Jason Moran: Skate and Create

Evan Haga on Jason Moran’s skate-culture obsession

At the Kennedy Center in 2015, skate icon Steve Caballero prepares to drop as Moran and company groove

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.

Mark Gonzales’ tour de force section in the Blind company’s Video Days, directed by future auteur Spike Jonze and released in 1991, is generally considered to be the best and most important part in the best and most important video of all time. Gonzales, a natural innovator and lovable eccentric who could be called skating’s Ornette Coleman, rolls to “Traneing In,” the first cut off the 1958 Prestige LP John Coltrane With the Red Garland Trio. (Last year, Moran and Gonzales gave a public discussion for the National YoungArts Foundation, viewable online.) Guy Mariano, in Girl Skateboards’ 1996 video, Mouse, takes his technical mastery to L.A. schoolyards alongside the Head Hunters version of “Watermelon Man.” Stereo Skateboards’ influential A Visual Sound, from 1994, grabs most of its music from saxophonist John Lee Krasnow’s little-known ’80s-era hard-bop outfit Ululation. (It’s worth noting that Stereo’s co-founders include Chris Pastras, son of Phil Pastras, who edited Horace Silver’s autobiography and wrote a bio of Jelly Roll Morton.) And on it goes: the soundtrack picks for the gritty East Coast skate films of Dan Wolfe; the jazz-funk of San Diego’s Greyboy Allstars; the jazz-adjacent groove music of skater-musicians like multi-instrumentalist Tommy Guerrero and guitarist Ray Barbee.

Moran became aware of this compatibility as an adolescent skater and musician in Houston, and has sought to recreate it live over the past several years. I was able to experience his most ambitious skate-jazz outing, at the Kennedy Center in September 2015, when his Bandwagon headlined two nights of a 10-day-long event called “Finding a Line,” curated by Moran and the D.C.-based skater, artist and ramp-builder Ben Ashworth.

The surreality could make you chuckle: a live jazz band deploying grooves and Monk as skateboarders carved and grinded a bowl in front of HQ for the National Symphony Orchestra. But onstage, as the session settled in, the atmosphere turned toward comfort, as if the crowd were voyeurs peeking in on a natural subcultural habitat. There were many metaphors to take in—obvious ones about energy and a spirit of improvisation, but also deeper insights about how skateboarding can embody jazz culture: the bowl as bandstand. The packed cast of skaters was multigenerational, and included veterans in their 40s and 50s, like Barbee and Steve Caballero and Ron Allen, who commanded a certain kind of deference. There was diversity, too, including the presence of Elissa Steamer, an important early female street pro. Riders of varying statures alternated runs, from locals to skater’s skaters like Sean Sheffey and Reese Forbes to rising pros Ben Hatchell and Tom Remillard. As per a jam session, a pecking order was established and a democracy was formed. Some runs, like some solos, were explosive, while others meandered; some tricks were pursued doggedly until completion, with the persistence of a tenor player plowing through a tricky bit of harmony. A steady din of hollers filled the air, as two misunderstood traditions became clearer. Unlike most professional skateboarding events, which are never far from marketing, Moran’s party was soulful. Somehow, it taught history at the same time it did the unprecedented.

Image: Skate legend Steve Caballero prepares to drop in at the Kennedy Center, as the Bandwagon grooves. Photo credit: Jati Lindsay