Jason Moran on 'The Bandwagon'
AAJ: I wish more groups would do that. Alternate between recorded and live work. It seems such an important element of jazz.
JM: It is. It is.
AAJ: You mentioned this at the tail end of your talk, that even classical musicians are now editing takes in the studio, as are a lot of jazz musicians. That can be a creative outlet, but on the other hand, how important is it in your opinion to keep the ethic of live performance alive?
JM: You can’t hide behind it. For all of us—for us on our perspective instruments—you can’t hide when you’re left alone on stage. About a month and a half ago, my band missed their flights to the San Francisco Jazz Festival so I did my concert solo. O.k. I have no tools to rely on tonight, for this show. Just myself and the piano. I did some mini-disc work, but really it’s just me and the piano. You can’t do that stuff all night. At one point you have to say, ‘O.K. piano—I’m gonna deal with you.’...
AAJ: I did want to ask you a little about how you got into this. You’ve taken a rather unusual path into jazz. Did your family have a jazz background?
JM: Not really. I started piano at six with a Russian teacher. She was fresh from the Soviet Union. She’d only been a year in the United States.
AAJ: And that happened in the normal parents-want-their-kids-to-learn-an-instrument way?
JM: No, my older brother was playing violin in school and during the summer they wanted to put him in lessons so they put him in a music camp. They wanted my younger brother and I to have an activity as well, so we started piano. That’s how that came about. Nobody was a musician in our family. I have two cousins on my father’s side who are blues musicians in Chicago who used to play in Albert King’s band. That’s just so amazing. The only other musicians in the family are dealing with this guy on such a high level of the blues.
AAJ: Well, obviously your family’s got it when they do it.
JM: So those are the only other musicians in the family. I was playing classical and then by the time I was thirteen I took a short hiatus and then switched to jazz. My father had a lot of jazz records and he played Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” one day and I was like, ‘That’s very cool. I want to do that. I want to look like that.’ I really went into a whole—going through his albums, buying every one of his recordings I could find.
AAJ: That happens to so many people with his music...it seems like an entry point for many people.
JM: Well, that’s because it’s so personal. When you hear it, it’s like, ‘wow he’s playing the piano like nothing I’ve ever heard before.’ That attack, the sound, the compositions, and the mood.
AAJ: It’s so personal, yet so many people can have access to it. A lot of musicians have used his compositions as springboards. That’s just fascinating to me.
JM: It is. And it...gets rid of that notion that you have to be simple to achieve stardom as a musician. It took...a long time for the public to understand who he was, but that wasn’t the point of his music. He was just honest from day one. That’s nothing to take lightly.
AAJ: So, you’re touring with the trio, you’ve been doing clinics like this. You’re a busy guy.
JM: Yeah, fairly busy. I got home 8:30 last night from Europe and woke up at 4:30 this morning to take a six o’clock plane to get here.
AAJ: It seems like one of the underlying ethics of jazz is a physical endurance test.
JM: You know, the entire time we were in Europe man, it was only a week—but it felt like 14 days—we would stay up all night. We were in places like Norway where it never got dark, and in Spain they had parties in the hotel all night long and these massive hang sessions every night. So yes, that is part of the grunt work, but the reward is so large.
AAJ: That’s a great description of the scene. I’m always intrigued by the European jazz scene because in some ways Europe and Japan are greater consumers of jazz than the States.
JM: There’s much more of an appreciation over there for it than in America.
AAJ: Is that just a cultural fascination with something different, something American?
JM: Partially it’s that. Some cultures are just fascinated by what black people do. There was an article about Japanese kids moving to Harlem and converting from Buddhism to the Baptist faith so they can learn how to sing gospel music, getting braids in their hair! So some people get involved with it because of that. Because it came predominantly out of black experience... [But]in Japan, in many other cultures, their focus on art—the arts in general—is much greater than in America. In America it’s totally taken for granted. So in Berlin you have two and three Opera houses.
AAJ: That’s a great city.