Jason Moran: Joyful Proclamations

Franz A. Matzner By

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There’s never been a demarcation between the music and the culture. Never! —Jason Moran
Jason Moran requires no introduction, either as an artistic alchemist or a spokesperson and educator. Moran has left an indelible mark on modern jazz and is now seated at one of the nation's most preeminent performing spaces—the Kennedy Center—as its artistic director for jazz. Already, his capacity for insight, humor, and innovation have launched a new era for the Center's jazz programming, defined in equal measures by careful regard for the music's history, a broad artistic view, and pointed political statements aimed at the center of American cultural assumptions. At the same time, Moran continues to transcend musical boundaries—and in ever increasing measures, the divisions between music, theater, dance, and visual arts.

All these elements are present in his latest recording All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note,2014) and Moran's commentary on the endeavor reveals the complexity of thought lurking behind even his most casual comments.

Fats Waller

All About Jazz: You've referenced Fats Waller as an inspiration in that past. What motivated you to do this album at this point?

Jason Moran: This was all a commission from Harlem Stage. They were having pianists investigate other pianists that were from Harlem. Randy Weston did one. Andrew Hill did one before he passed. So they asked me if I would think about Fats Waller. I said 'sure' because Fats Waller has always been under the umbrella of pianists who are important and have been important not only to me but to the development [of jazz].

Especially when I started studying with Jaki Byard up here in New York during the mid-nineties and he started to pound home... the importance of pianists from Harlem. When Harlem Stage asked me to think about [Waller] I thought it would be great to think about Fats Waller in another way than how I approached the piece about Thelonious Monk.

It wasn't just about the music. It's about where the music sat in the social strata of that time.

Fats Waller is popular. He is also down home. He is also in your house, playing on your piano for your friends—that kind of rent-party pianist. So his function is totally different than say—any cats from right now who are on the scene and popular. None of them are gonna play your house party and drink up all your liquor!

Fats Waller was perfect for this type of investigation. Especially to look at him as dance music. To start from there and see what starts to fall out after that.

AAJ: Our culture—especially pop culture—tends to focus on tragic figures and emphasize suffering and angst. As if joy and happiness are inherently boring. But you took this album and did something different. You emphasized joy right in the title. Can you speak a little about that and how it shaped the album?

JM: One major thing I knew early on was I needed a worthy collaborator and that collaborator came in the form of MeShell NdegeOcello. A lot of our early conversations were about lyrics. They weren't even about songs, just the lyrics. I was thinking about that a lot. What he said. How he says it. We've heard a lot over the years about what comedy means to society—the kinds of figures who share joy. We started talking about what it signifies for a person like Fats Waller to give such joy during the great depression.

America is going through it in the '30s. And here he is bringing these songs that make people want to get together and that serve to highlight issues people are having within their own lives. And in a way that marks a change in the African-American performer. He is given a lot of leeway to say what he wants to say as far as subject matter is concerned and still be playing a whole lot of piano at the same time. He is marking a change, a shift in what African-Americans do. How they talk, what they talk about. That was important. Bringing [out] the joyful aspect of him was a major portion of this recording, but also to highlight—he dies 39 years old and that is really young—the things that insinuate what he felt inside.

AAJ: For people who do not know how big an influence Meshell has had perhaps you could elucidate who she is, how your partnership developed, where her style comes from.

JM: She's from Washington, D.C. Grew up in the Go-Go scene, Rock, and Punk. Playing extremely gifted bass. She is an extremely gifted composer. A gifted singer and lyrist. In the '90's she came out with these songs that I started hearing when I was still in high school that really set the tone different than any other group. A different version of the band Living Color, expanding that conversation.

Over the past 15 years, she's always been keen to work with improvising jazz musicians as well. You'll see Oliver Lake in her band. Or she did a recording with Herbie Hancock for a record about H.I.V awareness. She had Robert Glasper in her band. She has always been very aware as an improviser because she is an improviser too.

