On a warm evening this past May, Jason Moran — pianist and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center — sauntered into a former Harlem church, now renovated into a studio and performance venue. In its vast, reverberant space, the artist Julie Mehretu had spent the previous several months painting two enormous canvases, each 27 feet wide and 32 feet high, commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Moran had been joining Mehretu at the church for large chunks of her months at work, composing music inspired by what she was painting. Now he and two other musicians — cornetist Graham Haynes and drummer Jamire Williams — were going to improvise on both that score and the paintings, while audio and video engineers taped them for the TV documentary series “Art21” and for a CD to be released by Moran’s own label in November.
Moran, 42, has led bands through precisely written scores and through loose improvisations, but this session was something else. Before they started playing, he showed his bandmates a cluttered hand-scrawled score. Melody lines paralleled some of the long lines that Mehretu had brushed on the canvas. Chords, alternately dense and open, matched her concentrations of paint and empty spaces. He told them, “Check out the painting, but I won’t tell you where to look.” And: “Look at the score I’ve composed, but I’m not telling you where to start on the page.”
Mehretu’s paintings — mazes and maelstroms of black and gray swirls and slashes, overlaid on patches of subtle glowing color, which she’d formed from blurred, blown-up transfers of American landscape paintings and photos of race riots — are intense, mysterious, raucous, rhythmic. Somehow, the session managed to capture their spirit. Moran laid down arpeggios at dervish speed; Williams disrupted the flow with percussive outbursts; Haynes unfurled a slow, haunting melody. Then, as the piece progressed, the players gradually switched parts or spun off to whole new ones.
Not so long ago, Moran's eclectic, adventurous approach to jazz would have placed him well outside the aesthetic boundaries of Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts . But in the past few years, the big white box on the Potomac has opened its venues to jazz in tandem with skateboarders, stand-up comics, dancers, painters and rappers. This redefining of what it means to be the "national cultural center" is, to a large extent, the doing of Jason Moran.
Moran first came to the Kennedy Center in 2011 as a musical adviser; three years later, he became its artistic director for jazz. The appointment sparked some controversy — he’d had no experience running an organization, his taste was a bit out there for some — but that was then. Recently, the board renewed his contract for a second time, this one lasting through 2021. And so, over the span of a decade, Moran could end up making as big an impact on the Kennedy Center as any figure in its history. “We’ve brought people and types of music to the center that we wouldn’t have thought about bringing if it hadn’t been for Jason,” Kevin Struthers, the director of jazz programming, told me. “We’ve changed our mix. We’ve fully embraced his approach.”
The job of Kennedy Center jazz director was created by another pianist, Billy Taylor , who held it from 1994 until his death, at age 89, in 2010. Taylor was chiefly an educator, celebrated for bringing jazz concerts to Harlem and other black neighborhoods in New York in the mid-1960s.
Moran is seeking to build on Taylor’s legacy, but he is also veering from it dramatically. Taylor grew up in the swing and bebop eras and saw his role as preserving jazz at a time of displacement by rock and R&B; Moran came of age in the era of postmodernism and the Internet, when music from all places and all eras was instantly accessible. To artists of his generation, it seems natural to fuse genres and styles. The “jazz standards” of the 1940s and ’50s were built on that era’s pop and show tunes, which is what the musicians and their audiences were listening to. So it’s no surprise that jazz musicians a half-century later would cover rock, hip-hop, music from all over the world — the pop tunes of today. Moran didn’t pioneer this new variant of fusion, but he is taking it in a wider direction than anyone else — without dismissing or discarding the jazz that came before. “What attracted us to Jason,” Struthers told me, “is he has a firm foot in the tradition — and he’s very rooted in today’s world as well.”
Moran grew up in Houston, listening mainly to hip-hop, like most black kids in his neighborhood, but music of all sorts wafted constantly through his house, much of it from the stereo of his father, an investment banker with a record collection numbering in the thousands. One day, when Jason was about 13, his father put on Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight." Jason had been playing piano himself since age 6, mainly the classical repertoire and, around this time, a little bit of boogie-woogie, influenced by an uncle who was a blues pianist. But Monk stopped him in his tracks.
“When I heard Monk,” he recalls, sitting in his Harlem apartment, overlooking the Hudson River, “it sounded like it was from another world, yet also so familiar and pure. It was captivating because I had no idea what it was. I couldn’t relate it to Bach or Mozart. It was a different kind of soulful, but had a bounce that was grounded. How did he dig into those notes like that? I immediately tried to copy everything he did, all the way down to the hats he wore.”
Moran started taking lessons in jazz piano and, a few years later, enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he studied with Jaki Byard, an adventurous pianist more than 50 years his senior, who’d played with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and other giants. He also got to know, and soon took lessons from, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, leading avant-gardists of a Monkish bent. As Moran started playing around town, and as his reputation grew, he picked up sideman gigs with some of the city’s most inventive leaders: Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, Don Byron. (Unlike many young leaders, he still plays sideman to musicians whose work he reveres — veterans such as saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Henry Threadgill, as well as young rebels like guitarist Mary Halvorson.)
