For my Jazz Heads!
After experiencing pianist Jason Moran a few weeks ago at the Hammer Museum, I am convinced he is the perfect person to guide the Kennedy Center in new and bold directions!
Instead Moran was gearing up for his greatest professional challenge, what one might call his very own Kennedy Center “honor.” He was recently named the new artistic adviser for jazz for the Kennedy Center, one of the world’s leading artistic institutions. The designation caps off a stellar few years for Moran, who was awarded a coveted MacArthur fellowship in 2010. The awards are known colloquially as “Genius Awards” because of how competitive the $500,000 fellowships are to receive.
Both honors have firmly established Moran as one of the most influential jazz musicians in the world. His accomplishments — all before the age of 40 — mean it is quite possible that Moran will find himself seated alongside the President and First Lady as a Kennedy Center honoree one day. The 36-year-old Houston native spoke with Loop 21 about his favorite musicians and what he would suggest President Obama add to his iPod. [Also read about Moran’s wife “Broadway’s Next Big Star: Alicia Hall Moran”]
Loop 21: What was the last song you added to your ipod?
Jason Moran: The Roots record that I got yesterday, “Undun” their conceptual album about the life and death of someone.
Loop 21: Who are some of your favorite artists?
Moran: If I started within my own genre, Thelonious Monk is at the top of that pile. In classical music, it would probably be Leontyne Price and there’s this guy from the Congo who does this popular music from there called soukous. His name is Koffi Olomide and that music is transforming for me.
Loop 21: Jazz is not perceived as popular among younger people. Why has it struggled to remain popular with that particular audience?
Moran: That’s an accurate perception but sometimes I try to make this a broader answer which is this: I think culture is not popular among young people. Pop Culture yes. But are they well versed in dance, choreography? Are they well versed in literature? Are they well versed in contemporary art? No. Are they well versed in classical music and opera? No. So it’s a problem for me in that it’s a question of how come culture and the arts are not important to the fabric of America [anymore] considering American culture has helped create the global sound.
So much of music history has been affected by what has happened in America. Jazz is one thing. It’s a very complicated form of music. A jazz band sounds one-way one night and another way another night. Pop music is not like that Jay-Z will sound like Jay-Z all the time. People know what to expect. It’s challenging when people don’t know what to expect. I liken jazz to those makeover shows where they give someone a new wardrobe then they put the guy in a suit but he’s not accustomed to wearing a suit but he’s not comfortable in a suit so he walks strange. So when people listen to jazz they don’t know what the context for it is so what I’m aiming to do at the Kennedy Center is refocus the context of music.
Loop 21: Do you think in your tenure at the Kennedy Center we will see more artistic efforts aimed at appealing to younger audiences?
Moran: Considering my age it kind of dictates how I think about things anyway. I’m a kid who grew up in the 80s. It’s impossible for me to think like a person who’s 60 years old. It’s impossible for me to contextualize music that way. That is an aim. I want to have good audiences and I think a good audience is extremely mixed, people from their teens all the way up to their 80s And I think they all enjoy the same thing.
Loop 21: I know that you performed at the Kennedy Center when you were younger. Did you ever dream you’d have a role like this there?
Moran: Never. [Laughs.]
Loop 21: Is it a dream come true?
Moran: It’s a dream but I never dreamed it! So it didn’t come true. It came out of nowhere. I was really pushing my own envelope when I performed there. I remember the first time playing there at their jazz piano Christmas concert but the first time I did it I was very ambitious and wanted to play this huge classical piece that had ten pages of music and I played it awfully. [He laughs] I don’t know if the audience thought it was okay but I was disappointed. But I was happy to use a performance at a place as prestigious as the Kennedy Center to test ideas and I like to think that they continued to call me back because I’m the kind of person who will experiment.
Loop 21: What are some of your dream projects to execute at the Kennedy center in your new role?
Moran: I can’t give a way my program! [He laughs.] What I will say is what I dream for them is if there is a way to contextualize jazz again that will be extremely fun but extremely serious, that’s my goal for them.
Loop 21: What was it like to win a MacArthur Genius Award?
Moran: Well, one there’s a sigh of relief that happens and then two a recognition that there’s so much work to do. The sigh of relief is that the family can maintain itself. My wife is also a musician and we are parents of twins here in the city [New York City.] So the sigh of relief is that the family can sustain itself here in the city and I can get to some of these artistic things out. It helps sustain my family which helps sustain me as an artist and then helps me sustain projects that I want to create as well.
Loop 21: If someone doesn’t know anything about jazz, and you want to introduce them to it, what three cds would you give them to get started?
Moran: If they don’t know anything and they’re talking to me I’m going to say, “Let’s start with one of my records.” [He laughs.] With that I would start with my last record TAN. Then I would say John Coltrane “Giant Steps” and then there’s another record. I don’t know the name of it but it’s a Redd Foxx record where he’s just doing standup comedy and this pianist is playing behind him and I consider that a great jazz recording.
Loop 21: President Obama has said that in addition to Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z. He also has Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane on his ipod. Who would you recommend he add to his play list beside yourself?
Moran: Thelonious Monk! Because he contextualizes John Coltrane and Miles Davis His artistic practice served as inspiration for John Coltrane. He called himself the high priest of bebop and I think given jazz history we can look at him as a titan in that sense. He’s an artistic icon, one who is both brilliant at being complex and brilliant at being simple.