Taking a stand for your art with jazz musician and visual artist Jason Moran
Today, internationally-renowned jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran is a MacArthur genius, Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, and his visual art is currently on view at MCA Denver. Rewind forty years and Jason was a six-year-old growing up in Houston and begrudgingly beginning to take piano lessons. His attitude toward the piano changed its tune when he was thirteen and heard Thelonius Monk play for the first time, inspired by his game-changing melding of jazz and hip hop. Jason went on to attend New York’s Manhattan School of Music where his unconventional style and unwavering self-confidence challenged his teachers and bandmates, but today makes him a one-of-a-kind artist. In the final episode of How Art is Born season 1, Jason sits down with host R. Alan Brooks to discuss the history of Black music, parenthood as an artist, finding a tribe that appreciates what you want to bring to the table, and so much more.
Links mentioned in this episode:
- Purchase Jason Moran’s music on Bandcamp
- Follow Jason Moran on Instagram
- Watch JAZZ: A Film by Ken Burns (2000) on PBS
- New Orleans (1947) with Louis Armstrong & Billie Holiday
- Rent Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) on YouTube
- How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It!) (2005)
- Jazz at The Kennedy Center
- Fats Waller Dance Party at The Kennedy Center
- The Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin at The Kennedy Center
- Jason Moran’s current exhibition at MCA Denver, Jason Moran: Bathing the Room with Blues
ABOUT JASON MORAN
Jazz pianist, composer, and performance artist Jason Moran was born in Houston, TX in 1975 and earned a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Jaki Byard. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010 and is the Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center. Moran currently teaches at the New England Conservatory.
Moran is deeply invested in reassessing and complicating the relationship between music and language, and his extensive efforts in composition, improvisation, and performance are all geared towards challenging the status quo while respecting the accomplishments of his predecessors. His activity stretches beyond the many recordings and performances with masters of the form including Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, and the late Sam Rivers, and his work with his trio The Bandwagon (with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) has resulted in a profound discography for Blue Note Records. The scope of Moran’s partnerships and music-making with venerated and iconic visual artists is extensive. He has collaborated with such major figures as Adrian Piper, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Stan Douglas, Adam Pendleton, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker; commissioning institutions of Moran’s work include the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dia Art Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Harlem Stage, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
In-Person Event: Jason Moran And The Bandwagon 01/14/22 @ The Holiday Theater, 7PM
In-Person Event: Jason Moran Artist Talk 01/15/22 @ The Holiday Theater, 6PM
Courtney Law (00:01):
Hi, this is Courtney Law, executive producer of this podcast. The episode you are about to hear is our final one for this first season of How Art is Born. We hope you've enjoyed listening to these engaging conversations about art, art making, and the creative process. This season featured 10 episodes, so if you missed any, be sure to check them out here or wherever else you get your podcasts. If you liked this podcast, you'll love our website and YouTube channel, which are chock-full of other great digital content. Visit mcadenver.org or find us on YouTube. Thank you so much for being with us on this journey and for your support.
R. Alan Brooks (00:35):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. Today I'm joined by internationally-renowned jazz pianist, composer and now visual artist, Jason Moran. Say hello.
Jason Moran (01:04):
R. Alan Brooks (01:04):
That's how people know the difference in the voices. Who's talking now?
Jason Moran (01:08):
I'm more country. That's how you going to know me.
R. Alan Brooks (01:13):
Hey, well start us off, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Jason Moran (01:18):
Born in 1975, in Houston, Texas. I'm a pianist mostly and I think the piano is a piece of technology that really unlocked a lot of black sound from Scott Joplin and the revolution that he decides, not only to write when he makes rag time, but that he decides to write it down too. Yet I think like this is because black folks are not allowed to even show that they could read nor write, for penalty of death. So him writing down music in the late 1800s, the piano is that spur. And it wasn't like I was thinking about piano like that when I was a kid because I hated piano. I think it's an awful instrument.
R. Alan Brooks (02:07):
Was it like you were required to take lessons or something?
Jason Moran (02:09):
I was, I went to an elementary school in Houston called MacGregor. That was like a magnet school with arts and science, so everybody had to learn how to play violin or piano. It wasn't even a big deal, if you don't make it a big deal that a kid has to do something, they don't think it's a big deal. It's when it's like, you have a choice, you know?
R. Alan Brooks (02:31):
Jason Moran (02:32):
Make them learn music, make them look at art, make them read.
R. Alan Brooks (02:36):
All right. So you grew up in Houston. How early did you sort of connect to music?