I thought she would be perfect because she understands lyrics, she understands improvisation, she understands flow...She functions as this really rare figure who can faithfully and truthfully go between—I don't want to say genres—go between different types of terrain. She can walk on ice. She can walk through the tundra. She can be in the Amazon and still know how to maneuver in all of that. A very sensitive person with great awareness of her surroundings.

AAJ: Even by your standard it feels like you've taken Waller's music in very different directions. You've fused a lot of different styles and genres. You've already talked about the history and lyrics as a lens, but when it came down to it, how did you put the music together?

JJM: The first thing that we would do is Meshell and I would sit down and talk about songs together. She would come over to my house and we sat and talked about lyrics, about songs. We'd go out, eat some lunch. It was really, really casual. Then we started to try and find the band. She had been working with a drummer Charles Haynes—and he's a drummer I'd known since I moved to New York. Charles has been the drummer not only for jazz stuff, but also some of the biggest pop stars [like] Lady Gaga, Kayne West... Queen Latifah. He really knows that big drum sound that is meant to fill an arena. Make people get up.

We'd get together and just work with the songs. Slowly. One by one. I already had some firm ideas about some, like "Ain't Misbehavin,'" but everything else we just had to figure out. Meshell would come up with ideas. I would come up with ideas. We'd see what would fall together. I'd bring in another song. Or we'd stop working on a song and pick it up a year later. It was a really slow process. I'd never really worked that slowly before. I mean, I work slow—just not that slow. (laughs)

AAJ: That sounds different from many of the recent projects you've been putting on, especially at the Kennedy Center, where there seems to be a really central, structural conceit. This sounds much more organic.

JM: Yeah. Yeah. Still, still the two main components were: this is Fats Waller. That's big enough! Then also the making some of [the music] really make people dance. Can you do that? Can I do that as a musician?

All these years playing "jazz" and I've never played for an audience who showed up to actually dance. People sit in their seats and watch. This was my challenge. That was my private challenge that I had within me. There was a lot I had to figure out about the relationship with an audience that isn't a seated audience, that is standing.

So [that meant] finding the band members who had the energy. Most jazz folks are pretty reserved on stage, considering what is happening on stage. We could be lumped into the classical musician category. We pretty much sit still. Play our music, walk to the side. Very few of us are out there actually jumping around and dancing during the music. Whereas if you watch pop acts?!

The sense of spectacle became another aspect of the performance [because] this was always geared toward the live performance setting. Making people dance, or making people feel they came and saw something special. Whether or not I had my Fats Waller mask on, whether its how my body changes when I put the mask on, what I do and don't do, that became a transformation for the stage element. That is what we were really focused on: people who came to the show at eleven o'clock at night were expecting something. We had to supply it. That was the demand.

AAJ: You've done these pieces that incorporate the theatrical. Those are pieces that are very powerful because of their multiple layers including the visual element. When you translate those into the studio it feels like a major challenge.

JM: It is. It is. I remember when we first started this Meshell and I said we should make a live recording that will be the only way to get the energy. But the great thing about going into the studio is then you have to make something different... Just in the same way as we had to figure out the right people for the live performance, we had to figure out the right people to record it. Getting with the engineer Bob Power really helped... He knows things about sound that most jazz engineers don't. They know other things, but not this type. The kind of bounce that the record should have, the juice it has on it. Some of the songs should trip or feel more euphoric or have hallucinations within the music.

AAJ: That seemed a new element for you, playing with sonic texture to get at emotional response.

JM: That is part of listening to Fats Waller in 2014. In our minds we are already doing some kind of strange time trip even to try and go back to 1930 or 1940. To feel like that. Some things are hazy in how we see that history. And it's ok to display that haze. Its ok to show that time refracts. That we aren't really sure what the facts are, you know what I mean? That is your power as an artist, to blur those elements, to make more of a mythology about it.

Fats Waller already has that within his character. Just he alone, you don't know is he speaking truthfully or is he bullshittin' me? That feels good.

Art History-Historic Art

AAJ: You often merge historical reference into your work both personal history and big, cultural themes. Many have commented about this as a distinct element of your work. How do you see cultural history playing into this music?

