Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran will make his debut at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art this September with work that pays homage to legendary jazz clubs via in-gallery musical performances, sculptures, and drawings.
The show, simply called Jason Moran, presents a range of Moran’s art, from his own sculptures and drawings to collaborations with visual artists to performance and video. An immersive installation will fill the Whitney’s eighth-floor galleries from Sept. 20, 2019 through Jan. 5, 2020.
The exhibition will feature in-gallery performances by Moran and other musicians throughout the run of the show.
A renowned musician and composer known for jazz styles from stride piano to free improvisation, Moran’s experimental approach to artmaking aligns objects with sound in an effort to underscore their inherent theatricality. His creative process is informed by an essential tenet of jazz music: the “set,” in which musicians come together to improvise, riffing off of one another to create the musical experience.
“Jason Moran is one of the most vital and boundary-breaking creative voices of our time, and his wide-ranging collaborations with other visual and performing artists have had a profoundly generative effect on their work as well as on his own artistic development,” Scott Rothkopf, the Whitney’s Senior Deputy Director and Nancy and Steve Crown Family Chief Curator, said in a statement.
The show originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in the spring of 2018, and has traveled nationally to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Shown together for the first time in this exhibition, Moran’s mixed-media “set” installations STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1 (2015), STAGED: Three Deuces (2015), and STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon (2018) pay homage to iconic jazz venues of New York’s past, reimagining the architecture of these cultural landmarks and doubling as concert stages.
STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1 and STAGED: Three Deuces were part of Moran’s contributions to the 2015 Venice Biennale international exhibition All the World’s Future, curated by Okwui Enwezor. The latest sculpture in the series, STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon, was commissioned for the Whitney exhibition by the Walker Art Center. Each is connected to the social history and real politics of the venues for which they are named—important sites of invention and innovation in jazz that were also testing grounds of American policies of nondiscrimination at the height of the Jim Crow period of segregation.
The Savoy Ballroom, which operated between 1926 and 1958 on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, was synonymous with the Swing Era and presented legendary big bands and performers, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, and Count Basie. STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1 is lined with an ornate Dutch wax print fabric and features a lush curving wall and overhanging ceiling. The sculpture’s pristine veneer seems counter to the repetitive and droning prison work songs that emanate from speakers. Midtown Manhattan’s Three Deuces club, which operated on 52nd Street from the mid-1940s to 1950s, was an incubator for bebop pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach. To evoke this seminal venue with STAGED: Three Deuces, Moran uses pale vinyl padding compressed under a barely eight-foot-tall ceiling and focuses on the corner of a room to conjure the compressed dimensions of the original venue.
Similarly, STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon pays homage to the celebrated East Village jazz venue that presented music from 1964 to 1972 on East 3rd Street. Often referred to as a “jazz dive,” Slugs’ Saloon showcased free jazz and some of the most important avant-gardists of the era, including Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra. While the original space was described as narrow and often tightly packed, Moran’s Slugs’ Saloon is open with two mirrors flanking the stage and a multitier platform with a wooden floor that holds a vintage upright piano and drum set. The lower level holds a single chair and Wurlitzer Americana II jukebox, programmed with whistling tunes and samplings of audience incantations from the Village Vanguard.
Moran’s drawings from the Run series, originally shown at Luhring Augustine in 2016 for his first gallery exhibition, offer highly gestural entrees into the artist’s process. To create the works, Moran tapes elongated pieces of paper on the keys of a piano or keyboard and caps his fingers with charcoal. The paper then catches the movements of his playing. Reminiscent of Robert Morris’ series of Blind Time drawings, the works also bring to mind David Hammons’ basketball drawings and body prints or the impromptu drawings created by Joan Jonas during live performances. Achieved through acts of repetition, the Run series reveals the usually private and deliberate process of jazz composition and the artist’s performance practice, offering viewers an intimate view of his body’s movements in relation to the piano.
Projects and collaborations, central to Moran’s practice, are represented in the exhibition through the presentation of the artist’s work with leading visual artists. Since 2005, Moran has completed four collaborations with pioneering video performance artist Joan Jonas, and the evolution of much of his visual work, such as his extension of performance techniques to the process of drawing in the Run series or his transposition of traditional cultural forms into contemporary art, can be tracked through his work with Jonas. Moran first collaborated with Jonas on the music for The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things, an opera performed for the first time in 2005 at Dia: Beacon, and later on Reading Dante (2007–10), Reanimation (2012), and They Come to Us without a Word II (2015). For his first foray into filmmaking, artist Glenn Ligon tapped Moran to compose the score for Death of Tom (2008), an abstract recreation of a scene from Edwin S. Porter’s 14-minute silent-film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Stan Douglas’ six-hour, single-channel film Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), depicting a fictional jazz-funk band in a recording session sometime in the mid-1970s, Moran appears as the bandleader and worked with Douglas on song sequencing.
Exclusive to the presentation of Jason Moran at the Whitney will be the temporary installation of Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan (2018) outside in front of the Museum. A steam-powered calliope housed in a parade wagon featuring silhouetted scenes on all four sides in Walker’s distinctive style, Katastwóf Karavan takes its title from the Haitian Creole phrase for “caravan of catastrophe” and alludes to the subjugation, violence, and humiliation of life for African-Americans in the antebellum South. The work also plays songs and sounds programmed by Walker and Moran that the artists associate with the long history of African-American protest music. Moran has played the work live via keyboard for two improvised performances, and he will present another performance at the Whitney in October.