Jason Moran Is Expanding What It Means To Experience Music

The jazz pianist on how he uses collaboration to expand our ideas about music and how it will be preserved for posterity.

Jason Moran Is Expanding What It Means To Experience Music
Jason Moran performing while wearing a Fats Waller mask. [Photos by Michael Nagle]

What do you do after the world declares you a genius? Take your twin sons to school, if you’re Jason Moran. In 2010, the jazz pianist and composer was the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the financial award granted annually to innovatively creative artists that is commonly called the “Genius Grant.” And while it opened doors and gave Moran more financial freedom, life for the Harlem-based musician went on as normal. Fortunately, normal for Moran is about as eclectically off-center as normal could be. How else to explain the catalog of an artist who has stretched far beyond the piano to create collaborations that challenge and transform the relationship between music, the other arts, and the audience with a list that includes visual artists Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, opera singer and theater star (and his wife) Alicia Hall Moran, National Book Award honoree Asali Solomon and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, whose upcoming Selma will be scored by him?

Jason Moran

This summer is no less groundbreaking for Moran. First, there was the May debut of Looks of a Lot, a performance with installation artist Theaster Gates, his group The Bandwagon, and the high school band Kenwood Jazz Academy, which explored 25 years of Chicago’s jazz and blues history. “I have a lot of new grey hairs from that,” jokes the Houston native, who feels indebted in many ways to Chicago. “A lot of my teachers came from that city. And it holds a significant place in America’s Great Migration.”

It is also the eve of the September release of his ninth album, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, a collaboration with vocalist and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello that turns the music of the jazz legend into a dance party. Moran is continuing in his role as the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, a position he has held since 2011, and prepping to return to teaching in the fall at the New England Conservatory. Beyond being a dizzying amount of work, his multiple roles have cast him into the spotlight. “In all my years of being a young punk, I never thought I’d be a spokesman for jazz. I never signed up to be, but that’s what is demanded now of musicians,” he says.

What is not demanded of musicians, but what Moran seems to demand of himself, is to constantly push beyond the expected. “Musicians think when you walk onto stage, the lights go down and an audience is supposed to look at you for an hour or two. That’s bold and ridiculous as a concept, but musicians consider it normal,” he says, adding that after working with pioneering video and performance artist Joan Jonas, he learned “when you enter a stage, it’s more than just a concert. From the way you walk, what I’m wearing, lighting, how I communicate with my instrument, context is what’s most important.”

Legacy, however, is also significant. And to guarantee that the archives of his work–from the music to the various multimedia creations–are preserved, Moran has entered into a new kind of collaboration. He is now represented by Manhattan’s Luhring Augustine Gallery. Not only does this mean that the gallery will make sure his projects are well-documented, but it also “offers a new kind of flexibility as a performer,” says Moran. “If I wanted to put up a concert that started at 1 in the morning, I wouldn’t have to go to a venue, I can go to my gallery. It is amazing.”

Nearly two decades into a career that has expanded where we think jazz can live, what sounds a piano can make and what stories it can tell, Moran has reached a new place. “In the end, none of it matters,” he says, quickly adding, “That’s the wrong way of saying it. But people come and sit [and listen] and then it’s over. The residue lives in people. I have no control over that, only control over how I play.” This profound shift in perspective has led to an “ease in tension” in him, one that can only mean an even greater release and freedom in the art that gets to live on in the rest of us.

About the author

Ayana Byrd writes about people, ideas and companies that are groundbreaking and innovative.