It was a subtle demonstration of how the 36-year-old Moran is ringing in a new era of jazz.
He is perhaps the country’s most influential jazz musician under 40. He’s got plenty of street cred on the music scene, but he is quickly gaining institutional validity as well, most notably with last year’s award of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. In the latest confirmation of Moran’s rising cultural stature, the Kennedy Center last month named him its new artistic adviser for jazz.
“He has a vision,” said Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of jazz programming, “and we wanted him to bring a vision to us.”
Moran takes over a position that was created by Billy Taylor, the venerable pianist, educator and broadcaster who died last December at 89. In a 16-year association with the Kennedy Center, Taylor increased the number of annual jazz performances from four to more than 150.
“It’s an honor to continue what he started,” Moran said during a recent interview at the Kennedy Center. “I think of it as a challenge. How do you carry on something Billy Taylor has done so well and so eloquently for more than a decade?”
The full effect of Moran’s programming ideas won’t be seen for several months, but they will undoubtedly reflect his questing, eclectic personality.
“Jason is very forward-thinking, but he also has a deep respect for the past,” said veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who has had Moran in his quartet for the past four years. “He loves music, and he loves a lot of it. He’s all-encompassing. He has a deep, quiet center.”
Over the past 18 months, Jason Moran has gone from being just another busy musician to a one-man musical industry. Besides the MacArthur fellowship and his appointment at the Kennedy Center, he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory and toured the world with Lloyd.
His 2010 recording, “Ten,” his eighth album, has been hailed as an instant classic. DownBeat magazine put him on its cover for winning its annual critics’ poll for album of the year, musician of the year and pianist of the year.
Moran has a reputation for being polished beyond his years — he showed up for a Saturday interview wearing a suit and tie — and didn’t once answer his cellphone or look at a text message. He often breaks into laughter and speaks with knowledge of other art forms, including painting, dance and design.
The idea that he might be able to collaborate with artists in other disciplines was, in fact, one of the things that made him accept the offer from the Kennedy Center, where he has a three-year appointment.