Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran was named Tuesday as the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for jazz. Moran will be only the second person to hold the position, following a 16-year stint by one of his mentors, the iconic pianist and educator Billy Taylor, who served from 1994 until his death last December.
“I have a lot of ideas that I think will fit well with the Kennedy Center, so this is very exciting,” Moran says.
The 36-year-old pianist inherits a robust program, thanks in large part to his predecessor. Taylor — who started at the Kennedy Center as a seasoned musician, educator and broadcaster in his early 70s — shepherded the jazz program from several scattered concerts each year to a constant bounty of shows, master classes, lectures, workshops and interviews on his beloved radio show, “Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center.”
Moran “is someone that is firmly rooted in the tradition of the music,” says Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of jazz programming, who will work with Moran over his three-year appointment to curate artists for concerts and jazz education. “As one of the foremost contemporary artists on the scene, I think he’ll bring a more contemporary aspect to the music, and to our programming, without disrespecting the past but still looking ahead to where the music is going.”
One of Moran’s primary tasks will be to strike that at-times elusive balance between honoring jazz tradition and pushing innovation. Moran, who has played with the likes of Greg Osby, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Christian McBride and Cassandra Wilson, is generally seen as a musical innovator who blends the traditions of blues and jazz with more modern elements of funk, rock and hip-hop. He has received several “Rising Star” awards from Downbeat magazine’s critics polls, as well as a 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has released eight albums, both solo and with his group, the Bandwagon. He has become a prolific collaborator, particularly in the past five years, forging dialogue between jazz and the visual arts, dance, documentary film and other musical traditions.
Despite his reputation as a musician who likes to shake things up, Moran has firsthand knowledge of the legacy he has been tapped to carry on. Taylor was a mentor to Moran; the two met when Taylor gave a master class at Moran’s Houston high school. Taylor followed the younger pianist’s budding career, turning him on to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Billy Taylor Jazz Residency program (which he completed in 2006) and engaging him in discussions about the future of jazz.
Some of Moran’s most recent projects were influenced by Taylor. “I remember he said this wonderful thing. Well, he said lots of wonderful things. But he said, ‘Okay, Jason, can people dance to your music?’ ” Moran says this served as the impetus for his Fats Waller Dance Party, held at New York’s Harlem Stage Gatehouse in May, at which he and Meshell Ndegeocello layered quintessential jazz standards with danceable grooves and riffs.
As the artistic adviser for jazz, Moran hopes to expand the accessibility that was so important to Taylor, in part by emphasizing that music, and especially jazz, can be fun.
“ ‘Fun’ is not a very intellectual term,” he says, “but I think people like good music, people enjoy good drinks and good food, people like to move, I think people like to laugh. So, I’m really looking for ways in which, through intellectual and investigative music, we can get these feelings to occur.”
As a composer, Moran hopes to write music for the artistic bodies at the Kennedy Center. More jazz might be integrated into the center’s large-scale, international festivals, National Symphony Orchestra concerts and even dance productions.
“In a place like the Kennedy Center, you have these wonderful outlets to actually write for if you’d like to,” Moran says. “For me, it’s a way to bring context to jazz.”
Moran says he will strive to infuse jazz with a balance of diasporic and local offerings, a mix he hopes will cater to D.C. tastes.
“D.C. has its own vibe. It’s not like New York, it’s not like Philly, it’s not like San Francisco,” he says. “It’s a totally different kind of place. So, I’ll also be trying to make sure that these things fit with something that the D.C. people are looking for. And, hopefully, it will be so interesting that the people from Philly and New York say, ‘Oh, I have to go down to D.C. because this is not happening anywhere else.’ ”