Supersized Jazz Club: ‘Fats Waller Dance Party’ at The Kennedy Center by Audrey Thornton

Curiosity enticed me out to The Kennedy Center on Friday, April 5, 2013 for the 9:30 p.m. performance of Artistic Advisor for Jazz, Jason Morans tribute to the jazz music of Fats Waller, billed as the central proliferator of stride piano in the early 20th century. The club space, complete with wood dance floor, white leather-clad sofas, limited chairs, and an open seating policy drew a capacity crowd of 300+, forcing the ushers to limit entrances and exits to the venue.

Jason Moran. Photo by John Rogers.
Jason Moran. Photo by John Rogers.

Nearly eighty years ago, jazz music was party music, whether played uptown or downtown or in the Depression-era juke joints of New York City and elsewhere. It was famed musician Waller’s ability to get everyone on the dance floor that fueled this ‘get them movin’ and jumpin’ era (e.g., “This Joint Is Jumpin”’; “Your Feets Too Big”; and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”).

Inviting bassist musician and twenty-year composer Meshell Ndegeocello to collaborate, Moran updated Waller’s catalog for a contemporary audience. Moran noted that Waller’s stride piano style was also in demand at rent parties; although it is out of style now, I admit to being mature enough to remember attending a few rent parties as a teenager. My last recollection of Meshell’s music goes back to her 1996 hit in collaborations with Bill Withers “Who Is He (and What Is He To You?”); the Temptations “Cloud Nine”; and her 1993 single “Outside Your Door.” I was interested to see how her music had evolved from those days and was pleasantly satisfied with her artistic growth. “It’s not really jazz, per se,” Moran has commented. “It’s dance music. It’s club dance music”; with Ndegeocello re-interpreting the songs in an Afro-beat, techno and house music genre and also functioning as emcee – the mistress of ceremony – to get the party jumping. Mission accomplished!

Moran’s ultimate goal was to deconstruct Waller’s music and rebuild his sound for a new generation of dancers. Catching only sound bytes (and disadvantaged by being so far away from the stage in a very long, narrow space), and short phrases which sometimes seemed familiar then not, forced me to research and process the music hours after the show. While in the moment, however, I enjoyed Ndegeocello and the musicians (Jason Moran, piano and electric piano, Corey King, trombone; and Leron Thomas, trumpet) as much as the diverse crowd of pulsating bodies and overall vibrant atmosphere.

Moran pointed out that Waller was a regular in clubs and speakeasies back in his day, and that some of his lyrics still fit right in with today’s club music. For anyone there Friday night, these ‘In Da Club’ moments captured it all – music blaring, sweaty bodies close together moving in rhythmic bumps and grinds, others pulsating solo in abandonment to the sounds, and several young collegiate males were jumping up and down high into the air as if attached to circus pogo sticks.

 Meshell Ndegeocello. Photo courtesy of  Earshot Jazz Festival 2009, jazz photography.

Meshell Ndegeocello. Photo courtesy of Earshot Jazz Festival 2009, jazz photography.

The effort to bring Waller’s music into the twenty-first century may not be appreciated by some strict jazz lovers and seat-bound captives, but what could be more appreciative proof of his work than a contemporary audience made up of a mixture of couples, every age and race represented, college students, grandparents and even handicapped patrons “dancing” in wheelchairs?

To cap it all off, towards the end of the set, Moran donned a huge papier-mâché mask (Didier Civil, artist) of Waller’s head — fedora hat, impish grin, thick arched eyebrows, complete with a cigarette dangling out of the left corner of the mouth. An interesting prop which added to the festive atmosphere reminding us to not take ourselves too seriously, and just have fun.

Running Time: Ninety minutes, with no intermission.

Fats Waller Dance Party featuring Meshell Ndegeocello played April 5, 2013 at t The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.  A continuing theme, The Supersized Jazz Club, weekly features various artists from a diverse offering of jazz artists and musicians. For future tickets and Information: (800) 444-1324 or (202) 467-4600, or online.

Jason Moran’s website.
Meshell Ndegeocello’s website.


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