JM: There is an artist—a really good friend of mine—Fred Wilson who as a conceptual artist often uses objects that are already here. Many times those are historical objects...He took a Klan hood and put it inside a baby carriage. He took a wooden-cased skeleton and instead of labeling it 'pre-Columbian blah, blah, blah' he just wrote 'your grandmother.'

So that changes everything about our relationship to those things.

The very beginning of the record is my opening statement about that...It's called "Put Your Hands On It" and that is only about putting your hands on history. That's all that's about. Because you have to really touch history in that way. It can't sit off on the side. The only way for me to interact with it—whether its Thelonious Monk's history or Fats Waller—is to get in there and feel it. That is what a pianist does. That is the way I have always felt about it.

Any history book is still filled with the gaze of whoever the writer is. How they put those words together. When I look at Thelonious Monk or Fats Waller or my parents, its still about how I am thinking about it. It can never be objective. I should never try to make an objective jazz record. Nobody ever really has.

AAJ: This reminds me off something you raised during the listening session you hosted at the Kennedy Center Blue Note anniversary. You and the other panelists went through Blue Note's recoding chronologically and you very consistently spoke about each artist as part of their historical context and simultaneously frequently referred to them as rebels or revolutionaries. That struck me as distinct from how many perceive art history where you often see each generation rejecting the past in order to define themselves. Do you think there is something different about the way jazz artists see their relationship to previous generations?

JM: I hope we do. That is our eternal struggle. To not be the cake stand that sits on top of the cake to preserve it, to just look at it. Some people get to put their finger in the icing, some can even take a piece. But still we have to keep the cake on the table. When really it's supposed to be devoured. Your body is supposed to take what nutrients it can from it and move on and give you the energy. I mean, that is what the music is.

The reason I think of the '50s and '60s so powerfully is because a lot is changing in America. A lot changing within black America. We are demanding the new change. 1880s had the first shift and then we need all these other things. All that stuff is coming into play. Of course, we know there is more that comes after that too. So it's a little tricky how to move.

AAJ: You articulated that very clearly in the listening session as well. How the music from that era had a very particular sound and can be used as this line of demarcation dividing jazz between pre and post civil rights music. But as you just said, a whole lot more comes after that. So I'm curious if you think we are in a new period now?

JM: Definitely we are in a new period. I was just talking with Ambrose Akinmusire and Walter Smith III after they'd sat in with Eric Harland's band at the Monterey Jazz Festival and they played this tune and I was like, [laughs] yeah, see my generation we weren't messin' with that. That's something that is just y'all. And all the cats in that generation know how to move into music like that. There's a lot of flexibility and flow within it and when I play a tune like that with y'all its like, whoo! I'm struggling to keep up.

Already the new generation—them dudes and ladies are already out there making some pretty great, provocative work. I'm happy and I can already hear the shift. So even like say a Robert Glasper record or Jamire Williams, those are marks of what music emerged from the influences of the '80s and '90s. It is just starting to emerge out of that. And it is definitely a defined sound if you listen to enough of it. And it is not in Wynton Marsalis' generation. And it is not David Murray's generation. It's a different language.

AAJ: What do you think the cultural touchstones are that are defining that sound?

JM: I couldn't say. Everybody will have their different ones. A lot of it is coming from the relationship between Hip Hop and R & B ...There's always been a cross over between jazz musicians playing some pop gigs as well. There's always been this back and forth... I think those ties are now really starting to strongly show themselves again. [And] now I think enough of the people who are able to do them [all] really well—which are very few—are showing that there is a relationship between jazz and hip-hop in a very powerful way. Much in the way M-Base showed the relationship between jazz and James Brown.

We are always showing the similarities between those worlds and now there are people in our generation who are continuing to do that too.

Race, Identity, and Modern Jazz

AAJ: I feel like there are two very strong strands in contemporary jazz right now. One that is very syncretic and almost obliterating the elements of genre altogether. Then there is a second one, mostly younger African-American artists, who are doing some of that syncretic approach, but also consciously grounding it in very specific African-American cultural iconography, bringing the history back in and reasserting this very strong African-American voice. Do you agree with that?