In 1999, at age 24, he signed a contract with Blue Note Records. From his first albums, it was clear that this was the new prodigy on the block. The critic Gary Giddins hailed his 2002 album, “Modernistic,” as “one of the greatest solo piano records since Thelonious Monk.” The following two years, Moran topped the DownBeat critics polls for rising star pianist, rising star composer and rising star jazz artist. By 2011, no longer rising but fully risen, he won the magazine’s polls for best jazz artist, best pianist and best album — the last award for “Ten,” a recording that marked his 10th year with his Bandwagon trio . (In 2016, he left Blue Note and formed his own label, a move made possible by the cushion of his Kennedy Center job.)
"Modernistic" was the pivot, displaying Moran as a musician of startling virtuosity and breadth. The tracks included "You've Got to Be Modernistic" by James P. Johnson, the 1930s pianist who pioneered a rhythmically robust version of ragtime; Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"; Schumann's "Auf Einer Burg"; a couple of his own compositions; and maybe the most original take on "Body and Soul" since Coleman Hawkins made it a jazz tune — all imbued with technical mastery, emotional depth, adherence to tradition, yet stamped with his distinctive touch.
On other albums in the early 2000s, Moran explored sounds from outside the realm of music. In one piece, he mimicked the cadences of a stock-market report on Chinese television, tracing its notes and rhythms, then improvising melodies on top of those notes and embellishing the sequence with chords. In another piece, he did the same with a Turkish telephone conversation.
Moran had long been interested in the visual arts — his parents had taken him and his two brothers to museums as well as to concert halls — and, at some point, he came under the spell of Robert Rauschenberg’s “combines,” fusions of painting and sculpture that incorporated objects found on the street: buttons, neckties, lightbulbs, newspaper clippings, a stuffed goat, a tire. “I’ve fallen in love with artists who figured out how to make the mundane parts of life extremely interesting,” he told me. It wasn’t a mental stretch for Moran to infuse his music with found sounds from everyday life.
This sense of art without boundaries has been a central theme in his programming at the Kennedy Center — noticeably at variance with Billy Taylor’s approach and with the approach of Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter and artistic director of jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center, the model for all the jazz institutions to come. When Marsalis emerged as a brash wunderkind in the 1980s, touting straight-ahead jazz and torching hybrids based on rock, funk or European avant-garde music, he triggered a schism within the jazz community: You were either with Wynton and his traditionalist approach, or against him. It was a cultural divide: uptown (Lincoln Center) vs. downtown (the hybrids). The fight now seems silly — jazz has managed to accommodate many styles and genres — but it can still raise ruffles in the stuffier or more progressive quarters.
Still, when Moran got the directorship of the Kennedy Center’s jazz program, he sought out Marsalis, 13 years his senior, for advice. They’d met when Moran was in high school; Moran’s cousin was a friend of Marsalis’s from New Orleans days. “I told him we don’t all have to have the same vision,” Marsalis recalled in a phone conversation. “Your tastes govern your program. It’s important to be independent in your taste and your decisions, and to stand by your program. Do what you believe in.”
Marsalis said he likes a lot of what Moran is doing in Washington. “I like the skateboarding, I like the live painting, the diversity of art. I applaud the things he does, which are so unlike what anybody else could do,” he told me. “I don’t like hip-hop, but it doesn’t matter. It means one person doesn’t like it. I support Jason, and I’m glad they brought him in.”
Shortly after taking the job, Moran met Jeremy Denk, the adventurous classical pianist and writer, at a gala for the Harlem School of the Arts. Moran proposed a duet concert, the two of them alternating or jointly improvising jazz and classical pieces. The idea, he told Denk, would be "to dispel the segregation between musics." Denk agreed. Moran took the idea to his bosses, who liked it, too.
The collaboration, which took three years to schedule, sparked Moran's awareness of what he could — and should — do at the Kennedy Center. "It took me a while to realize this is a place I should call home, a place where I could invite and bring projects," he recalls. He notes that "countless older musicians — father figures — have pulled my coat and whispered something in my ear about music, life, the legacy of African Americans in music, in institutions." Yet today, Moran and his generation are themselves becoming elders. A former classmate at the Manhattan School of Music, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, is now the school's jazz director; the bassist Christian McBride, another contemporary, runs the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. "All the yelling we did about institutions when we were in our 20s — now we're in our 40s, and we're in charge of these institutions," Moran says. "What are we going to do with them?"
His institution, the Kennedy Center, "declares itself to be the nation's cultural center," he went on. "When I took the job, Obama was president, and it was the year when Sonny Rollins was a Kennedy Center honoree. Refining the institution needed a nudge, just the way music does and a nation does." In that spirit, Moran-curated seasons at the Kennedy Center have highlighted jazz with poetry, jazz with stand-up comedians (harking back to the days when jazz musicians commonly shared the bill with poets and comics at nightclubs), and the visual artist Joan Jonas painting a canvas while Moran played piano, each improvising on the other's strokes.
