Jason Moran: Modernistic, Historical and More

At the beginning of his mid-career, Jason Moran unpacks his evolving ideas about jazz, art and advocacy

Jason Moran (photo by Clay Patrick McBride)

The past few years have been momentous ones for Jason Moran. In 2015 the pianist, bandleader and MacArthur Fellow turned 40; that same year, he ended his relationship with Blue Note Records, where he’d been on the roster since the late 1990s. In the summer of 2016 he released The Armory Concert, inaugurating Yes Records, the label Moran owns with his wife, the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran.

At press time in late November, three more recordings have followed in 2017 (see sidebar): Thanksgiving at the Vanguard, a live album with Moran’s core trio, the Bandwagon; BANGS, a studio session with guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Ron Miles; and MASS {Howl, eon}, featuring cornetist Graham Haynes and drummer Jamire Williams, and inspired by the visual artist Julie Mehretu. All the while he’s also worked as the Artistic Director for Jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, D.C., a position he’s held since 2011.

Ahead of a stretch of U.S. concert dates, the onetime jazz wunderkind spoke to JazzTimes about his perspective at mid-career, his transition from Blue Note artist to independent, and his continuing vision for the Kennedy Center and for jazz as a whole.

JazzTimes: Heading into 2018, where is Jason Moran at?

I’m dedicated—that’s where I am at. I’m doubling down on things that have sat really close to the surface for me, and discovered that in the moments I may have been tentative before, now I should trust my gut; I should have gone for it sooner.

People in my generation are all kinda growing up together. We’ve all realized what the music has meant to us, and we’re realizing that we’re those people [shaping jazz’s culture and history] now. A certain age, a certain dedication, a certain standard. That’s where I’m at.

So are you officially “Jason Moran: Mid-career Musician”?

Yeah! [laughs] That’s it.

You’ve got a lot of stuff going on, it must be said.

When I talk to other people in my tribe, we are all working the same amount, which is steadily [laughs].

The last few albums you’ve released have been on Yes. What happened with Blue Note, where you were signed for so long?

I had been there 18 years. [Late Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall signed me, and I think he had been really responsible for keeping me on the label—because I’m not an artist who sells a lot of records. But he would say, “Go do what you wanna do! What do you want? You want to make a record with Sam Rivers? Go do that!” He let me make those kinds of decisions very early in my career, and he gave me the resources to make them happen. And I made nine amazing records with them.

But 18 years, that’s a lifetime! I felt like I had learned what I needed to learn with that relationship. And over the years, I’ve seen that a lot of the artists I really respect are now making music on their own terms. They release it whenever they want to, they make however many copies they want to, they do all of that. So I felt like I could stand to learn something about what it takes to make a record, print a record and sell it—if I wanted to.

Are you enjoying it, or finding it more challenging than you expected?

Oh, I love it! This is a great time to make recordings, because—I mean, I could record this conversation and put it on Bandcamp for $15! [laughs] I’m not that kind of artist, but someone who is has the capability to do that. I’m not selling a ton of downloads, either.

Are you at least breaking even?

Definitely not! But I’m not looking for that. I’m looking for it to be mine. And I’m willing to pay for my own things. So I don’t need it to make a bunch of money; that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it to make work that can be part of my own personal catalog. I helped build Blue Note’s catalog, but I’m a different artist now than I was when I was 22 and I signed with them. Now I want to make a different kind of work, and I have the ability to do that—and to make it more frequently, too. Also, I felt like I had gotten backlogged with projects that I had never recorded, and so now I’m just trying to get things out. And that feels good.

What’s currently in the pipeline at Yes?

I have two more [projects] that hopefully will come out before the end of the year. One of them is a collaboration with a visual artist, Julie Mehretu, and it’s called MASS {Howl, eon}. [Ed. note: At press time, this project has been released.] [“HOWL, eon (I, II)” is a diptych] she made for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I worked with her in the studio as she was painting these enormous pieces. The other is called Looks of a Lot, a piece I did in Chicago with a high school band, and it features [multireedist] Ken Vandermark and [bassist and vocalist] Katie Ernst.

My wife has this unbelievably good record that will also come out before the end of the year. We’re pushing each other now, and it feels right for us.

Your big project these days, of course, is your work at the Kennedy Center. How are you seeing that develop?

I think it’s been close to seven years now, and it’s become much more than I ever imagined. I think this is part of what Billy Taylor also envisioned, even as he made Jazzmobile years ago. What I have enjoyed is working to expose the music in the way that I was exposed to it—by great musicians who are simply great musicians, or by people who are not musicians but are reacting to great musicians. Like a choreographer, or a skateboarder, or a writer. It’s been a dream. And not without its bumps, either.

There’s a lot at stake. It also makes me nervous to have this kind of position, because there’s a lot at stake. I think of the legacy that Billy Taylor has as a spokesperson for the music, as he was for decades, and I admire his ability to do that. So I’ve had to gain some confidence that I had something to say about the music, and the Kennedy Center has been really supportive of the different kinds of conversations I wanted to have.

The programming since you’ve been there has evolved quite a bit. What vision is that in service of?

I’m a pianist by trade, so my vision is generally whatever music is in front of my face! But I think maybe I consider that we’re the national institution for the performing arts. So what we can represent is hopefully a kind of model that might inspire other programmers and arts institutions to have some sort of adventure within their program.

