MONTCLAIR, NJ - Maurice Chestnut performed along with with a trio of instruments on the Montclair Public Library stage on February 17.
During the 40-minute segment, Chestnut masterfully weaved in tap dance with a live electric violin, bass and DJ playing an eclectic array of music.
Part of the library's annual tribute to Black History month, hundreds of people attended the standing-room only free event. By the end of the program, numerous attendees could be heard saying that they would have paid money to see the lineup and stellar quality of performances.
Chestnut engaged the audience with several call and response exercises. He also told the audience that tap dance originated as a means for slaves to communicate with one another.
"This dance was a way of communication. It was never entertainment, at first," he said.
"Before we did that, we started at playing the drums. When they found out the drum was a communication for slaves, they took the drums away....and then we started to use our feet," Chestnut continued.
"Certain steps meant certain things. It was never about entertainment...it was all about a way of life, first. We had to do this to get by...," he continued.
Chestnut educated the audience by making connections of the art form to explaining how it has evolved and transformed. He also made connections to other forms of expression like hip hop, jazz and rock and roll.
"We always communicated through dance and music, especially jazz music," he added.
Born and raised in Newark, Chestnut began performing professionally at the age of nine, when he joined Deborah Mitchell's New Jersey Tap Ensemble. He has been featured on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show and has won a gold medal in the NAACP Act-So Competition. Chestnut has also performed at the Apollo Theater, being crowned "Top Dog Performer", during his early years.
In 2003, at the age of nineteen, Chestnut joined the national touring company of Savion Glover's Broadway hit Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk and continued to perform with Glover on various other touring shows through the years. Over last two decades, in addition to having his own performance group, Chestnut has also performed with jazz artists Christian McBride, Cyrus Chestnut, Thelonius Monk III, and the Geri Allen Trio.
During the program, guests were given a brief history lesson with Clarence McKnight's presentation of his African-American stamp collection accompanied by a powerpoint presentation.
Other performers included Broadway songstress Jaquelyn Graham of Rocktopia, Buzz Aldrin Middle School student Megan Hackett, Paula McCoy (aka Mama Yaa), poet Jadanique Morris, The Clark School student Savannah Jones. Recording artist Eddie Nicholas was the Master of Ceremony.
Matilda Williams, organizer of the event, modestly thanked attendees for coming and said, "We hope you enjoyed the performances."
In attendance was Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson, Montclair African-American Heritage Foundation President Bonnie Taylor, and Albert Pelham of Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation.
Below is a snippet of the collective singing We Shall Overcome.
Here is the performance by Chestnut.