JM: Yep. The history of racism within jazz is so powerful it deserves [to have] jazz magazines and publications devote an entire year trying to get those stories out. 'Cause that alone is the start of it all.

I'll say this. This is what I feel. The music emerges out of a need for African-Americans to find a way to voice themselves under code. Which has always been our way, especially in American society. This is true with Duke Ellington. This is true with Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker and his team are motioning that we don't shuffle anymore. Kinda like saying "to be able to follow this melody you must pay attention because it weaves in a new way. It doesn't riff anymore in the way Ellington or Basie or any of these bands riff on one little thing over and over. Nah, now we are going to move it really quickly and we are demanding that you figure out [how] we are moving it."

So for me via my relationship with musicians who have taught me so well over all of these years, there's never been a demarcation between the music and the culture. Never!

Now something strange happens with how the music is discussed. Especially as more and more of the seminal figures pass on—which is the nature of history—is that the music starts to lose that tether to the relationship between music and culture, and maybe more about sonic aesthetics. [Especially] globally as this music is being taught in universities.

AAJ: And so many more people are playing it.

JM: Yeah, yeah. Now so many more histories are intersecting with it too. That is a good thing. The health of the music depends on that. But, what I have learned from talking with students all over the globe is that the notion of racism is so pervasive within the conversation that the students don't understand that they are being racist. That becomes an issue for me. So I have never had a problem with discussing this topic.

I also know that for the health of the music I make I am curious about that history. Obsessively curious about that history. There are so many projects I have not [yet] done to continue to discuss that history.

I think what is tragedy—and this is true within any music—is that we try to listen to it just aesthetically. The cultural references—no matter who is playing it, no matter who is playing it—are so embedded in it. It's whether the artist wants to acknowledge it. I want to acknowledge it.

AAJ: Sometimes there is a value in bringing all the different histories and intersections together, and that's one of the streams developing today. Then there is another, as you said, that draws out the racial and cultural elements. That is what I have been hearing in some of your work and things like Jaimeo Brown's album Transcendence. Unlike your example of Charlie Parker referencing back to the touchstone of the then dominant white concept of music, its referencing itself, its referencing all these cultural elements of America that are distinctly African American. That seems like a powerful shift.

JM: Mhhmhmm. Yes. I always wonder, though, when we consider people like Prokofiev or Stravinsky, are we considering Russia? You damn well should. Anyone who uses folk music, it's pretty obvious how any of these great, great composers are attached to their culture.

I don't want to say it's an overwhelming problem 'cause I don't think it is. However, when you are exposed to young musicians who have no curiosity about it—and I say this as a teacher—that is when it becomes worrisome. So I lead these conversations at the Kennedy Center. Or the way Betty Carter talks about that history within her work. She's a woman, starts her own record label, she demands a lot of everyone she works with. She's out there breaking rules to demand what she needs as an artist and a woman.

Those are important conversations to have. Sometimes people don't want to consider that part. [But it's] especially [important] when we are trying to educate new musicians to come in here and help take care of the scene.

Another problem is that some people feel its only one segment of society's problem. But we all rely on one another. I want the conversation to be more fluid than segmented off into certain aspects of society. When I go to Japan and teach music there is a lot I have to consider before I walk into that room. Everybody should be considerate of the culture they decide to work within. If you break the rules, there are repercussions.

I want to be very sensitive about it. I think teaching sensitivity is the name of the game. We have to have sensitive people willing to teach. And I'm not sure we have a bunch of those people out there. That is what I want to demand.

AAJ: The theme of racism seems to be a constant in jazz writing, maybe cultural writing in general, but it [rarely] seems to be comprehensively discussed.

JM: Yes. You know, there is this great clip [laughing]. There is this great clip of about seven film directors in a room having a panel discussion and Steve McQueen is one of the participants. At one point the moderator remarks at him 'you are the only black director up here' and Steve rolls his eyes like 'oh god, here we go,' you know?

