Jumpin’ with Waller to wall hits

Friday, March 10, 2017

St. Lucie Voice, March 10, 2017
By Shelley Koppel, Staff Writer

Fats Waller was a jazz pianist, organist, composer, singer and comedic entertainer, but the legacy of his short 39 years was changing the way the piano was played. He is credited with laying the groundwork for modern jazz piano, and is known for songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Honeysuckle Rose,” both of which are in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 1978 Waller’s life was made into a Broadway musical, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Ken Page, a singer and actor, originated the role of Ken in the Broadway production of the show. He also appeared on Broadway in “The Wiz,” “Guys and Dolls” and as Old Deuteronomy in “Cats.”

Page revisits the music of Fats Waller with a show named after another Waller hit, “This Joint is Jumpin’!” at Stuart’s Lyric Theatre March 18-19. His special guests will be singer Avery Sommers, who appeared with him in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and is from the Palm Beach area, and his accompanist, Greg Brown.

“This is not ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ or ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ in concert,” he said. “What I wanted to do with this evening was a tribute to Fats Waller. ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a tribute to Fats Waller and the times. This really presents the music he recorded and wrote.”

The show will intertwine music and stories and anecdotes.

“Between ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ and my own interest and research, I have a fair amount of knowledge,” Page said. “We did ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ in Paris and a number of people had seen him there and shared stories. I wanted this to be a show where people could relax, enjoy the music and the stories, and go away with knowledge of the actual man who was Fats Waller.”

Page said that Waller was “a complicated man in a complicated time.

“People don’t realize, even with ‘Ain’t Misbehavin,’ how big a star he really was,” he said. “He composed for Broadway, was in Hollywood films and toured the world. For an African-American in his day and time, that was huge. There were only a handful and he was one. The only way African-Americans could make headway was to make people feel comfortable, so he wore the mask of a clown.”

When Waller died at 39, some 4,000 attended his funeral and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell is supposed to have said that Waller always packed the house.

“In truth, he always lived excessively,” Page said. “He said he was living life in a great big way. With people like him, there’s something that fills them, and an urgency to their output. They may not be aware, but somewhere in them, there’s some Geiger saying, ‘write, write, write.’ There’s a limited amount of time. Some people, gifted as they were, something within them pushes them.”

Page noted that Waller wrote more than the songs with which he is most associated.

“He wrote classical pieces and organ pieces,” page said. “Most of them were released on RCA Victor Paris. Greg Brown is going to play several of his works. He was first noted as a pianist and people will hear the actual compositions. It’s worth hearing his music without the vocals. The fun and whimsy is in his piano-playing, with the lyrics on top.”

Page said that there will be many songs from “Ain’t Misbehavin’” but that they are presenting the music and not the character.

“I want people to understand that his music lives, that it’s not just kept in a time capsule. I want them to leave saying, ‘Wow, he really was way more than I thought he was.’

“He’s my buddy. He’s been with me a long time.”

“The Joint is Jumpin!” with Ken Page will be presented at the Lyric Theatre, 59 SW Flagler Ave., Stuart, March 18-19. Tickets are $45. Call the box office at 772-286-7827 or order online at www.lyrictheatre.com.