Jason Moran (02:42):
Well, I don't know, those years from six to 12, I wouldn't say I was connecting, I'd say I was practicing and I didn't mind it.
R. Alan Brooks (02:52):
So you started playing piano when you were six?
Jason Moran (02:53):
At six, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (02:53):
Jason Moran (02:55):
I have two brothers, one older, Yuri, and a younger brother, Ty. I'm just letting you know that my parents were really into names, except for mine, Jason.
R. Alan Brooks (03:06):
That's so funny.
Jason Moran (03:07):
This was a 1975 name.
R. Alan Brooks (03:09):
Right. Well, okay. So my name's Alan, my sister's name is Tahira.
Jason Moran (03:13):
R. Alan Brooks (03:13):
It's like Swahili, means pure, my pops got all imaginative, you know?
Jason Moran (03:19):
Exactly. I don't know, but we all were playing instruments. When I was 13, I heard Thelonious Monk's music and that was like a epiphany. It was like drop everything, figure out who this man is, why he sounds like that and just go for that and I did. And it was around the same time in the '80s, hip hop is everything in the '80s, so it was cool to hear a pianist play with the pre-sensibility of hip hop.
Jason Moran (03:53):
Thelonious Monk's left hand is a drum beat and some of that was still resonating and also back then, the samples that were being made in hip hop was a bunch of jazz samples and funk, soul samples. Thelonious Monk then led me back into listening to understanding what was being sampled in hip hop then going through his in my mom's records, looking for the samples. It allowed a whole investigation of black music of those from 1940 to 1970 and Thelonious Monk unlocks that and then, he most importantly, he makes me deal with the piano as a fun place to be, rather than a chore.
R. Alan Brooks (04:34):
That's interesting. Now I'm thinking about your path, when you connect it with Thelonious Monk, for example, it makes me think of my own path musically and I'm going to share a little with you because I want to hear more about your impression of jazz and growing up in a hip hop age and how it spoke to you, right?
Jason Moran (04:52):
R. Alan Brooks (04:52):
So for me it was definitely hip hop early on, so I'm writing raps at seven. I did play trumpet from fourth to eighth grade.
Jason Moran (05:02):
R. Alan Brooks (05:02):
But they made me choose between drawing and playing an instrument in eighth grade.
Jason Moran (05:07):
Those good choices.
R. Alan Brooks (05:08):
And the trumpet lost out, you know what I'm saying? And also I think it was all classical and it's not to say that classical is not cool, but it didn't grab me, right?
Jason Moran (05:21):
R. Alan Brooks (05:22):
So I think if I had been playing jazz, I would've had a lot more connection to it. Then you fast forward some years later, Tribe Called Quest is doing their stuff, Native Tongues they're doing a lot of jazz stuff, but there was that Ken Burns documentary on jazz in the '90s, where I really saw, I think it was the first time, because jazz had just always been around, but I never really followed up or connected with it or anything. That's when I really saw that this was like, young black people's music and how much hip hop had in common with jazz, culture wise.
Jason Moran (05:54):
Oh, it takes every branch of the tree and just keeps growing it and it's deep. In 1948, Louis Armstrong in a movie with Billie Holiday called New Orleans.
R. Alan Brooks (06:06):
We had the same birthday, but me and Louis Armstrong.
Jason Moran (06:08):
Are you August fourth?
R. Alan Brooks (06:09):
Jason Moran (06:09):
That's right. You have the real birthday, right?
R. Alan Brooks (06:10):
Jason Moran (06:11):
So you and Louis.
R. Alan Brooks (06:12):
It's me, him and Barack Obama and Iceberg Slim.
Jason Moran (06:15):
That's right. Well, you know, [inaudible 00:06:16], right?
R. Alan Brooks (06:16):
Jason Moran (06:20):
But in '48, or whenever this movie is, he's straight rapping, '48. It's my earliest version of a... It's a video too, he's introducing the band to Billie Holiday and he's going through each member of the band and straight, as somebody said, "Doing the Melle Mel." Pre-Melle Mel in '48. So I think, when I was thinking about listening, those trails, one thing that they tried to do to jazz was take it out of Black community, one, and then say that it wasn't ours, two. So then when it was given back to you be like, "Well, I don't want to listen to that." It's too weird. Well, do you know what we've been through? Do you think we post to sound quantized?
R. Alan Brooks (07:05):
That's a real thing.
Jason Moran (07:06):
You think that's our expression? Is like that? And so when I look at that scope of Black music, then we never are leaving the past behind, ever. I remember when I, what's that song? I can't remember, shame on her. [Inaudible 00:07:27], but they are sampling Thelonious Monk playing Duke Ellington. So they're going from 1990 to 1950 to 1920, in one song. So I think producers, they hear that. DJ Premier, all these people.
