According to pianist Jason Moran, jazz legend Fats Waller “was a party animal.” Waller, who wrote classics like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” died young, but he left behind a piano style and a catalog of music that has been embraced for nearly one hundred years. Moran will be celebrating Waller’s music and putting a contemporary spin on it when he presents Fats Waller Dance Party at the Valley Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.
“Every once in a while people still recognize [his music],” Moran says. “Certain people can hear the songs without knowing who he was. From my own piano history, it is important to keep those traditions going. What I started to understand about the show, as I would perform it, is that I would have to take care of that music and transmit it to the audience on the right level. That’s what a DJ does in a club: get the audience to dance or sing or clap along. That was something Fats Waller was able to tap into more often—his relationship with the audience.”
With so many songs to choose from, Moran made careful selections before putting together both this show and the CD All Rise. “I chose pieces that were famous enough,” Moran says, “but also pieces that told a different story. We kind of stick with a truncated set list because if I get lost in that vast catalog, I could get lost for a while.”
One of the things Moran does to encourage an atmosphere of fun in the shows is wear a mask he had made of Fats Waller. “The mask is bringing him back, or bringing that spirit onto the stage,” Moran says. “It also allows me to free myself from the piano to a degree and make sure that people understand or maybe get bewildered by what they see with this mask. I think it also brings their guard down. This is a dance party, or something a little looser than a sit-down concert. I dance much more when I have my mask on. I interact with a different abandonment than I would normally. I used to wear it for 20 minutes. Now I wear it 45 minutes or an hour.”
Moran’s goal with Fats Waller Dance Party is to connect new and old styles of jazz so as to create bridges for new generations. “It is insanely important for the audience to have new experiences,” he says. “Kamasi Washington (Epic) is a great example of putting the music together to reflect the environment and taste around him. When he presents it to an audience, the kids show up to hear it. People understand that this music offers a box to stand on and tell their story. This is partially what makes Kendrick Lamar’s album (To Pimp a Butterfly) so powerful. He used jazz methods to get those points across in the songs. [David Bowie’s] Blackstar is fantastic. It’s a great wake-up call for jazz musicians to go further.”
When asked to select one of Fats Waller’s songs that best represents him as an artist and a person, Moran is quick to answer. “It’s probably clichéd, but it’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. There’s two ways of looking at it: the lyric, ‘I’m saving all my love for you’—that is a powerful statement. Waller wrote that song while he was in jail for not paying his alimony. He writes a hit while in jail and wants to be back at home with his partner. There’s something about who is my love, my love for my wife, my love for my kids, my love for the piano, my love for the audience. It’s in those moments as a performer, for my audience, that it’s ‘for you, for you.’ We’re doing it for us, but we’re really doing it for you. Fats Waller taps that part of me with that song.”