Moran Presents a Gig with Giggles
Like jazz, comedy can be a risky venture. Risk taking is essential to both art forms: The act of surprising an audience with something bold and perhaps intimidating—in terms of either the content and or the performance itself—can make or break a set.
The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., has established a reputation for high quality regardless of discipline, but not so much when it comes to artistry that pushes the envelope. The venue’s staff has to be extremely mindful of the sensibility of season-ticket holders, many of whom prefer their art to be highbrow yet middle of the road. So it was a cause for both excitement and mild alarm when it was announced that the arts center had hired the forward-thinking pianist Jason Moran to be its new jazz advisor.
Nearly a year after his auspicious appointment, Moran delivered one of his most ballsy programs yet on Nov. 11: “An Evening of Comedy & Music.” Moran—who won three awards in the 2011 DownBeat Critics Poll, including Jazz Artist of the Year—regularly has excelled in his trio Bandwagon, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. For this special gig, Moran expanded his group to become the Big Bandwagon (with the addition of four horns). The musicians supported the respected standup comedians Faizon Love, Marina Franklin and David Alan Grier, who served as the host of show. Expectations were understandably high because this show easily could have gone to one of the extremes: tremendous or terrible.
The results were neither. But the program did provide intermittent moments of sheer hilarity. Early in the evening, Moran revved up the party with a rip-roaring take on the Thelonious Monk namesake composition, “Thelonious.” But soon after, things got a bit shaky. Before Grier introduced Franklin to the stage, he sang Slim Gaillard’s silly ditty “Potato Chips” with the Big Bandwagon, thus raising a red flag for corniness.
Grier rebounded by telling jokes about the recent presidential election, generating some big laughs by wishing that President Obama acted more “black” than “beige.” “I want a Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction-black president,” Grier extolled, “because that’s how you get things done.” Grier, who rose to national prominence on the popular TV comedy show In Living Color, isn’t known for being as edgy as say, Chris Rock or Katt Williams, but he’s certainly not boring.
Grier routinely peppered his asides with profanity and sexual innuendo, stuff that one commonly would hear at a conventional comedy club. When he joked about the gender gap with regard to watching the Super Bowl, he brought onto the stage a female audience member and told her how he would put her on a pedestal inside his big castle—to make her sport-crazed husband jealous—and Grier then abruptly shouted that he’d also tie her up to the bed because everyone knew that “she’s a big ol’ freak.” Things dovetailed to the trite again when he sang “You Are My Super Bowl,” a doltish take on the smooth jazz ballad “You Are My Starship” (the title track to Norman Connors’ 1977 album).
The other two comedians took the lion’s share of the evening, with Franklin focusing on her “fish out of water” perspective on life, and Love specializing in self-deprecation. Franklin roused the crowd with reflections of growing up on the South Side of Chicago as a white-sounding black girl who couldn’t fight and didn’t have an Afrocentric name.
Love upped the risk-factor ante with scatological humor and jokes about being overweight, ugly and sexual impotent. Regarding the last issue, he compared his attempts at having sex with “trying to shoot pool with a rope” (and he simulated the futile ordeal by tossing the microphone cord across the stage).
As the crowd roared at the salacious anecdotes, I wondered if people were cackling at the actual jokes or whether they were amused by the notion of such audacious feats taking place at the pristine Kennedy Center. Compared to many adult comedy sets, envelopes were nudged more than pushed at the Kennedy Center. Nearly a week after the presidential election, Mitt Romney’s defeat was hardly mentioned. Other “big topic” issues, such as gentrification and legalized marijuana, were casually brought up but never fully mined for their full comedic potential.
Another lingering question involved the interplay between jazz and comedy. Sure, the program notes mentioned how comedy legends such as Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx would share the stage with jazz artists. (And Bill Cosby has been a high-profile supporter of jazz for decades.) But when the Big Bandwagon played Lee Morgan’s 1963 classic “The Sidewinder” to underscore Franklin’s musing over not being a “sassy-acting” black woman, it all felt forced—as did those moments when Love and Grier sang with the group.
Still, the performances demonstrated that the cozy relationship between jazz and comedy is a promising one, even though the Kennedy Center may not be the ideal place for that marriage to be consummated.