Look, I travel all around the world, and I see how the music is promoted and how it is presented, how students listen to it, how audiences engage. When I return to the Kennedy Center, I bring those conversations with me, and I bring a sense of urgency that the good ideas I’ve seen across the world, we can put into action. There’s no ownership of a good idea. I don’t want anyone to think I’m stealing their programming ideas—but sometimes I certainly am! [laughs]

It seems like there’s a bit of a shake-up every season, like you’re trying to do something that you didn’t in the season prior.

You know, there’s so much to do that sometimes I get confused. There are so many great musicians who haven’t been presented. It’s an ongoing process. I hope that people feel like they can get what they need from the Center, because I also know that it’s a beautiful building up on a hill, so people have to arrive there with a certain formality. But I want people to feel at home there.

Jason Moran performing music from Monk at Town Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Monk Centennial celebration (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Jason Moran performing music from Monk at Town Hall at the Kennedy Center for the Monk Centennial celebration (photo by Jati Lindsay)

So if we have Jimmy Heath coming in for his 90th birthday party, or me celebrating Monk at 100, or Charles Lloyd at 75, or to have the Betty Carter [Jazz Ahead] program be vibrant … Those things keep me hyped about the job, because there’s all that to do within a season. That keeps me inspired, and so does getting to listen to someone and what they have bubbling beneath the surface that they haven’t shared with anyone yet.

The labels of “high” and “low” culture have little meaning, but I think there’s a sense that you’re an artist who fuses jazz with both. You can on the one hand do a concert with your opera-singer wife, and then turn around and improvise to skateboarders. Do you think that makes you a kind of informal cultural ambassador to both sides of that divide?

I like that you said “informal.” I like “informal,” period. I like informal string quartets happening at 11 o’clock at a bar. I like informal comedians saying the wrong thing to make people laugh. I like skateboarders finding stairwells and benches and rails to heighten their idea about what architecture is. I like that blues musicians would just pick up a guitar and sing a song that would transform how America thinks about its own music! I love when people—and this is what constitutes a great artist—are able to take a small idea and totally transform it to make everything change around it.

That’s a very hard thing to do, and we can often overthink where we might find those possibilities when they’re simply sitting there right in front of us. For me, skateboarding and jazz never seemed like an odd pairing because I watched those videos; I know that skaters who designed skate videos and skateboards, their relationship to a kind of underground culture is the same thing that jazz musicians [have]. Those conversations are so similar that I want to help make them a part of how each side thinks about the other [see piece by Evan Haga].

Does that alienate anyone, though? Or at least fail to convince the skeptics?

Oh, I’m sure. Some people already don’t understand me anyway [laughs]. But for me it’s just a question of, how do we put a frame around this in such a way that people think it’s worth investing some time and money in? It’s not about converting the extremes on the spectrum, ever. But it is about making sure that the center is aware and isn’t turning a blind eye for some odd reason, or the wrong reason.

I want to make sure that we have more of an open door than a shut one, when it comes to what can be presented in a performing-arts institution.

Is there more going on in your world than we’ve talked about?

You know, half of my life is talking about the music and playing it, and the other half of my life is looking at other representations of jazz that have become important to how I work as a musician. They have now started to become part of a contemporary-art practice. I’m making these installations that are based on jazz clubs: the Savoy Ballroom, the Three Deuces and this third one I’m working on is on Slugs’. These are now going to be a part of a traveling museum exhibition that will start next spring and be on the road for about two years. We focus on who it was and what they played, but we have somehow forgotten about where it’s played. I think about that a lot. I live in Harlem. I’m aware that the Savoy Ballroom is no longer there. I’m aware that the Lenox Lounge is no longer there. Minton’s is the one important space that’s still here. So I’m aware of this relationship to space. When will America think about its relationship to space—about where culture happens?

Jason Moran's staged installation conjures up the historic jazz room, the Savoy Ballroom (image c/o Luhring Augustine)
Jason Moran’s STAGED installation conjures up the historic Savoy Ballroom (image c/o Luhring Augustine)

Over the summer I spent two months at the American Academy in Rome. There was so much to learn about Rome. Let’s look at the fact that the Colosseum is still there—and the things that happened inside the Colosseum were not pretty. So you learn not just about that structure, but about the complexity of what that structure represents. But if that structure is not there, it’s very difficult to have that conversation. They’re now unearthing Nero’s house [the Domus Aurea], literally removing dirt to reveal his house. Or you can go to Pompeii and see this society that was under ash. But you’re aware that it’s there! It’s underground. People spent hours and hours and hours uncovering it. But if we just knock the structures down, the structures where jazz happened—let’s just keep it local to that, to jazz—if we knock those structures down, we are not allowing those conversations to happen generations later. And I mean hundreds of years later, the way they can happen with Rome.

I play in concert venues all around the world, and I and most musicians know that there are some rooms that make you feel better than others. They make you play differently, too. So I’ve been really starting to investigate what that relationship is, and using historic photographs to pull some of those places out of the rubble, so to speak. So part of my art practice now is making sure there’s a relationship to the space. Not just to the musician, the hero, or the music, but also to the space that inspired the pieces they played and where the musician felt comfortable to share them with us