HARLEM — Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran has one goal in mind when he and singer Meshell N'degeocello kick off the 30th year of Harlem Stage with their "Fats Waller Dance Party" Saturday night: Movement.
"I want to see people out dancing and having a good time," said Moran. "I wanted to force myself in a situation to work for people."
The dance party, an original work commissioned by Harlem Stage, celebrates the work of Waller who was known for late-night swinging jams at Small’s Paradise in Harlem where nearly everyone was on their feet.
"Today, in a jazz club, if an audience member starts to move too much they are ostracized and looked at as if they are strange," said Moran, a Harlem resident.
That wasn't always the case. It certainly wasn't true in Waller's era.
With the dance party, Moran wants everyone on their feet. N'degeocello updated the lyrics and combined them with Moran's updated music to give present day listeners a taste of what it might have been like during a Saturday night at Small's Paradise.
“We are so proud to...bring Fats Waller’s music back to the community that helped inspire it so many years ago,” said Harlem Stage Executive Director Pat Cruz.
Moran, the recipient of a 2011 McArthur Fellowship, Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Artist of the Year Award for 2011, and the recently-named Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, said Harlem Stage gave him big opportunities to create work and open up for more established artists when he was starting out.
"Harlem Stage has been here and they've been in the trenches for a while," said Moran.
"They have continued not only to promote established artists of color but young artist of colors. They commission new works of dance, theater and music. To have a space uptown doing that is rare," he added.
Cruz says that is the goal of Harlem Stage.
"We constantly think about what’s next; we invest in new experiments, then look at how these pieces can resonate with the public as they take shape and roll out into the world," said Cruz.
The "Fats Waller Dance Party" has been seen in Chicago and will launch a national tour this fall. A CD recording of the project is also in the works.
“Through our commissions and the nurturing environment we create for artists like Jason Moran, we give them the time they need to create new works then help grow and expand those works until they’re ready for debut," added Cruz.
For Moran, being involved with Harlem Stage helps him stay close to home no matter how far away his work takes him. It also helps keep the legacy of Jazz in places like Harlem alive and well.
"I'll play in New York and then got to Poland and Japan but the question remains how does anything artists create in the community stay in the community," asked Moran.
"Harlem Stage allows me to still sprinkle the salt uptown to the people who live in the neighborhood," he said.
The “Fats Waller Dance Party” will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday July 28, at Harlem Stage at Annunciation Park/Bruce Paltrow Field, located at 134th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The event is free but on-site seating is limited. Check the Harlem Stage website or call (212) 281-9240 x19 or 20 for more information.