I like to think of Jason Moran as jazz’s current time-capsule musician. By which I mean, if one were given the futile task of pointing to a single figure to represent the music at this particular postmodern moment, you could hardly do better than the 42-year-old pianist-composer and Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center. With style rather than sanctimony, he personifies the system of balances often held up as jazz’s contemporary ideal: future and past, respect and audacity, nightclub and concert hall, inside and out, postbop and pop, working musician and high-minded conceptualist. His ongoing collaborations with skateboarders, which began publicly in San Francisco in 2013, might very well be the best allegory for his generous, progressive ambassadorship.
Skateboarding, whose culture harbors an intellectual and cosmopolitan element that isn’t always apparent, has enjoyed a fruitful rapport with jazz for decades. There have been board graphics depicting Eric Dolphy and Tony Williams, and Blue Note-themed Vans shoes, though the most meaningful jazz-skate hookup centers on skateboarding videos. That essential element of skate culture, which flourished through VHS in the ’80s and has now largely shifted online, is perhaps the most valid argument for skating being defined as an art form and not a sport. Instead of contest results, the documentation of style and technique is really what has bolstered careers in the video era. By and large, legends have been made through painstakingly conceived “video parts” requiring judiciously curated soundtracks and increasingly sophisticated direction. In the skate-video canon, which is as real as the jazz canon, some of the most revered parts have found their rhythm and narrative in jazz.