R. Alan Brooks (07:47):
Oh, no doubt, yeah.
Jason Moran (07:48):
They hear, 9th Wonder, they are listening to all kind of music. They know, "Oh wait a minute, that's touching on something else. Hmm. That's a, that little bit is a little bit deeper." And so when I think they make these tracks, I feel like, all really great music always held that close to the fold, rather than say, I don't really want to know nothing about that, which has been the interesting dialogue I say in current hip hop about certain crew, not really wanting to deal with the previous generation, 1990s. They might deal with 2000, 2010, whatever, but like 1990s, '80s, oh.
R. Alan Brooks (08:22):
That old man rapping.
Jason Moran (08:24):
Right. I love that.
R. Alan Brooks (08:29):
You know, the Ken Bs thing, I was still an observer, but maybe 10, 15 years later, I got to a point where I was rapping at live music venues and then the musicians I started hiring, always jazz musicians. The reason is because they could improve, so I could freestyle a song they could improv, right?
Jason Moran (08:48):
R. Alan Brooks (08:48):
Jason Moran (08:49):
That's who we are.
R. Alan Brooks (08:50):
Jason Moran (08:50):
I mean, maybe that's the thing that I wanted to say was, is the elements that are planted in the music and in the form and in the expression, which then goes to the community and goes to geography, goes to landscaping, then we talk about the compositions that tell us about different neighborhoods, right? Wabash Street in Chicago, Roy Eldridge writes this hit, during the Great Migration, he's telling you a street you can go to when you get out of Alabama, that's what he's saying. It ain't like, "Nah, Wabash is just this thing."
Jason Moran (09:23):
You hear all these songs talking about Harlem, 125th street, it's saying you can come here, your community is here, your sound is here, but that takes flexibility, that takes a knowledge base. That don't be like, "I'm from Houston, I just deal with Third Ward and that's it." That can be something and there is enough information for you to dive into, but when you want to expand and I think as an artist, that's your job. Your job is to bring to another population possibly, also at your own, but bring another conversation to another group of people, to say this where I'm from, this is what it sound like.
Jason Moran (10:02):
All these years being in New York, it wasn't until the pandemic that I recently, couple months ago, played in New York City and I realized, "Oh." And I was playing outside, Astor Place on a Rashid Johnson sculpture, that he made and the city, the birds which are few, but they there. The birds, the bus, the skateboarder, the people walking by, the car blasting the system and then I was playing and I was like, "Yo, this is how I play." When I've been listening to music, Thelonious Monk, all these people, pianists living in New York, they live in New York. They sound like they live in New York. So when I was playing I was like, "Oh, this is..."
Jason Moran (10:46):
I mean, I've been living in New York, almost, what? 25 years now, whatever. So it's like, "Oh, no, it's here, it's here." If I lived in Denver for a long time, or I think about the musicians that are from here, Ron Miles and the crew, Bill Frisell, they got a sound that's from Denver, you know and you can hear it. That part is a flexibility that when you hire musicians, you're looking for, you could say one thing they're like, "No, I got you, I know what that is."
R. Alan Brooks (11:14):
Yeah, yeah. They'd be like, "Oh, yeah, do you want to go play in a C or do you want to play..." And I'd be like "I don't know." You know what I'm saying?
Jason Moran (11:19):
But I think there's something about, when you're working with good musicians and good crews of people who are really looking to make something actually special for the moment for an audience, for a viewing public that comes into a museum, or a gallery, or sit down film, or theater, or a restaurant, that level of care doesn't just exist in the arts, it's like across everything and those people, we are a tribe. We roll together, we want to support one another to get to goals that actually make difference, rather than just become static,
Jason Moran (11:59):
And great musicians can do that, but it takes like, looking at something and especially sound, which we can't see, which makes it hard. So your ear ends up being the thing that you trust the most. And so when you working with a group on stage and they are trusting this, right? They're not looking at the paper no more like, "Oh, well, he want to change something." All right, so [crosstalk 00:12:30].
R. Alan Brooks (12:29):
Yeah. And what's beautiful is that, I can even do the same songs and they'll take on different life, with those music, it's an individual experience each time we perform together and I love that and for the most part, if somebody can't make it they'll be like, '"Oh, here's another keys player." You know they'll do, though. I mean, every once in a while, like I got one keyboard player who couldn't swing, which was not good for hip hop. You know what I'm saying?
Jason Moran (12:57):
Right, yes you're right.
