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In Depression-era New York jazz clubs, Fats Waller was known for getting the party jumping. Well, now, musicians Jason Moran and Me'Shell Ndegeocello are collaborating on a new effort to transform Waller's rollicking style into contemporary dance music.

But Janaya Williams reports the pair have one big challenge on their hands: getting today's seat-bound jazz audiences to get up and move.

JANAYA WILLIAMS: Like so many ideas, this one started with a conversation. Jason Moran was hashing out ideas with his wife and frequent collaborator, Alicia.

Mr. JASON MORAN (Musician): About - I don't know - four, five years ago, my wife and I were talking about what things that I have not done that could be interesting, and my wife was like, you need to really think about have people dance.

WILLIAMS: 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 Fats Waller, an over-the-top entertainer and talented pianist and composer.

(Soundbite of song, "Honeysuckle Rose")

Mr. FATS WALLER (Musician): Do you think I can take a piece of one of you girls (unintelligible), huh? What do you say? Well, all right, then, baby, I'm with you a hundred percent. Come here. I want to tell you something.

(Singing) Every honeybee fills with jealousy when they see you out with me. I don't blame them, goodness knows. Honeysuckle rose.

WILLIAMS: 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.

Mr. MORAN: Upon really looking at Fats Waller footage that's out there -seeing people move to the music - I was like, oh, you know, '20s, '30s, people dancing to music, it wasn't seen as bizarre or crazy. Now, if I play some Fats Waller music in a gig and somebody starts dancing, they're the freak. Some of the audience member might say: You're destroying my enjoyment of the music by moving your body. How dare you? So I thought Fats Waller could serve as the perfect vehicle to engage with an audience.

(Soundbite of song)

WILLIAMS: During rehearsals at Harlem Stage, Moran recalled a magazine article last year, where he named musician and composer Me'Shell Ndegeocello as his dream vocalist for the project.

Ms. ME'SHELL NDEGEOCELLO (Singer-Songwriter): I played in go-go bands and dance bands and wedding bands, and I know how to just sit and lock and play so people can dance.

WILLIAMS: She says she'll try anything once. They started to explore Fats Waller's catalog, looking for songs that could be updated and reimagined for a contemporary audience.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: At this point in time in society, I feel like we're experiencing another depression, and it was interesting that a lot of that music that he wrote came from that period of time. It was so happy and joyful and really is a beautiful example of black culture, able to take things and moments in time and create this beautiful experience from it.

(Soundbite of song, "The Joint is Jumpin'")

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, no, Tom, that ain't the play. No. (Unintelligible). That's my (unintelligible). Take it, Ms. Johnson. Take it.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Singer): (Singing) This joint is jumping.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's really jumping.

Unidentified Man #1: I know it.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: 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.

WILLIAMS: Ndegeocello and Moran deconstruct the music of Fats Waller and rebuild the sound.

(Soundbite of song, "The Joint is Jumpin'")

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Hit you with a hook. This joint is jumping. It's really jumping. Come on, jump and (unintelligible) this joint is jumping.

Mr. MORAN: It's not really jazz per se. It's dance music. It's club dance music. You know, if you go to a club in the Village or you go to a club in Tribeca or somewhere, this might be what you hear in the club pumping over a sound system. So it's not jazz.

WILLIAMS: Moran points out that Fats Waller was a regular in clubs and speakeasies back in his day, and some of his lyrics fit right in with today's club music.

Mr. MORAN: 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 too. So it's almost like those clubs that he was in were as roguish as...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORAN: ...some of the clubs today.

(Soundbite of song, "The Joint is Jumpin'")

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Check your weapons at the door. Yeah.

Yeah. This joint is jumping. Jumping.

WILLIAMS: 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 suffer from what Ndegeocello calls the fishbowl complex.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: You know, I'm going to come watch you. I don't know how it got to be that way. It just has a specific historical reference now, and people forget that it started in brothels. And so I think it has to do with age too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: As we progress in time, you know, people just feel like dancing and partying is young people's fare, but, you know, you just have to create an environment where people feel comfortable. I was telling Jason, 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 then...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: ...it'll be fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORAN: The entire floor is yours, you know? Our stage is ours. The floor is yours. So I'm really curious about how people will just decide to move to the stuff.

WILLIAMS: If they can successfully channel the great entertainer Fats Waller, there should be nothing to worry about when they premiere their new music tonight in Harlem.

For NPR News, I'm Janaya Williams in New York.

(Soundbite of song, "The Joint is Jumpin'")

Unidentified Woman #2 (Singer): (Singing) Jumping.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) This joint is jumping.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Jumping.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) This joint is jumping.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Jumping.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) This joint is jumping.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Jumping.

Unidentified Man #2: Three, four, last time.

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