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Jason Moran strikes up the band — and a conversation — to enthrall new jazz listeners

June 16, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
Jason Moran, one of today's best-known younger jazz musicians, is a true believer that his art form can transport and transform an audience. Now the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, the musician has a public platform to share his passion. Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown interviews Moran about his work to bring the jazz experience to more people.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a major voice in and for jazz.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pianist and composer Jason Moran is one of today’s best-known younger jazz musicians. Performing solo and with his trio around the world, he’s a true believer that his art form can transport and transform an audience.

JASON MORAN, Artistic Director for Jazz, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: Well, there’s a power that kind of starts to stir in the body. The molecules start to, start to want to jump around. It has a possibility to change how the body feels, how the mind feels.

And that is something that you can’t quantify. And then, when the music hits the audience, and when it hits the space, the air, it has the possibility to change everything in that person’s being.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the 39-year-old has a distinctive public perch here at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he’s been named artistic director for jazz, with a goal of both preserving a tradition and building new audiences.

It’s a prestigious position previously held by renowned musician and educator Billy Taylor, who died in 2010. It would seem an uphill challenge. Jazz accounted for just 2 percent of overall album sales last year, trailing 10 other genres. But Moran has seen it happen, first in himself. He’d studied classical piano as a child growing up in Houston. Then, just into his teens, he heard a recording by jazz legend Thelonious Monk, and his world changed.

JASON MORAN: I love Mozart, and I love Bach, and Brahms, and — but at 13, I didn’t understand any of that that I was playing. And there was something very pure. And I don’t know. It resonated with me. And Thelonious Monk’s playing, I thought, oh, this has the depth and the simplicity and the rigor that I think makes great art, great music and…

JEFFREY BROWN: Explain that, the depth and the simplicity.

JASON MORAN: Well, if you hear Thelonious Monk play a run that goes from the top of the piano, OK, he has opened up the Grand Canyon with that. He’s the river that’s carved this entire space that we call the Grand Canyon. He does that with one run. He lets you know like what the possibility of the sound of the piano can do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Moran went on to the Manhattan School of Music and made his first album at age 24 on the famed Blue Note label. Seven others would follow, the most recent in 2010. Titled “Ten,” it celebrated the 10th anniversary of his trio, Jason Moran & The Bandwagon. That same year, he earned a MacArthur genius fellowship. Now Moran wants to bring more people in to the jazz experience.

JASON MORAN: I think it’s important that we consider how they can — if they do not have an entryway into the music, how they can make an entryway.

Once you step on stage, the people are actually looking to be transformed. That’s why they showed up, that’s why they spent some money. And great performances do that. And they figure out that balance of how to like grab you and then how to like fling you, let you freefall. And then they catch you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Toward that end, Moran has helped organize a number of public events at the Kennedy Center, including an election night jam in 2012 and a showcase for young artists as part of Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead, an educational program.

At a recent celebration of Blue Note’s 75th anniversary, he performed “Boogie Woogie Stomp” with Robert Glasper. In fact, he’s intent on highlighting the get up and dance aspect of an earlier age of jazz to rev up today’s audience. With that in mind, he’s organized some 30 Fats Waller Dance Parties around the country, honoring the great pianist and composer from the first half of the 20th century.

JASON MORAN: Having a Fats Waller Dance Party is trying to understand how music engages an audience that shows up to actually get down, you know, not sit in a chair, but like let me get down on the floor. And can I make music that can have people do that? So,, really, it’s challenging.

JEFFREY BROWN: A further challenge is to bring music into nontraditional spaces and collaborations with other art forms. In 2012, for example, Moran performed with his wife, soprano Alicia Hall Moran, as part of the Whitney Museum’s biennial exhibition of contemporary art.

JASON MORAN: It’s not just a conversation about jazz that’s important. It’s a conversation about art and arts that are important.

JEFFREY BROWN: The whole thing.

JASON MORAN: The entire thing. And it’s important that the art forms communicate, whether it’s the dance program with the jazz program or the classical program with the opera program, that these conversations becomes fluid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Moran says the jazz conversation will continue with what he calls a series of listening parties, in which he and fellow musicians will join the audience in discussing classic works. His own next work, a new album titled “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller,” is due out this fall.