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Jason Moran offers a jazz homage to legend Fats Waller

Kevin C. Peterson | 3/5/2014, 10:47 a.m.
Jason Moran, the internationally known jazz pianist will be paying homage to the often-forgotten musical genius Fats Waller in "Fats ...

Fats Waller, the legendary jazz performer, lyricist and composer, was always a larger-than-life, zestful, over-sized ambassador of the stride piano style. Gregarious, rotund and oftentimes possessing a buffoon’s air, Waller was one of his generation’s great musicians. Ever energetic in the 1930s and ‘40s, he was a persistent joke-cracker, but always a consummate creative genius.

He was “spectacular” said Jason Moran, the internationally known jazz pianist who will be paying homage to the often-forgotten musical genius in “Fats Waller Dance Party: Smalls Paradise” at the Berklee College of Music Center on April 4 at 8 p.m.

“He was an amazing character. He had an extremely brilliant and bright technique at the piano. And also there was there this extreme silliness about him at the same time. He was like a conundrum as a performer. Like all pop performers today, none of them were as an insanely amazing pianist as Waller. None of them,” said Moran, who is the artistic director for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Moran spoke to the Banner in an interview from Washington, D.C., where he was teaching a master jazz session to younger musicians participating in Betty Carter’s “Jazz Ahead” program.

Moran’s tribute to Waller represents one generation recognizing the extraordinary accomplishment of the other.

“There was just nobody else like him. For me and my generation Waller ... represents this incredible thing ... this amazing innovator,” said Moran.

“Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” comprise Waller’s vast number of musical works, successfully engaging the genres of Dixieland, swing, stride and ragtime.

From his beginnings, playing the piano at the age of 6 and the Hammond organ at his father’s church in Harlem, black music was central to Waller’s development. By 12 he was the featured organist at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater.

Born Thomas Wright Waller, the composer earned the sobriquet “fats” because of his legendary weight. By 39, when he died, Waller had reached 285.

Waller was so popular and in-demand at the height of his career it is rumored that he was once kidnapped by Al Capone to play at the gangster’s birthday party and he earned $1,000 in tips there from prostitutes and Chicagoland riffraff.

“He was the most popular performer of his day ... when people actually danced to jazz music ... they don’t anymore,” said Moran, who laments the lack of audience spontaneity as jazz music is now performed.

Gone are the days when jazz inspired dance styles like the “Charleston” and the “Lindyhop.” The art form is now formatted for easy listening in concert halls and comforting contemporary dinner clubs.

Moran originally performed the Waller-themed show last year in New York at the Harlem Stage Guardhouse as a part of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival that featured bass guitarist Meshell Ndegeocello.

Combined with a full band, he breaths contemporary sway into Waller’s melodies and gifts of lyrical story-telling about loves lost, and trials and tribulations that run down all humanity.

Not far from Moran’s affection for Waller is Thelonius Monk who, a generation after Waller’s death, paved new pathways towards expressing jazz on piano.

“Monk just changed my whole perception of reality,” said Moran.

He recalls first hearing Monk at age 15 and, as a result, having his aesthetic universe convulsively shift.

“There is nobody like Monk who can make the mood in room dramatically different,” he said.

One of the youngest musicians awarded the MacArthur Genius Award, Moran represents a new generation of jazz artists who are looking to the past for inspiration in order to paint new jazz vistas.

Next month Moran will bring his freshness and exquisite sensibilities to the jazz listeners craving the robust curvatures of his demanding sound.