Jason Moran: Jazz Maestro, MacArthur Fellow

Jason Moran, Courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation

Jason Moran is a jazz pianist and composer who, interested in the history of jazz, has investigated and researched the real life experiences of some of America’s most important musical artists before creating inspired new works of his own. He is also one of the winners of this year’s MacArthur Fellowships. His latest recording is called “Ten,” which just came out in June.

I talked to Moran recently by phone in New York:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: You told one my colleagues here, when we called you the other day, that what you do is take the history of jazz and recontextualize it. Explain to us what that means? What it is you’re doing?

JASON MORAN: Well, say for instance the music of Thelonious Monk, which was really my first great influence on the piano. Recently, maybe in the past four years, to celebrate one of his birthdays I took one of his concerts from 1959, “Monk at Town Hall,” a seminal concert of his, and I decided to rather than just to replay his music and replay the arrangements with the same ensemble, I thought that it would be more interesting to kind of investigate his life more fully and go into kind of his ancestry as well as kind talk about parts of my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, like research it?

JASON MORAN: Yeah, like research it. As a musician, you know, part of what we do is we really think about what they sound like, what a musician sounds like aesthetically, so what is their sound aesthetic? But for me, almost most importantly, is what is their DNA? You know, where did they come from? Who are the people that raised them? How are they given some of these attitudes about life, about music? And that really for me gives me a lot of answers to how they play their music.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you do that? I mean, this is a real scholarly approach that’s away from the piano right?

JASON MORAN: Right, it is. You spend time talking to people who know much more than you. More than myself, I mean. And so I spent a lot time with the Center for Documentaries Studies down at Duke University. They were fortunate enough to have tapes of Thelonious Monk actually rehearsing this music in a loft here in New York 50 years ago. Here were these tapes, which had been unearthed and never been heard before that I was given access to, to really start to investigate, Ok, who was Thelonious Monk away from the piano? How does he talk about his music when he’s not being recorded or there’s no camera in front of his face? What does he decide to say about his music? And it revealed just kind of more of who he was and how much of a genius he was as a human being. And so I decided I think in 2007 or 2008 when we performed our piece, which is called “In My Mind,” it was more kind of about revealing or making true some of the myths that I had made up about Thelonious Monk in my mind. How specific he is as a musician, and let’s think about that. Or let’s think about Thelonious Monk as a descendant of slaves. You know, let’s really consider this in 2009 not as something that we assume that everyone knows, but Monk’s last name was given to him by a slave master of his great-grandparents. And when you say these things today for a contemporary audience, it just kind of resonates in a different way.


Watch a clip of Moran from “In My Mind” the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University:


JEFFREY BROWN: Well I’m curious because with “Ten,” for example, because I’ve been listening to that a number of times in the last few days, how does that translate when you make a recording like that, this sort of scholarly approach where you’re trying to tell stories of history. I put that on, I hear the blues right away, I hear other influences, but how do you think of it? Do you want me to hear all those things?

JASON MORAN: I think I do. It’s also great when people say, oh, they heard something that I had no intention of really distributing through the music. But, you know, for me as a musician and what I try to emit through the music is my history. What is the history that has brought me to this point where I’m sitting at a piano with my band mates and we’re discussing this song? So say one of the examples on “Ten” is the song “Nobody,” which was kind of made famous by Bert Williams, a minstrel singer back in 1906, a black minstrel singer who dressed himself black face. So what is minstrelsy considered today in 2010? What is the conversation or what conversations aren’t had around minstrelsy in contemporary performance or in pop music? It’s just kind of throwing out these questions in the air. It’s not really looking for answers, but it’s just really throwing the question, not only to myself as a musician but to my audience who may not know who Bert Williams or what his story is. But, you know, if you just start to dawn on it a little bit while you are listening to the music, then maybe that will change the perspective of the listening experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well this sort goes to the question of jazz in American culture today, not on a mainstream music but an audience out there. Before we started this conversation, you told me you thought of yourself as a traveling salesman. What is it that you’re selling when you are looking back at this kind of history and you want to explore these kinds of questions and, of course, I assume you also want to entertain us when we come hear you play.

JASON MORAN: Yeah, well I think there is lots of ways to kind of do this. I think what I’m trying, if I’m going to sell anything, it’s to sell freedom. Freedom is the thing that has attracted me most to jazz. Within improvisation, you’re really able to express something that maybe I’m not so adept at expressing via language. So I develop a language through the instrument to tell stories. So it’s kind of this freedom of thought and freedom of expression that kind happens. But you know visual artists, who I’ve been kind of hanging around for the past five years and been really influenced by it for the past 20 years, I think they also are in a space where they make a painting at once might be what you might say is “entertaining” or aesthetically pleasing, but as well kind of really might be political or it might have a bit of a charge to it. Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers are not just about flowers, you know what I mean. There’s a lot that you can kind of pack into a package and I think rather than just deal with something that is just aesthetically pleasing, I think I can layer the kind of effects that music has had on me. I want to hope that my music will have some of this kind of these traits for my listeners.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned freedom. I have to inevitably ask you about the money that you just won. Does that give you a certain amount of personal freedom to do these things or have you thought about what you do with it?

JASON MORAN: Well, I think it will allow certain freedoms. As a musician I’m always thinking, Ok, what’s the next gig? So tomorrow I start playing at the Village Vanguard here in New York for a week. You know, then next week it’s something else, and then the next week it’s something else, and you kind of build up the schedule, and you know it’s kind of work because you work. And you like working because you’re playing music and the music fuels the energy and I end up not thinking that it’s something that is very difficult because it’s so enjoyable. With the freedom that the MacArthur will allow is kind of like a freedom maybe of the schedule, that the schedule does not have to be sometimes as rigorous as I have tried to make it over the past 10 or 15 years of my career, that I can actually step back a little bit and also decide to go towards more studying, studying drumming or studying singing, having my band take a field trip or redistributing music to the Midwest of America again and to the south of America, and kind of really putting the music in other spaces kind, aiming that this is the focus rather than something that I hope can happen in the next year or so.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Jason Moran is one of this year’s MacArthur Fellows. His new recording is “Ten.” Thanks so much for talking with us and congratulations again.

JASON MORAN: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat. Thank you for joining us.