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A New Voice at the Kennedy Center, Jason Moran ‘Promotes the Abstract’ in Jazz

February 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
An emerging jazz innovator and the new artistic director at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, musician Jason Moran uses song to promote thought, therapy, consciousness and creativity. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Moran about his efforts to create more appreciators of the arts in his new role.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a conversation with an emerging jazz innovator who’s now an important voice at one of the country’s leading arts institutions.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jason Moran has made a name for himself at an early age as a jazz pianist and composer. And that name is growing now to a wider public.

Last year, Moran was awarded a MacArthur genius fellowship and he was recently made the artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. It’s a position held for many years by the great jazz musician and educator Billy Taylor.

Jason Moran joins us now. Welcome to you.

JASON MORAN, musician: My pleasure. Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess the first question is, why take this on? I mean, you have a busy performing and recording schedule. Why do you want to take a more public role?

JASON MORAN: Well, I mean I feel like the arts in general in America kind of always continually need boosts, revitalization, new energy.

And so when the Kennedy Center kind of approached me about this position, I thought this would be a fine opportunity in my current role as, say, performer, to then branch out into a way to kind of interact with the audience on a different scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say arts need a boost, and then there’s jazz — you know, I mean there are certain forms — we talk a lot on this program — about the sort of sometimes more marginalized forms. They seem that way.

JASON MORAN: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think jazz’s role in our culture today?

JASON MORAN: Well, you know, it’s that we can promote the abstract.

I think, recently, I feel like it’s — maybe in a way that abstract becomes such a kind of like a thing that is annoying, you know, that doesn’t promote thought, unless it’s all laid out and planned for us. And improvisational music and jazz really kind of forces us to focus.

It forces us to have an imagination, to create our own ideas about what we’re hearing. Or if you go to a museum or if you go to see a choreography or a dance company, you really kind of — the audience is really making up their own decisions. I want to promote that, that people, that audiences come in as thinkers, just as much as the musicians or the performers are thinkers, because that’s — I think, for me, it’s enticing, it’s inviting.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the wonderful contradictions of jazz — or I don’t know if it’s a contradiction, but always strikes me is it is something so brand-new. There’s the improvisation. It’s created in the moment.

JASON MORAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it also comes from a very long tradition.

JASON MORAN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know this is something you think a lot about because you feel very tied to a part of that tradition.

JASON MORAN: Right. Right.

And it’s important, I mean, also for the tradition of America really. The music speaks to its history here, you know, born out of, you know, one of the more trying times of America, born out of slavery. Blues and gospel and jazz come out of these freedom musics, these musics that promote thought. They promote consciousness.

And they promote therapy also, not only for the musicians, but for the audience that is listening. I can’t tell you the — I’m sure many musicians have these stories where audience members approach them after a concert and say, I came in with the worst attitude, having the worst day in the world, and now, after hearing this music, I feel ready to address the world again.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you bring those together in your own work? I mean I’ve read, for example, that it was your first exposure to Thelonious Monk where everything kind of changed.

JASON MORAN: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you hold on to that, even as you’re creating new compositions?

JASON MORAN: Well, I have to, because I feel like those musicians, I mean, are kind of part of my DNA, you know, from the years of listening to them, talking to musicians who knew them, studying with certain musicians like a Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams.

These musicians really share something very personal to them with me. And then they ask that I take their information and apply it in a way that I have grown up to apply things.

So it’s a constant look back and a look forward and a look at the present, too. And it’s what I kind of promote for my students as well at New England Conservatory, is that they think about not only what this kind of vast history of music is, not even just jazz history, but the music in general, and then think about where and how they got to the point where they are and then how will they disseminate that information.

It’s all up to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about contemporary forms of music? One of the interesting questions for jazz, classical musicians have the same thing, is how do you interact with more popular forms of your day, pop music, hip-hop music. . .

JASON MORAN: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . that’s all around there, that many of your contemporaries are listening to?

JASON MORAN: Right.

And most — I mean, currently, some of the best R&B groups out here are using basically an entire jazz band as their rhythm section.

Say, a person Maxwell or D’Angelo is now back on the road.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting, isn’t it?

JASON MORAN: It is.

So, the form that has kind of created this backdrop to so much of the great music of pop music has been really created by forward-thinking jazz musicians as well. So, you know, I will listen to a lot of it. It’s part of how I grew up.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do?

JASON MORAN: I listen to a lot of hip-hop, listen a lot of R&B. I listen to a lot of current techno and electronica, because, you know, the music keeps changing.

And I look at my 4-year-old twins and I say I wonder what they’ll listen to when they’re 13 or 14, when music starts to really matter. At 13 or 14, I heard Thelonious Monk. And he put into context all of my years of studying Suzuki piano from age 6 to age 13. All of a sudden hearing Monk, I said, oh, okay, this instrument isn’t something that I had thought about before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that how you started, as a child. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: . . . piano?

JASON MORAN: Yes. Yes, fortunately.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

JASON MORAN: I say fortunately now. It was unfortunate when I was 7 years old, because who wants to practice piano? But my parents had me in Suzuki classes with a fantastic teacher, Yelena Kurinets, who really taught me about the basics of the technique of the piano, but also the love and the passion that would then grow.

I don’t know how she planted this seed. It was amazing how she did this, because now when I go back to Houston to perform, she’s there sitting in the audience still commenting on my technique.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And was there music all around in your family?

JASON MORAN: No. My parents, they were arts appreciators. You know? And my brothers — so they stuck my brothers and I in Suzuki classes.

And I think, if anything, that’s what we want. That’s what I want for kind of American public, is that they’re arts appreciators, that then you don’t actually have to be an artist to expose your children to it or expose yourself to it. It’s just to interact with it. And then maybe one of the children will catch the bug and decide that they want to create or — they want to create and then promote their creativity.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jason Moran, pianist, composer, now the artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center, thanks so much.

JASON MORAN: Thank you.