If Fats Waller is remembered at all by the public at large these days, it's as a caricature, with bug-eyes wide open, cigarette dangling from lip and eyebrows perpetually bobbing underneath a derby hat as he hams it up at the keys.
But connoisseurs know that Waller stands as a colossal figure in the early history of jazz piano, a pioneering virtuoso as well as a formidable organist, master songwriter and charismatic singer.
Getting the world to understand the genius behind the façade is not easy, but pianist Jason Moran will be attempting something of the kind Friday night in Orchestra Hall. For "Jason Moran & the Bandwagon Remix the Music of Fats Waller With Special Guests" will give listeners a chance to assess Waller's achievements outside the stereotypes that still hover around him.
'"Fats, with those rolling eyes – people to a degree may have viewed him as a 'sambo' figure, as a vestige of this vaudeville era, where minstrelsy is a part of the black persona," says Moran, winner of a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship or "genius grant."
"But he moved things so much further. He's a complicated person in the history (of jazz), but if you listen to the music, you really have to take a second glance at it."
Indeed, behind the glib exterior, Waller commanded a brilliant piano technique that ranks him among the greatest virtuosos of the first half of the 20th Century, alongside giants such as Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. Waller's compositions still loom large in the jazz and musical theater repertory, with a broad range of performers finding ample possibilities in tunes such as "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Jitterbug Waltz" and "Honeysuckle Rose."
Most jazz pianists stand in awe of Waller's art, for good reason.
For starters, there's "the joy and ease with which he plays the piano," says Moran. "The technique was immense. Like most pianists of the age (the Roaring '20s and '30s), they had this carefree way to touch the piano that makes it almost seem like his virtuosity is something that is simple for him to attain. You never feel he's struggling to make those leaps and jumps at the keyboard….
"I'm always tripping on musicians from that era who were able to bring so much joy in a time when America was going through so much pain," adds Moran, presumably referring to the Great Depression in general and the blatant racism of the period in particular.
"I have no idea where this comes from within their personas. It's still striking: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, dealing with that much social strife within their communities. I suppose the art is where they can put their stress."
For Friday's program, Moran has conceived a concert in two distinct parts. The first half will be somewhat historical, says Moran, the pianist partnering with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Watts to investigate classic Waller repertoire. In the second half, Moran will augment the cast to include vocalist Chris Turner, plus horns and guitar for a more free-wheeling session recalling the "Fast Waller Dance Party" event Moran presented last year in New York. Both sections, however, will venture beyond playing music into a discussion of it, including sound clips of Waller at the piano.
"I have a really big thing about listening to pre-recorded music … to actually have a group listening session," says Moran. "Everybody is captivated to a degree, because they paid a ticket price and we're all sitting there. I want to talk about Fats Waller – it will almost be a kind of seminar of sorts. It's not only about the music, but what he represents."
Few pianists are better equipped to present this kind of exploration, with Moran over the past several years having helped to stretch the definition of what a jazz concert can be. In club dates, he often uses musical samples in conjunction with live performance, and he has brought documentary film footage into his concerts, as well.
All of which should have prepared him for this probe into Waller's art and life, which Moran considers ripe for this moment in American history.
"For me, Fats Waller represents so much joy, it's almost apropos that I get to play this music now, because the country is in such an interesting place," says Moran, pointing to the current economic distress – the greatest America has experienced since Waller's heyday in the Depression.
"He's a buffet of joy, so I want people to come out and hear this music, because I'm really aiming to bring that part of his music out, and shoot it through a prism and have it displayed in all these colors."
Also worth hearing
Pat Martino: The last time guitarist Martino played the Jazz Showcase, about a year ago, his instrument and luggage had been lost en route, forcing him to try his best with a borrowed Gibson guitar (he endorses Benedetto instruments). Martino's music bristled with spontaneity nonetheless, the guitarist improvising boldly in music of Wes Montgomery, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Assuming that Martino's Benedetto arrives with him, expect energetic, harmonically free-ranging improvisations. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Maggie Brown: For two decades, the Chicago singer has been educating and enlightening audiences with her partly sung, partly spoken show "Legacy: Our Wealth of Music." She'll mark the anniversary with this performance, which revives one that was cancelled last winter due to harsh weather. 8 p.m. Friday at the University of Chicago's International House, 1414 E. 59th St.; $7-$15; 773-753-2274 or ihouse.uchicago.edu
Juli Wood: The intrepid saxophonist-vocalist appears as part of the weekly series presented by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; valet parking available; hydeparkjazzsociety
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Symphony Center, 220 S.Michigan Ave.
Tickets: $22 to $52; 312-294-3000 or cso.org