R. Alan Brooks (12:59):
So everything was just straight on and I was like, "Huh."
Jason Moran (12:59):
Yeah, you're right.
R. Alan Brooks (13:01):
And it didn't matter how fierce my battle raps were.
Jason Moran (13:04):
Right. Don't matter, right, right.
R. Alan Brooks (13:04):
It just sounded like toothless.
Jason Moran (13:05):
R. Alan Brooks (13:06):
Okay. So let's go back, man. So you said like 12 was when you heard Thelonious and it really-
Jason Moran (13:11):
R. Alan Brooks (13:12):
Okay, 13, okay. And so what did it say to you? How did it move you? What did it mean to you?
Jason Moran (13:21):
One, Thelonious Monk's music, it's porous and you could fit yourself in it and he leaves enough space in the music for you to do that. One of the characteristics of Thelonious Monk's playing is that he leaves space in his solos. So it's almost like he uses that space, rather than only playing notes to define his sound, he's actually using that negative space, too. So that was one thing like, "Nah, you can approach this." Second thing was there was a movie that came out about him called Straight, No Chaser, that Clint Eastwood did as a documentary.
Jason Moran (13:56):
So all right. I'm going crazy about this guy, now there's a movie about him, oh shit. That was also like, "All right, now this, no you're right, this is worth looking at." And then the other part was his whole visual cannon, the images, his dress, sunglasses, his thousands of hats that he'd collect from around the world, how he danced around the piano, how he spoke the slang he made. His record covers, how he chose to make... There's one record cover where he's sitting at the piano with a gun tied around his back and a Nazi tied up in the corner.
R. Alan Brooks (14:38):
I haven't seen that one.
Jason Moran (14:39):
Yeah. It's called Underground.
R. Alan Brooks (14:40):
Jason Moran (14:44):
Whether he talks about it or not, the image part is really important and the name Thelonious Monk, that's his father's name and that's also, I think even his father's name, this was passed down thing. So there was all this that was wrapped up in this one man, who people call the high priest of bepop, "the one and only The-lonious Monk," that's how he would say. And he, along with the woman before him, Mary Lou Williams is the real architect to bepop. So he was with her, like she was showing him and Bud Powell, all this stuff and he shows up with this care and he writes these songs and then he just plays mostly his songs.
Jason Moran (15:30):
I don't know, it was the kind of dedication that was, for a kid in the '80s, like some MC shit, most of his songs were his name, "Monk's Mood", "Monk's Dream", "Thelonious", all these songs using his name and when I think about all these hip hop, they talk about themselves, it's like validation. You have to validate yourself, to be able to stand up in front of a public, you have to say, "I'm ready to do that."
R. Alan Brooks (15:57):
Especially in the world that's actively trying to destroy you.
Jason Moran (15:59):
R. Alan Brooks (16:01):
Well, you mentioned the image thing. I mean, you've done stuff with Blue Note, right?
Jason Moran (16:05):
R. Alan Brooks (16:06):
Yeah, I saw that so.
Jason Moran (16:07):
R. Alan Brooks (16:08):
All right, okay. Obviously historically, Blue Note was known for their album covers and this whole books and all that thing just to make it-
Jason Moran (16:16):
I couldn't wait to make my first album cover.
R. Alan Brooks (16:17):
Jason Moran (16:17):
R. Alan Brooks (16:18):
Can you talk something about that? What was that like? Coming to that even.
Jason Moran (16:24):
I mean, I was 23, a year out of college and being approached by Bruce Lundvall — rest his beautiful soul — who was the president of Blue Note records back to then. And I was recording with a guy named Greg Osby, a saxophonist who was kind of blending hip hop and jazz, but was also making his own weird version and when it came, well Bruce said, I was coming off of the stage at this club Sweet Basil in New York and he said, "You want to make a record?"
R. Alan Brooks (16:53):
Just like that?
Jason Moran (16:56):
And I was like, "Hell yeah." You know what I mean? And then I went in the studio, put down 10 originals because I wanted to say my first statement is all original music and then that conversation about the cover. I just couldn't, I love being in the meetings with the art director or the art team coming up with a feel for each cover. The second record cover was like based off Egon Schiele. Third record cover was based off of Robert Rauschenberg, each one had, I was like, "Yo, this is the artist Jasper Johns on this one, let's look into this."
Jason Moran (17:30):
And then after a while, one of the last records I did for them was called Ten and I got the artist Adam Pendleton to do the cover and he just put 10 dots on the cover. That was actually my most emblematic Blue Note cover because it had a sense of what you're talking about, that visual cannon, that Alfred Lyon and Francis Wolf really pulled together. To be a part of, a rich part of their recent histories, I couldn't ask for a better introduction into the international jazz world.
