Jason Moran: Making Jazz Personal

How a MacArthur Genius Fellow is using his life experience and musical genius to engge youth in jazz

Courtesy of Flickr user Bruno Bollaert

Even if Mozart’s generation had worn porkpie hats instead of powdered wigs, pianist Jason Moran doubts he would have opted for a classical music career over jazz.

Though he finds the European classical music that he has studied since age six artistically beautiful, it doesn’t move him emotionally the way jazz does, he says. Jazz, America’s classical music, has a sound he can relate to, a cultural history he can identify with, and role models, who have inspired him since he was a teen growing up in Houston.

“For me Thelonious Monk became the mountain top,” he says.

Now as Artistic Advisor of Jazz at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the MacArthur Genius Award winner is drawing on those memories to make jazz both personal and emotionally engaging for a new generation.

Making music relevant so that it touches people where they live was a focus of a recent Kennedy Center happening, “Insider Event with Jason Moran,” that offered insight into Moran’s aspirations for jazz music and education programming at the Kennedy Center, a role previously held by his mentor, the late jazz pianist Billy Taylor.

“Billy would ask, ‘are you making people dance? Are people listening to your music, Jason?’” he recalls Taylor saying to encourage him to stay attuned to the needs and feelings of his audiences.

If music is a universal language, Moran is an articulate, multi-linguist, providing the right sound for the occasion. At the historic groundbreaking on the Mall for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in February 2012, Moran performed as the jazz artist of choice. Throughout the Kennedy Center discussion, his words and thoughts flow effortlessly between his responses to interviewer Willard Jenkins and the piano Moran plays to musically punctuate points.

“Music is more than notes. It’s emotions,” says the 37-year old. Younger audiences crave emotional engagement in their learning. People remember music that touches them, is generationally relevant, and emotionally stimulating. He offers examples.

After his grandmother died, he says he paid homage to her spirit musically at a family gathering, playing Duke Ellington’s tune Single Petal of a Rose. As the artist spoke, the room filled with the sound of the beautiful, haunting melody as Moran’s improvisations evoked memories of his grandmother.

“I knew which notes I played were making my aunts cry,” Moran remembers. He talked to his family by letting the music speak words his voice couldn’t.

On election night, he hosted a party at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Revelers talked and watched the returns on a big screen while grooving to live, jazz infused with everything from blue grass to electronic mix music to old campaign songs like “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet or Crazy, which was Ross Perot’s theme song,” Moran says, playing the tunes.

The idea was to create a memorable experience that made jazz, campaign music, and political tidbits a winning combination.

Another recent jazz program featured the band Medeski, Martin and Woods offering a millennial happening as more than 300 people stood for hours in a mosh pit environment connecting with jazz infused this time with rhythms from funk to hip hop. An “older” patron who attended wanted a chair, says Moran, but still got the point.

A recent music event invoked the spirit of vaudeville and bygone jazz club scenes when Woody Allen played the Village Vanguard and Miles Davis shared a bill with Richard Pryor. Billed as an ode to jazz and jokes, comedian David Allen Grier hosted the program that used comedy as a connector to the music.

With cultural tastes that run from Fats Waller to hip hop, Afrika Bambaataa and Jaki Byard to his wife Alicia, an accomplished opera singer, Moran says he views himself as a “musical tour guide” offering people “musical history that is very personal and engaging.”

If he has his way, jazz programming at the Kennedy Center will become a musical tour de force, reflecting the multiple joys and sorrows that comprise the lives of everyday peoples.

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