Local Current Blog

Ain’t Misbehavin’: Fats Waller and the American dilemma

Jason Moran as Fats Waller (Publicity photo by Clay Patrick McBride)

It was almost exactly two weeks ago now that I landed at LaGuardia and flipped my phone out of airplane mode at the exact moment that a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., was announcing that they had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for shooting and killing an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown.

As soon as I pulled up Twitter my little glowing screen was flooded with updates, and as we gathered up our bags and filed off the airplane my husband and I would stop every few hundred feet to refresh our feeds, struggling to keep up with the hundreds of reactions that were gushing forth in real time.

We boarded a bus and listened through a shared pair of earbuds as President Obama addressed the nation, his voice distant, resigned, wooden; then switched to a train and descended into Manhattan. The air felt decidedly somber and tense, although no one was speaking about anything out loud. Glancing around the subway, I wondered who was aware of the breaking news and who had yet to hear it; some of the passengers with their phones out were definitely frowning, but it’s hard to ascertain why anyone might be frowning on a New York subway car. Is this how we are destined to experience major events now? Each glowering silently into our separate iPhone screens?

By the time we got to my friend’s place, protests had broken out all over Manhattan and I was feeling all of the bad feelings at once: grief, anger, agitation, powerlessness, fear. The cynical side of me sighed a heavy sigh—I mean, of course that was going to happen—as the life of yet another person of color was cast aside at the expense of preserving a white man’s power. This was still a week before another grand jury in Staten Island would decide not to indict another white police officer for killing another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, but it’s become so painfully obvious in recent years that these are not isolated instances; rather, these deaths are just two of the more visible examples of a systemic problem that feels cyclical, inevitable, and sickening.

A couple of nights later I found myself nestled into the legendary basement jazz club the Village Vanguard to see the piano player and composer Jason Moran, who was holding down a five-night residency. I ended up watching his first set of the night from further back in the room, but there’s really not a bad seat in the house at the Vanguard—think the old Artists’ Quarter back when it was on Jackson St., with a little triangle-shaped room angled toward the stage—and I found myself transfixed. Moran and his trio built incredible amounts of tension with competing funnel clouds of chaos and dark, brooding tones, and the first half of the performance felt like a storm cloud that never quite burst open into a full-on downpour.

Just when the mood seemed like it couldn’t get any more foreboding, Moran stood up from his piano bench and sauntered over to a corner behind his drummer’s kit to let his backing band settle deep into a groove. When he popped up again his entire head had been engulfed in a paper-mache mask that bore a striking resemblance to the legendary artist Fats Waller, down to a perfectly sculpted cigarette dangling out of his Cheshire smile. The room murmured in laughter, providing a much needed and surreal release.

Moran proceeded to pay tribute to Waller with reverence, cueing up old recordings of the musician talking about his work and delivering a stirring rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose.” When the house lights went up, it felt like the whole thing had flashed by in an instant; we were obviously going to stay for the second set.

As the room turned over we staked out a spot closer to the stage, and this time Moran came out and picked up a microphone to address the crowd in depth. “As we play tonight, I’m thinking about where we are—and I mean that in every way you can interpret the phrase,” he explained. “Where we are geographically, here in this room, and here in New York City… and where we are as a people.”

It was during the second set that Moran would fully delve into Fats Waller’s best-known song, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which he set up by playing a recording of Waller himself describing the way he wrote the song while sitting in alimony jail. Although the song is ostensibly about love and fidelity, he also pointed out that the song was about doing whatever it takes to stay out of trouble—and as he pulled the mask off and sang the lyrics into his microphone, the song started to take on a whole other meaning.

“I don’t stay out late, got no place to go,” Moran sang, pushing through the words urgently. As he repeated the phrase, his delivery took on a staccato beat, resembling more of a rap than a melody. “Don’t stay out late, got no place to go. I ain’t misbehavin’. I ain’t misbehavin’. I ain’t misbehavin’.”

One of my favorite things about jazz is how much can be expressed without having to over-explain, and yet I’d never experienced a moment quite like that before at a jazz show or otherwise. By the time the song ended my eyes were stinging with tears and a lump had formed in my throat as all the cries for help hung heavy in the air: I ain’t misbehavin’. Hands up, don’t shoot. I can’t breathe. I ain’t misbehavin’.

I don’t know what kind of protest songs and soul-soothing songs are going to emerge out of this time of unrest. I suspect it will take time for artists to be able to fully digest what’s going on and ruminate on it in their work—hell, it took me two weeks to figure out how to put even this one little experience into words. But as I wrote briefly the other day, it’s times like these when music can offer us so much more than a distraction; when it can say all the things we don’t yet know how to verbalize, and give us a little hope when everything feels so dark. And as it turns out, sometimes it takes a little song written in 1929 to rise up and show us the light.