R. Alan Brooks (18:05):
Yeah. That's really dope, man. Okay. So you fall in love with Thelonious' music, you start pursuing, doing more of that, you were saying, so what did that mean? For some people art is working through your own feelings, working through your own experience, some that's communicating something to the world, some it's both. What was it for you?
Jason Moran (18:29):
Well, I think the first part was, "Could I make a living doing this?" And that's hard. My mother was an educator, she had a bakery, by then she was teaching English in high schools, to Deaf students, she had always worked with Deaf children. My father was an investment banker and so they're middle class, Black middle class in Houston. And it wasn't that there weren't artists in our family, my uncle, my father's brother is a really brilliant painter, really teaches me the sensibility, his name Joseph Moran and my father and mother collected a lot of art too. So it wasn't like they were saying, "You couldn't do it." You know, I just watched this movie, Really Love on Netflix. It's based in DC. Did you see that?
R. Alan Brooks (19:21):
No, I watched it over the weekend.
Jason Moran (19:22):
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (19:26):
Jason Moran (19:26):
So you remember there's like, "Hey, you still trying to do that painting, you can't make no living painting." You know? And I don't know, it pains me to hear that that's a conversation that we're still scripting, that we put into people's minds because I think a lot of those things, it really hinders growth. Hmm. You know, when we can't think more expansively, other than, "Can you pay your light bill?" I mean, it's hard because poverty is among us and so what does a country do that can manage how to lift up their citizens? Which this country can't do, right now. It never has, actually let's say that, never has. And so that conversation becomes the symptom of that, no faith. But my parents weren't ever going to say that I couldn't become a musician.
R. Alan Brooks (20:23):
Oh that's cool.
Jason Moran (20:23):
They just were going to be like, "How are you going to do that?"
R. Alan Brooks (20:23):
Right, right. What's your fame?
Jason Moran (20:23):
R. Alan Brooks (20:24):
Jason Moran (20:24):
We're going to support you, you want to go to New York to go to Manhattan School of Music? If you get in, go ahead. Their sisters, but my whole family like, "Go, go, go, go, go, go, go." So when I got to New York, I had so much, I'd say confidence, that when I heard the students playing at Manhattan School of Music, I say, "Y'all not good, I already know it, so I can't compare myself to you, I have to compare myself to McCoy Tyner because he's playing down the street because that's the crew I'm looking for to be among, I'm not looking at be among you all because you all having a very collegial conversation, but I need to have a professional one."
Jason Moran (21:11):
And these guys are blowing at another level and I want to get to that level and that's going to take some hurt feelings, mine mostly because when you play with musicians who are way better than you, they don't have no problem telling you don't sound like shit and that felt good for me. I've been raised like that, in the music world, so I was ready for that and I had a teacher, Jaki Byard who played with Charles Mingus on all those great records in the '50s and '60s.
Jason Moran (21:38):
That was the reason I moved to New York, was to study with that man and he was in his mid '70s by the time I got to New York, 75. I'm 18 like, "Give it to me every Monday." He's like, "All right, you think you ready?" And that felt about right and so for me, it was just figuring out, how could I just get from month to month playing the music that I love because I realized at some point, I can't say "yes" to every gig because I don't make me happy if I don't like music. So I need to be playing with better musicians and as fate would have it, things started to line up with that vision.
R. Alan Brooks (22:17):
That's really dope, man. Okay. So when I first moved to Denver, I was in my late 20s and I went to El Chapultepec here, which is isn't around anymore.
Jason Moran (22:25):
Rest in peace, El Chapultepec.
R. Alan Brooks (22:25):
Right. There was a brother, 75 years old playing drums, Eugene Bass and so he had a little jazz trio and on his break, I went and talked to him just because I was trying to connect with the Black community here, I was still new here, we got to be friends. He was displeased with the musicians that were playing with him at the time and since jazz was still new to me, I didn't really get it, but then he invite... Actually, he was 74 when we met, then he invited me to his 75th birthday party. All his friends from Chicago flew in, that had been playing jazz with him for 50 years and I was like, "Oh, this is what he is talking about."
Jason Moran (23:04):
R. Alan Brooks (23:06):
I was like, "Wow." These dudes, they were all in their '70s, '80s-
Jason Moran (23:10):
Right. I mean, that's a generational conversation you're watching too, right? You're watching people who learned the music before it got to the point where it was taught in schools. You know what I mean? You're watching people who learned a vernacular, basically and so they know how to throw around the lingo and that's when you... People always talk about music being the conversation and when it's working well, it's a conversation that's just, it's alive. And if one person drops out, it's still healthy. You know what I mean?
