live Charles Mingus album at Cornell
an inventive arrangement by Michel Legrand
Zoot Sims swinging hard with a wonderful “warm” tone
Dizzy Gillespie’s take on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Art Tatum bringing his virtuosity and harmonic inventiveness to this tune
Vince Guaraldi, famous of the music of the cartoonThe Peanuts, tearing it up on “Jitterbug Waltz”
Chick Corea bringing some fresh ideas into this vintage tune
Herbie Hancock adding some exciting metric modulations (check out Michel Legrand’s arrangement for this as well)
Erroll Garner offers a lush, slow rendition of “Jitterbug Waltz”
Frank Foster dazzles with a Trane-inspired solo

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