Kennedy Center upgrading Jason Moran to artistic director for jazz with 3-year renewal

The Kennedy Center announced Tuesday that it is extending its contract with pianist and composer Jason Moran, 39, the center’s artistic adviser for jazz since 2011. Moran is being renewed for another three years with a bump in title to artistic director for jazz, the designation held by the center’s longtime jazz figurehead, Billy Taylor, until his death in 2010.

“It shows our confidence in what Jason has done for the Kennedy Center, and what he is going to do,” says Darrell Ayers, the center’s vice president of education and jazz.

Moran, a 2010 MacArthur fellow, has made a point of courting younger audiences and working across genres. A signature project is the Crossroads Club in the atrium upstairs, which features standing room only, a dance floor and a bar. (Now in its second season, Crossroads originally was called the Supersized Jazz Club.) The Robert Glasper Experiment, headed by jazz/hip-hop pianist Robert Glasper, will appear there Saturday.

“That gives people another avenue here,” Ayers says, noting that the venue, which can accommodate about 400 people, sells out quickly. Events have included Moran’s “Fats Waller Dance Party” with Meshell Ndegeocello putting a fresh spin on the Waller style.

Moran says he sometimes records audiences after events to gauge reactions. He eagerly eyed the crowd at the first Crossroads event, which featured the jazz-funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood.


Jason Moran. (Scott Suchman)

“I heard kids say, ‘I never thought I’d be in the Kennedy Center to see Medeski Martin & Wood,’ ” Moran recalls. “They looked around and said, ‘Hey — this looks kind of cool.’ ”

The announcement comes during an active week for jazz at the Kennedy Center. The Terence Blanchard Group plays two shows in the Terrace Theater Friday night, and Sunday’s “Blue Note at 75” performance in the Concert Hall is already sold out. It will include Norah Jones, Wayne Shorter, Moran and others.

Next season, Moran’s multimedia “In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall, 1959” (which led to a documentary) will play the Eisenhower Theater. Moran already has partnered with other Kennedy Center constituents such as the National Symphony Orchestra and the Millennium Stage.

“That crossover is something Jason has wanted us to do, to see how can we engage artists from other arts forms and create new works,” Ayers says.

“It would be lovely to start commissioning jazz artists,” Moran says of his goals for the next three years. He has a working relationship with incoming president Deborah F. Rutter: Later this month, he will premiere a new work as part of the “Truth to Power” festival with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where Rutter is winding up her tenure as president before coming to Washington. Moran says Rutter has a sharp grasp of how the arts can address the tensions of urban life.

“I think she’s going to come ready to tackle some of these issues and take us to another plateau,” he says.

nelson.pressley@washpost.com

Nelson Pressley has been writing about theater and other arts – but mostly theater – for the Post since 1999.
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