R. Alan Brooks (23:44):
Jason Moran (23:44):
I'm glad you pointed that out and I'm glad you heard it, too.
R. Alan Brooks (23:47):
Yeah. It was beautiful, it was beautiful and for me, it was understanding the music more, but it also felt like connecting to a part of my own history that I wasn't even aware of, as much as I thought I was. I just love what jazz represents, as far as what it means to be Black and American and how it influences all these things that people don't even think it influences like, was it The Funk Brothers who played all the Motown songs?
Jason Moran (24:14):
R. Alan Brooks (24:14):
They're all jazz musicians?
Jason Moran (24:15):
All of them.
R. Alan Brooks (24:15):
Yeah. But they bring that jazz sensibility to it, that makes them all sound good. I mean, even something like Schoolhouse Rocks, like Bob Dorough.
Jason Moran (24:22):
Bob Dorough, yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (24:24):
Yeah. Jack Sheldon. Okay. So Bob Dorough played at Dazzle before he died and I went because Schoolhouse Rocks. You know what I'm saying? And so he went through his whole catalog.
Jason Moran (24:34):
Cat's a genius.
R. Alan Brooks (24:35):
Yeah. And then, oh, I just recently, so since we were the same age, you remember "Night Court"?
Jason Moran (24:41):
R. Alan Brooks (24:42):
Okay. So I only knew Mel Tormé as a "Night Court" punchline because the judge always talked about him and he came on a few times, but I never really knew his music, right?
Jason Moran (24:51):
All right. Mel got down.
R. Alan Brooks (24:54):
So there's that "Coming Home, Baby" song?
Jason Moran (24:56):
R. Alan Brooks (24:56):
Yeah. And I'd always heard the instrumental, but I never heard his, but it turns out Bob Dorough wrote the lyrics, I didn't know that. And I was like, "Yo." Jazz is just so much underneath...
Jason Moran (25:07):
R. Alan Brooks (25:07):
...so many things and I love it.
Jason Moran (25:09):
Now, and you're talking about listening at a level that, where you hear the layers and which I think I kept wanting to translate when I would start traveling around the world, then how would I look at things to see the layers? And so many times when I'd be on the road, I would go to museums during the day, all around the world, which museums up? What exhibition is up? Can I go see something? Is that as captivating as listening to John Coltrane record and can I look at it and examine it that deeply? I'm standing in front of a painting for a while, go see the sculpture exhibition and that became fun.
Jason Moran (25:52):
Even when this museum opened, I met David Adjaye and he's like, "I have this new space there, man, you should go see it." He said, "Because you should go see what I did with the outside wall, looks like it's wood, but it's brick, like the cement." And so I came here to see because they was talking about a building. Okay, I'm in Denver playing, I'm a go over here and check the space out because that's where my curiosity leads, is in the daytime, I need to see something, so I have something to play about at night. When I walk onto the stage. And so it ended up being museums where I'd spend a lot of time looking at what the conversation was on the wall.
R. Alan Brooks (26:31):
All right. So we've been talking about the influences of jazz and your experience with it and just we've been hitting all these different corners and historical and stuff like that. I want to get to what matters to you as an artist? Are you trying to communicate something? Are you just trying to make people have a visceral experience? How are you approaching things?
Jason Moran (26:54):
I don't know. I mean, that always changes day to day. What I know is that the music, and the music we've been calling jazz, which is a fraught term, you know what I mean?
R. Alan Brooks (27:08):
Jason Moran (27:12):
But when I think about, it's complexity, and I mean all around it, the economy, the dark economy around it, from the mafia's that ran it and continue to run it, to the freedom of expression, right?
R. Alan Brooks (27:29):
Jason Moran (27:30):
Then to the style and the language and then to the geography and so I look at all those points, I always get inspiration about, this is something else to explore in this and sometimes it happens at the piano and sometimes it don't and sometimes it happens in a conversation and sometimes it happens in the film. And the people that I've been inspired by, they have met that challenge to move the language almost away from the form itself, because it needs, I don't know, sometimes it just needs another, I don't know, another angle.
Jason Moran (28:09):
And I think for the way I was taught and I would say not, but oh, I'll say the way I was taught about jazz education as a model and as a thing in America, basically teaches you, we want to make you a functioning jazz musician that can take a solo. That might be it. We don't want you necessarily to have to think about the ethics or the socioeconomic aspects of the music, to the racism in it that is embedded all through it, we don't really want to have you think about all that, we want to get you to play good solo. So that you can play at a wedding, we want to get you to be functioning in the community, we don't want you to think.