Some of these experiments have incited huge sales and plaudits; others, less so. The controversies have extended, occasionally, to some of the more traditionally formatted concerts. In his first season, he brought in one of his heroes, the protean avant-garde reedman Anthony Braxton , who sometimes tends toward atonality and abstruse harmonies. The event saw a large number of walkouts.
Moran wasn't bothered. "People walk out of opera all the time, as they do choral concerts or hip-hop shows," he says. "I once saw Alban Berg's 'Lulu' at the Met. After the intermission, half the audience left. I love Berg, so I'm staying at the end. It becomes a problem if people talk only about people walking out of Braxton and not about them walking out of Berg . Then it becomes a stigma to present that music. Also, that Braxton show was amazing."
Luckily, Moran has support from the top. Deborah Rutter became president of the Kennedy Center in 2014, just as Moran's original contract was about to expire. Her previous job had been president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where, just before she left, Moran led a local, largely black high school jazz band in an hour-long piece he'd composed about the city's violence. It was an emotional experience, an artistic triumph celebrated by Chicago's media, musicians and civic leaders. Rutter, who introduced the concert, was seen crying afterward. "One of the first questions I faced coming to the Kennedy Center," she recalls, "was 'Should we extend Jason's contract?' I said, 'Yes! Please!"
Rutter acknowledges the turbulence that has swirled around some of Moran’s programming. “I have people questioning whether or not one art form or another belongs at the Kennedy Center,” she says. “But I have many more saying, ‘Thank you for acknowledging that art comes in many forms.’ ”
Moran is as likely to discuss his favorite films, or a museum show he just saw, or a poem he read last week, as he is to talk about music. He's extremely busy and disciplined, his music is intense, his playing energetic, virtuosic. Yet for all that, he walks with a steady gait, exudes a laid-back vibe and seems to be one of the most relaxed jazz musicians I've ever seen.
Washington is, at best, his second home. He comes down every three or four weeks, staying for a few days, though he has started coming down more often as a guest lecturer at Georgetown, and he keeps apprised of the local jazz scene — its heritage and present denizens — mainly through Nasheet Waits, a D.C. resident who is also the drummer in his long-standing trio, the Bandwagon.
Moran lives, most of the time, in Harlem with his wife of 14 years, the classical singer Alicia Hall Moran, and their twin sons, age 9. He calls Alicia his “best coach” and credits her as the source of some of his calmness. “She’d say, ‘Let’s look at Brahms’s lieder cycle,’ and we’d play some of them,” he recalls. “Brahms makes you move slow with only a few notes. I’m not going to play this in the jazz repertory, but I do find myself saying, ‘Oh, I don’t need seven notes more. I can just use two or three.’ ”
He also credits the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, with whom he briefly toured in the late 1990s. “She was singing blues but also Miles Davis, lots of different music, and I didn’t know how to sit inside it,” he says. “She taught me you have to find a way to make your place in a song that you might not understand. I used to reach for that in movement — activity on the piano. Cassandra taught me how to sit still. That made me a fuller artist.”
In keeping with Moran's reverence for tradition, the 2017-18 season includes straight-ahead evenings with the bands of bassist Ron Carter, pianists Randy Weston and Abdullah Ibrahim, and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. Yet it also includes a musical dialogue between Moran and the rapper Q-Tip (who, largely at Moran's instigation, is now the Kennedy Center's artistic director for hip-hop culture), a multimedia performance by artist Carrie Mae Weems (interacting with dancers, poets and musicians), a screening of the film "Selma" with the National Symphony Orchestra performing the score (which Moran composed) and an evening of tap dance artists.
And then there is Monk. For a long time, Moran wouldn't play Monk's music in public. "It was too important," he says. "I would play it only for myself." Then, an obsessive historian named Sam Stephenson discovered a vault of photos and audiotapes of Monk rehearsing what would be his legendary 1959 big band concert at New York's Town Hall. On the 50th anniversary of that concert, in the same Town Hall, Moran staged a tribute concert with an octet (an augmented version of his trio), performing some of the same songs that Monk had played but backed by Stephenson's audio-video materials — shedding light on Monk's personality, artistry and life. This year marks Monk's centenary, and, in early October, when the Kennedy Center staged a Monk night, Moran reprised portions of the Town Hall event replete with Stephenson's tapes.
In Billy Taylor’s time at the Kennedy Center, an evening of Monk would have presented good musicians simply playing Monk’s compositions. Wynton Marsalis has showcased similar treatments of Monk and other famous composers in his long stint at Lincoln Center. But whether it’s Monk or skateboarding or hip-hop, Moran is taking his own approach. “The question I always ask,” he says, “is, ‘How can I suggest that someone should come listen to me play for an hour?’ For me, one of the most profound things is that people still want to come to a performance rather than watch it on their phones or do all the other things they could be doing. I need to satisfy that urge. I need to give them something they can’t otherwise get.”
Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate and has written about jazz for the New Yorker, the New York Times and Stereophile.
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