In Depression-era New York jazz clubs, "Fats" Waller was known for getting the party jumping. Now, musicians Jason Moran and Me'Shell Ndegeocello are collaborating on a new project that transforms Waller's rollicking stride piano style into contemporary dance music.
Like so many ideas, this one started with a conversation. Moran was hashing out ideas with his wife and frequent collaborator, Alicia.
"My wife and I were talking about what things I have not done that could be interesting," Moran says. "My wife was like, 'You need to have people dance.' "
Party Music Then, Party Music Now
Jazz audiences these days have a reputation for being serious and focused, and most of all for sitting still. But go back 70 or 80 years, and jazz was party music. One of the most popular performers was Waller, an over-the-top entertainer, talented pianist and composer.
Waller's stride piano style was in demand at rent parties and millionaires' mansions. Somehow, he pulled everyone in and got them to dance. It was that combination of musical mastery and audience appeal that got Moran thinking.
"Upon really looking at Fats Waller footage that's out there — seeing people move to the music — I was like, 'Oh, this may be the perfect vehicle for this,' " Moran says. "You know, the '20s [and] '30s people dancing to music wasn't seen as bizarre or crazy. Now, if I play some Fats Waller music in a gig and someone starts dancing, they're the freak. I thought Fats Waller could serve as the perfect vehicle to engage with an audience."
In a magazine article last year, he named musician and composer Me'Shell Ndegeocello as his dream vocalist for the project. She says she'll try anything once. They started to explore Waller's catalog, looking for songs that could be updated and re-imagined for a contemporary audience.
"I went and did some research," Ndegeocello says. "At this point in time in society, we're experiencing another depression — the music that he wrote from that time is so happy and joyful, [a] beautiful expression of black culture, able to take things and moments in time and create this beautiful experience from it.
"Also it's the beginning of the emcee — the master and mistress of ceremony that gets the party jumping, and that's a rare thing," Ndegeocello says.
In Da Club
Ndegeocello and Moran deconstruct the music of Fats Waller and rebuild the sound for a new generation of dancers.
"It's not really jazz, per se," Moran says. "It's dance music. It's club dance music. If you go to a club in the Village or Tribeca or somewhere, this might be what you hear in the club pumping over a sound system. So it's not jazz."
Moran points out that Waller was a regular in clubs and speakeasies back in his day, and that some of his lyrics fit right in with today's club music.
"Fats Waller has his really crazy things that he says in his lyrics, too, about thugs being in the crowd, you know, 'Put that gun away'; he says stuff like that," Moran says. "It's almost like those clubs that he was in were as roguish as some of the clubs today."
Lose The Chairs, Let's Dance
Moran and Ndegeocello are serious about their commandment to dance. They even plan to remove all of the chairs in the room. That's because audiences for jazz and improvisational music are suffering from what Ndegeocello calls the "fishbowl complex."
"I don't know how it got to be that way," Ndegeocello says. "It just has a specific historical record now, and people forget that it started in brothels. I feel like it has to do with age, too. As we progress in time, people feel that dancing and partying is young people's fare, but you just have to create an environment where people feel comfortable. I was telling Jason [Moran] that I think of it more as a society social, and hopefully the upper crust will come and the lower crust will meet, and we'll all get down and it'll be fun."
If they can successfully channel Fats Waller, there should be nothing to worry about when they introduce their new music Friday night at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.