If there’s anything Shirley Temple taught us it’s that if you put an adorable dancing child on stage, they’re going to steal the show. Such was the case times two at Saturday night’s Fats Waller Dance Party. To kick off the show, composer and jazz pianist Jason Moran introduced his sons, two roughly eight-year-old boys who came barreling on stage and wowed the crowd with their syncopated, Alvin Ailey-trained moves. It was hard to recover from the cute overload after that. And frankly, I don’t think the audience wanted to. While Moran and company practically begged the audience to get up on their feet, the majority of the crowd seated in the Cistern looked more like people attending their grandchild’s dance recital than a dance party, and that’s a problem.
Allow me to explain. A 2009 study by the Jazz Arts Group of Columbus found that across 19 communities, the predominant jazz concert attendee is middle-aged and male. And on average, only 17 percent are under age 45. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. Good for those people and the fact that they love jazz. What is disappointing is when that demographic, the majority of people in attendance at the show, were about as eager to get up out of their chairs as a child who just called shotgun and beat his older brother to the front seat of the car.
At one point singer Lisa Harris managed to convince most of the crowd to raise their hands up, but until the last song, that was about it. And that’s a damn shame because the musicians brought enough energy, style, and swagger to host a rip-roaring affair.
Dressed in his signature Fats Waller papier mâché mask and bobbing his head enthusiastically, Moran and crew — Leron Thomas on trumpet, Tarus Mateen on bass, and Charles Haynes on drums — took wildly creative spins on Waller’s signature songs. Singer Lisa Harris was the driving force behind the tunes, stretching and expanding the simple lyrics of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” into multi-note arrangements. The house music influence Moran had told me about in our pre-Spoleto interview was also aided by heavy-bassline riffs and incredible drumming from Haynes. And yes, there were momentary bursts of dance. One lithe woman in orange ran up on stage at the early part of the show, spinning and stomping with passion. But audience participation lagged after that. So much so that as Moran gestured to his wife to come up on stage during another song, I got the feeling it was less a spontaneous choice and more a cry for help. Finally the cast of Grace Notes was brought up on stage, and few brave audience members joined them — props to Xiao Bao Biscuit co-owner Duolan Li for getting up there and moving to the music.
Watching this small but eager group shimmy and shake showed just how fun the show could have been had the whole audience been more willing to participate. No such luck.
All that said, listening to Moran and his band play was a real treat and a great example of how the work of an American master can continue to wow with some creative retooling.
Moran, if you ever come back to Charleston, we’ll try to get this city to put their party pants on for you.