And they ask him the question and he says, 'well, it's not really all about that. How come there aren't any female directors up here?' There are seven directors and there's not one! And then the directors go down the line trying to name feature films put out by women that year. And Steve starts to get a little more annoyed and remarks how are we even supposed to talk about this when in all these films set in New York we don't even have one Latino lead?

So the moderator asks, 'Why do you think that is?' And Steve answers, 'Don't ask me—ask them!'

Ask them! The room is silent. Nobody says anything. They say nothing. Finally one person musters up enough courage to say, 'I'm not gonna step in that.'

I thought, oh shit that is one of the more open conversations about race, even though there was no conversation about race. Because that shows right there one of the huge problems. It's everybody's conversation, but America tries to act like its just one person's problem so you need to find the answer.

We know nothing gets done that way. We all have to help.

Kennedy Center

AAJ: Shifting gears, I want to talk a bit about the Kennedy Center. You've been the director now for two years. It's been a startling success of taking what Billy Taylor had built and bringing it to a modern audience while putting your stamp on it. Could you say a few words about how you feel it is unfolding and what your goals are?

JM: I wish we could do a thousand concerts. There are just so many people who need to be playing under our roof. The great thing about what Billy Taylor had inducted in this program was the dedication to the music's history—with him a major figure in that history as well. But he also tried to pull himself out of it and let the music have a discussion on its own. I really loved that. He did not have a resident ensemble or a big band there. He brought the musicians in to be the musicians to talk about the music. And music from all over the world.

That is what I want to help consider. Especially considering how far I get to go in my travels as a musician. The musicians I hear—how we perform in America versus Europe, Asia or Australia. Hearing things and saying 'we should try this in our venue.'

I mean, the way the Crossroads Club even started was I was like, 'you know there are jazz venues that don't have seats, right?' Not all music is for people to sit down. So we created this venue where people could stand up.

It's just really to continue to show the breadth of the music. As much as we can. There are always places that need more light. I'm trying to find more creative ways of getting that conversation started with our audience which is one of the reasons we have these public listening sessions.

There is a lot to do. A lot of education. A lot of performing to do. A lot of producing of shows. A lot of conversations with other forms, whether it's the dance or theater or Opera people. Or the chamber music people. Strengthening all our ties to each other.

And we have a new president now—Deborah Rudder from Chicago—who is really awesome. She also wants to promote those collaborations. So over the next few years we are going to continue this strand of really showing how creative musicians have been tampering with the form of how to perform jazz concerts. At the Kennedy Center we have all these spaces and we are trying to use them all creatively.

AAJ: It seems like a perfect setting for the themes we talked about earlier. Kennedy Center has the dual mission of curating the history of American performing arts while also presenting its modern manifestations. Is that why it's so important to have a jazz program like you envision at the Center?

JM: Yes, yes. The music comes from here. What is America's performing arts institution without that? I don't know what it is.

AAJ: But it was not there forever.

JM: That's right. It was not there forever. It takes a Billy Taylor to get it there. That's how a country changes. Someone has to stand up and say, 'aren't we ignoring dot, dot, dot?'

And then things change. That is America in general. That is just how it is. Awful. It's awful because when people are totally ignored it is frustrating. It's frustrating for whole segments of society. One thing the Kennedy Center continues to try to figure out is how it relates to society. How it relates outside Washington, D.C. Are we an institution that only does Kennedy Center honors? Well, what else happens there?

AAJ: Will that be one of your goals, to help the Kennedy Center move to a broader multi-cultural discussion?

JM: It is. Within D.C. and to the rest of the country as well. It is something we simply have to do if we are going to be the nation's performing arts center. If we are going to claim that title. Then it needs to be something everyone considers. It can't be just us in our white house up on the hill—which is what we are. [laughs] A big, white marble house on the hill!

What are we beyond that? What are we beyond what happens within those walls? We have to exude more.

AAJ: It feels like you have done a lot already so thank you on behalf of all of us.

JM: That is positive. It's going to be good.

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