By Cari Lynn Pace
Welcome back to Harlem’s Golden Age of Jazz, with Prohibition booze and uninhibited dance clubs swinging circles around each other.
Fats Waller composed and played rockin’ songs in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s for folks who were “dance crazy.” Sonoma Arts Live brings back these fun-loving times with five talented singer/dancers, one superb slide piano player, and five backup band members on stage. The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around to the sultry lyrics of sensual waltzes and slow favorites like “Honeysuckle Rose.”
“The musical tribute showcases the breadth of Waller’s influence on jitterbug, Charleston, tap, and just plain foolin’ around…”
Waller, a posthumous Grammy award winner, was one of the most prolific composers and entertainers of the era, writing over 400 songs. He had huge hands, wide enough to master the slide piano technique. With slide piano, the left hand plays the bass rhythm of a piece, typically when there is no actual bass musician to cover the beat. Some musicians of that era had surgery to cut the thumb-first finger tendon in their left hand in order to make the necessary ten-key reach from bass note to chord. Waller was born with that ability, a blessing the “King of the Stride” used to wrote songs that were equally successful with audiences of all colors in those highly segregated times.
Back in the 20’s Harlem, if the rent was due and there was nothing coming in, folks would gather at the apartment for a dance-and-booze “rent party” to chip in for their friends. There was always a gun check at the door, and a password to avoid the cops. They called these gathering “joints” to avoid tipping off the cops.
No Fats Waller revue would be complete without the raucous “This Joint is Jumpin’” as Serena Elize Flores, D’Artagnan Riviera, Jonathen Blue, and Bay Area favorite Phillip Percy Williams are joined by Director Aja Gianola-Norris in a slap and swirl romp. Costumes, designed by Jaya Grace, range from flirty to fancy as the exuberant cadre belts out “Ain’t Nobody’s Business But My Own” and the signature song Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Waller gave us songs to make us smile, like “You Feet’s Too Big” or sigh, in “I’m Gonna’ Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.”
Sonoma Arts Live is to be commended for gathering this group of talents to showcase a master entertainer of a bygone era. Williams is a seasoned standout with his smooth jazz voice, and Blue and Flores lead the others in clever tap dancing. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch Neil Angelo Fontano play jazz piano at the apron of the stage. The fun the performers have onstage is contagious, whether shouting out lyrics or kicking high. Harlem’s legendary “Clown Prince of Jazz” is rockin’ indeed.