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February 14, 2014IM -
Jason Moran is changing the future of jazz one note at a time
Jason Moran has never liked being placed in a genre-box. Like a child restlessly contained in a classroom, Moran is always squirming his way around the rules and out of confinement.
But the Local 802 (New York City) member knows how to keep the balance of new and old, of rule breaking and standard making. With one foot planted firmly in the jazz tradition and the other steps ahead in the future of the art, Moran, 38, is pulling jazz lovers with him on his journey of sound.
Among the many honors and accolades, Moran was named the Artistic Advisor for Jazz at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in November 2011 and awarded the 2010 MacArthur Fellowship, which supplies Moran with a stipend of $500,000 doled out over five years. In August 2011, he was a three-time winner in the DownBeat Magazine Critic’s Poll, snagging Best Jazz Artist of the Year, Jazz Album of the Year, and Best Jazz Pianist.
In addition to this, Moran finds time to perform with various groups, teach at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and is an activist with Justice for Jazz Artists, headed by Local 802 in New York City. He’s also the proud father of twin boys, Malcolm and Jonas.
There aren’t many dull moments in Moran’s day, but for an artist who has been called “the future of jazz” by several publications, life is charmed.
Son of Texas
Moran was born and raised in Houston, Texas, and had no interest in classical music or jazz when he and his brothers were pushed into Suzuki lessons for violin and piano. The local jazz radio station was always on at home. “Our parents kinda wore us down by playing the jazz station all the time,” he says in a phone interview from his “mobile office” (a car) in New York City. “But eventually we understood.”
It wasn’t until he was 13 that he started appreciating jazz and the boundaries it was challenging, as compared to the classical music he was being taught. “I thought, this is much better than what I’ve been playing,” he says. He started experimenting with boogie-woogie piano tunes and made the transition from classical to jazz.
Once Moran started delving into the music, he discovered artists like Thelonious Monk, “the first and most influential artist and composer” for the young pianist.
“It was a sound I was unfamiliar with,” he expounds. “He’s still playing the piano, but the technique seemed naive, but also very focused. It was the most inviting sound I heard and I wanted to do anything I could to learn about that sound. I spent all my money trying to buy Monk records or find and listen to my parents’.”
Moran attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which he notes as an extremely important period in his development. It’s common for teens to be serious about their pursuits, if they are socially reinforced. Moran benefitted significantly from being surrounded by people as serious as he was in the arts. Musicians, actors, writers, dancers at the school were all devoted to their passion. The experience was so impactful; Moran has since created a scholarship fund to allow juniors and seniors at the school to follow their dreams.
At 18, the Texan moved to the Big Apple and experienced “serious culture shock.” But attending the Manhattan School of Music and studying with Jaki Byard proved another essential part of Moran’s musical molding.
“He was my connector to piano history,” he explains. “He was the kind of man I needed to be around to get me on the right path, to continue pushing me. He let me know, ‘You have a lot more work to do’—piano technique, improvisation, just living. He is a great validator in my history, the father of my piano style. I’m doing well, but Jaki did it long before I did.”
Moran describes Byard’s style as a combination. With one hand, Byard would play something reminiscent of the 1920s, while the other brought something more contemporary to life. He combined worlds and transported listeners through cultures and time in his music—something people can hear vividly in Moran’s music as well.
Since his start professionally, Moran has collaborated with a tremendous list of players including Billy Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Charles Lloyd of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), and Local 802 members Joe Lovano and Christian McBride. He released his debut album, Soundtrack to Human Motion (Blue Note, 1999), a mix of avant-garde jazz and spoken word, and seven subsequent albums on the label. Ten (2010) is one of the most celebrated jazz albums in recent years. The Boston Globe’s review said the album is so brilliant, “it would blind you if you could see sound.” JazzTimes declared it “pierces the bubble around jazz by reconnecting it not only to popular culture, but also to the sounds of daily life.”
For Moran, complex, yet unifying music is natural. “I never found a boundary,” he says. “When I approach music, I think of the span of music—not the span of jazz or American music—but what are the sounds that have been important to humankind, the sound of an earthquake versus what’s the style of 1920s Harlem. How do we put a time and date stamp on the music so people know they’re in the present with what they hear? Or how can we transport them? That’s what I try to focus on.”
Many projects have dotted the way, but Moran’s Fats Waller Dance Party, stands out and is a prime example of this musical mash-up. He was commissioned by Harlem Stage to focus on a Harlem stride pianist, a style of playing developed in the 1920s and 1930s. Moran chose to study and bring back the music of Fats Waller, a jazz pianist, singer, composer, and entertainer with notoriously recognizable arched eyebrows.
“His music was dance music, so I thought it would be great to make a dance party out of it again,” Moran says of his thought process. “Also, I’ve never played for an audience that came to dance; I consider myself a jazz musician,” he laughs.
The result was a wild combination of swing, house, and R&B that ultimately sounds like today’s urban dance music. “We filtered Fats’ music through that,” Moran says. He also wore a gigantic papier-mâché mask made by Haitian artist Didier Civil for the shows. “I realized there were no Fats masks or even jazz musician masks, so I commissioned this and wear it around [at his Fats Waller Dance Party shows].”
Currently, Moran says he’s focusing on three projects. He’s still working with Charles Lloyd, whose band he’s been in for six years. “He’s the person who has continued to push me in the back,” Moran says. He’s also working with Joan Jonas, someone he describes as a “pioneer in the performance art world,” and with his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, a mezzo-soprano on Broadway.
Though his time is precious, Moran devotes some of it to the Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) campaign, one focused on providing jazz musicians in New York City some financial security through a collective pension fund. “When you’re a jazz musician living in New York City, you’re jumping into the air without a net,” Moran says. As an active musician himself, he sees firsthand the struggles of musicians who have given their life to their craft, and grow old with little financially to show for it.
The initiative has been working for years to encourage prominent jazz clubs like The Blue Note and Jazz Standard in New York City to contribute a small percentage of their profits to a pension fund for the artists that bring them patrons each night. Local 802 lobbied for a tax break on admission charges for the clubs in 2007 with the understanding that the clubs would put the money toward the fund. However, once the break was secured, clubs failed to contribute as promised. J4JA is trying to ramp up the conversation and public awareness enough to turn that conversation into action.
So far, the initiative has succeeded in making noise through support, garnering more than 54,000 fans on their Justice for Jazz Artists Facebook page. In addition to Moran, other well-known supporters signed onto the cause include Local 802 members Ron Carter, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Jimmy Owens, and John Pizzarelli. But action will take more than names on a petition or names dropped. It will also take education and activism.
“In America, history has shown that musicians, especially jazz musicians, really have to fight,” he says. “They have to fight for the music—to get through the good and bad times. I ask my students, what they think about a future in the music business. Not just how to get the next gig, but what will they gain later in life? For jazz, there’s no retirement age. We play the music until we go because our greatest heroes have done that. But we also have to prepare for the unforeseen things that happen, or if we can’t play anymore—God forbid. How do we set up a net? We’re trying to find a solution for musicians.”
Moran’s passion bleeds through in everything he does, but is especially audible when he speaks of the initiative. “It’s promoted a lot of conversations musicians don’t talk about,” he says. “We want to make sure we secure, in some way, a future for musicians who continue to play these clubs,” he says. “So, I’m a supporter of the campaign and I’m making sure the message gets out. Musicians have tried to secure a way for future musicians to take care of themselves and their families and to take care of their art form. We can make these changes.”