During an afternoon sound check at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, pianist Jason Moran was asked if he could play “Auld Lang Syne” as a promotion for NPR. He didn’t quite remember the melody and wanted someone to hum it for him.
In the next three minutes, as he sat at the piano, Moran wove improvised beauty, transforming the familiar New Year’s Eve war horse into a gentle jazz hymn. He created new harmonies, shifted to a different key, added a touch of abstraction without departing from the song’s melancholy melody.
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.
“He was our first choice,” Struthers said.
Moran has already worked on film projects and has composed for dance troupes and theaters. In Washington, he wants to take the music beyond the Kennedy Center’s concert halls, possibly in joint programs with other institutions.
Another part of his duties at the Kennedy Center will be helping to guide an educational program begun by Taylor. His own experience as a teacher, Moran said, has taught him that jazz can appeal to people of all ages — if only they have a chance to hear it.
“It’s just exposure, at all levels,” he said. “Clearly, there are students who get enamored by the idea of improvisation. It happens every day.”
With his MacArthur grant, Moran hopes to find a way to spread the language of jazz across the American landscape. Noting that he works “exponentially more” overseas than he does in the United States, he hopes to rekindle a love of jazz in the land of its birth.
“I kind of want to get the music back on a road it hasn’t been on for a while,” he said. “I want to promote the arts as part of the American diet.”
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If not for a couple of chance encounters, Jason Moran might not have become a pianist — or at least not a jazz pianist — at all. When he was growing up in Houston, his parents started him on the regimented Suzuki method of piano study when he was 6.
He showed enough talent that he had a private teacher who had studied at the Moscow Academy of Music. But the young Moran had many other interests to compete with the piano: hip-hop music, skateboarding, kung-fu movies, snakes and golf. (The only question he ducked in his interview was revealing his golf handicap.)
His parents regularly took him and his two brothers to classical music concerts, art museums and the ballet. His father, an investment banker, had a collection of 10,000 records, and the Moran household was constantly echoing with music, from James Brown to the Beatles to John Coltrane to Vladimir Horowitz.
An older cousin, Tony Llorens, played piano with blues guitarist Albert King and sometimes stopped by the Morans’ home. It was the first time, Moran said, that he ever saw anyone enjoy playing the piano. Without sheet music or exercise books, Llorens would simply sit down and create a rollicking good time out of a barrelhouse beat.
The other revelation for the young Moran came when he discovered the music of jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. He still remembers the record that sent a chill down his spine — Monk’s timeless ballad “ ’Round Midnight.”
“Hearing Thelonious Monk at around 14,” Moran said, “that was a total transformation.”
At first, he didn’t know about Monk’s legacy as a progenitor of the bebop movement of the 1940s. Instead, he was struck by how much Monk — with his jabbing bass lines and his physical approach to the piano — resembled the hip-hop artists the teenage Moran admired at the time.
From that point on, Moran became absorbed in jazz. He practiced several hours a day and listened to everything he could find by Monk and musicians who had worked with him. When he auditioned for Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he played a Monk composition, “Ruby, My Dear.”
In 1993, Moran moved to New York and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with three under-appreciated piano masters: Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams.
His connection to Byard, whose shooting death in 1999 remains unsolved, was like that of apprentice to artisan. Byard, who often mixed musical styles in his own work, taught Moran to trust his instincts. Moran has been known for his original musical voice since his first album, “Soundtrack to Human Motion,” was released in 1999.
He’s as comfortable reinterpreting works by Brahms and Ravel as he is performing jazz. (Moran occasionally performs with his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, an opera singer who is currently the understudy to Audra McDonald in a Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess.”)
Some of Moran’s compositions include tape-recorded voices, often in foreign languages, around which he composes music. Other works have been inspired by the paintings of Egon Schiele and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For a solo piano album, 2002’s “Modernistic,” Moran reinterpreted the 1920s stride piano of James P. Johnson and included a jazz version of a hip-hop tune, a work by classical composer Robert Schumann, several original compositions and the standard “Body and Soul.”
Jazz critic Gary Giddins pronounced the effort “one of the great solo piano records since Thelonious Monk. . . . In addition to all his incredible technique, [Moran] has both imagination and a rare intelligence that allows him to look in a lot of different directions.”
Moran has said that he doesn’t want any of his albums to sound predictable, but he adds, “I’m never without something that has a base from 60 or 90 years ago.”
Such wholesale experimentation has made him hugely influential among younger musicians but has raised the ire of a small quarter of the old guard. Critic Stanley Crouch, for one, has taken issue with Moran for his penchant for hip-hop and not digging deeper into the traditional swing vocabulary of jazz.
Moran listens to the criticism — sometimes accepts it. He cheerfully recalls one encounter when Taylor, his Kennedy Center predecessor, said, “Jason, you’re playing some beautiful lines, but where are your chords?” Afterward, Moran conscientiously worked to deepen his harmonic palette.
Despite the occasional perplexity of some listeners, Moran is determined to seek his own eclectic path in jazz.
“Jazz is so big an idea,” he said. “Why do we want to limit an idea that is so large? It continues to change and shift. We can’t put it in a box.”