Jason Moran (28:52):
And I recognize that because I met my wife when she walked into Manhattan School of Music and she had graduated from Barnard College, a women's college, three blocks up from Manhattan School of Music and so she came in as a feminist and like, "I don't know what they teaching you here Jason, but everything you've said, you've deleted the woman in here, every time. You didn't hear that in your language?" She's like, "You going to be with me, I'm have to wake you up because you're not going to wake yourself up." She's like, "I'm going to have to wake you up." And she continues to all these years later and so there's that part.
Jason Moran (29:35):
And so my job as an educator, just why I teach, is because I want my students to realize that there is so much more that's trapped up in these solos, than just playing the good solo that gets people to clap for you at the end of it, that can't be the goal. But if you heard Lil Wayne and Kanye or any of these crazy pop stars talk, that all the people yelling for you at some point that actually gets toxic. So that can't be the goal either. So my work is continuing to try to look for multiple ways to get to multiple goals and it can't be simply at the piano and exploring ways to pull up the thoughts that I think that live within the music and the culture that should be put on display.
Jason Moran (30:25):
So the work at the Kennedy Center, making sure that there are stages for people to walk onto and speak freely. To work with filmmakers, like to work with Ava DuVernay, to all these people making sure that they have good music in their films. Some of these films could be better if they didn't have such bad music. You know what I mean? So its stuff like that that I feel like that's what I want to do, so I can be a solo artist, but I really love being a collaborator.
R. Alan Brooks (30:56):
All right. Well, so then when you go out on stage, tour, whatever, what kind of configuration do you prefer?
Jason Moran (31:05):
I mean, generally, I have a band that's called The Bandwagon, two other musicians, it's a piano trio and we've been together now 22 years, yeah. And we've done a lot of work together and that's my preferred configuration. In the past few years it had been solo because solo piano is the hardest and the best way to get better at is by doing it, in big rooms, with a lot of people and no help. It's like stand up comedy, you know what I mean?
R. Alan Brooks (31:40):
Right. Just you.
Jason Moran (31:40):
Just you and can you make 90 minutes straight up? And I was in it. Pandemic came and so the tours had been canceled, but it is the hardest and it was the standard that all the Harlem pianists had to stand on. So Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, then Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk came in, he was the young kid who could hang with them, James P. Johnson, all these people, Jelly Roll Morton, Mary Lou Williams when she sat at the piano by herself, Hazel Scott, it was blistering. Hazel Scott does this thing, two different pianos, crazy technique. I'm always thinking that on the other side of this realm, when I get to that other gate and all the pianists are standing there, and they're like "Yeah, alright, come on bro." That's all I want to hear, right? So when I play solo, it's like, "No, I have to hit to some degree on some of those levels and then I got to speak to my generation."
R. Alan Brooks (32:43):
Yeah, all right. So one thing we try to deal with is creative fear because a lot of people listening to this podcast are either aspiring artists, I imagine, or people who just want to hear the process of how an artist does something, right? And a big thing that comes up for so many of people who say they're aspiring is the fear of failure or fear of rejection, et cetera. So I guess, do you deal with fear and how do you deal with it?
Jason Moran (33:09):
Well, I mean, a lot of people say before a performance, if you're not scared, you're doing something wrong. I feel like that sometimes in the middle of performance though, if you have a little edge on it, it could fall, crumble right now and because your skill, you could be hired because you know how to fix a problem. That's what I feel like my role has been as a pianist because a piano player generally accompanies people, most of the time. So when people hire me, they're not hiring me just to take the good solo, they're hiring me to help construct a new world around them, so "All right, let's do that, I'm into that." But the fear is what if you're doing something they don't like? And I always say, "You're going to have to do it, because you have to realize what you don't like and if you have to do it for me, you have to do it real time, you have to do it when there's no walking back." And the stage ends up becoming that place for it. And I've been yelled at, by the greats.
R. Alan Brooks (34:11):
I mean, that's a real thing.
Jason Moran (34:15):
Especially when I was young and because I think people were like, "Is that what you really mean? Do you really mean to make those sounds that way? Mm-hmm (negative), you should probably think about that." And I was like, "No, it's..." Because I would rarely say it to them, but I was like, "No, but Thelonious Monk started me off." And if that's your baseline and I don't consider it the base, I consider it the mountaintop, that's the goal and none of his choices are obvious, none. So then how does it get to like you play jazz and every choice you make is obvious? So in my book, according to the top of the mountain, mm-hmm (negative), that don't work. And so then you find a tribe of people who want to work with that, right?
Jason Moran (35:01):
I mean, look, the hurt feelings, whether it is from another musician, whether it's from a peer in your classroom and if you're a art student and you have crit, somebody staring at your work for 30 minutes, asking you questions, it's difficult, but the rebound is the real, that's where you become the artist. I mean, I had to always tell these stories about being in school, of hearing teachers telling me that I would, one, not earn a living, playing the way I play, I might be lucky to have a $20 gig, "you can't play like that in this class."
R. Alan Brooks (35:44):
They saying straight up disses like that?
Jason Moran (35:46):
Oh yeah. But I came from my family. And so I said, "Well, could you tell me what I was doing then?" And he was like... And I said, "Well, since you don't know, let me show you." I don't care about it, because first of all, I could tell you don't quite know as much as I do about music right now because you said that dumb shit to me." And I did this in front of the class, I didn't have a problem doing that, defending my practice either. It wasn't like, he was going to tell me all that and then I was going to be... I said, "Look, we're in an improvisation class, you yelling at me about the way I'm playing, meanwhile," and I pointed to the entire class and said, "Meanwhile, these kids playing the most boring thing ever and you don't say nothing to them and you going to decide to come down on me?"
Jason Moran (36:37):
I mean, I was ready for it, this is me graduating like, "I'm ready to go into the world." Look, and those things are hard, but at some point you will have to stand up for the craft that you are trying to create, even if it's real muddy right now, it ain't even quite clear, it ain't got the edge yet, the shadow, none of that's coming together, the concept, but the steps are there, but you will have to keep walking and somebody is going to stand in your way and no matter how much support you have and I feel like I have the most support, but it will always be something or someone, especially, who's going to try to say, "That ain't really the way to do it." Which is fine, that's their right, but I never had a... I said, "If you decide to say that to me, I'm an improviser, I have something to say back." It's not like all of a sudden, I stop thinking in that moment. My passion for improvisation also thrives in the mouth like, "I'm ready to go to that too, let's do it."
R. Alan Brooks (37:41):
Yeah. Well, yeah, so I guess, what I hear is basically on the other side of that conflict, person, obstacle, fear, there's something beautiful waiting for you.
Jason Moran (37:55):
R. Alan Brooks (37:55):
And you just get to the other side of that.
Jason Moran (37:57):
Yeah. And it takes a long time and it takes getting over it too and also you can't rush any of this. And in an art practice, your timeline is until your death, it's not like, "I have to do this in five." No. Alma Thomas, one of the greatest painters ever, when did her career thrive? When she was in her '60s and '70s. Like, "Wait, what?" And where you watching artists now entering their '80s and '90s, whether they're musicians or artists. No, it's a long game, if we are given that opportunity, it's a long one, so yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (38:39):
Yeah. I think a lot about Melvin Van Peebles, he's my personal hero, just because first of all, like you're saying, I mean, he's like in his 80s I think, still putting out stuff, but just his determination. There's a documentary about him called How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It).
Jason Moran (38:57):
R. Alan Brooks (38:58):
Yeah. And it's on Prime and it's... That dude, like nothing was going to stop him. And I think now, we don't even have the hurdle of technology in the way that people had, even 20 years ago, you can make a whole album on your phone if you want to. You can draw a whole comic book, you can be like, "What are you waiting on?" You got the internet you got... And it's still so many people, it's odd to me to even hear the term aspiring coming from somebody because it's like, "Just make it, just make the thing."
Jason Moran (39:30):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The hardest part is the tool will always be the tool, I guess, ever since the wheel or the ice pick or whatever, the tool has always been there, but then the creativity around it, that's on another timeline. And I don't know, no matter how many tools you have, like Jordans, is it the shoes?
R. Alan Brooks (39:52):
Jason Moran (39:53):
Nah, it's Jordan.
R. Alan Brooks (39:54):
Jason Moran (39:54):
It's really Jordan, it just kind of is, you know what I mean? And it's his ingenuity in that moment. The other night I was showing the boys, I have twin boys who are almost 14.
R. Alan Brooks (40:06):
Jason Moran (40:07):
And somehow TBS or one of those channels was showing a marathon of Slam Dunk Championships, from 2005 all the way up to '19. So we watched like 10 of them in a row, 30 minutes each. And watching dunking change and watching the presentation of the dunk change too.
R. Alan Brooks (40:28):
Jason Moran (40:29):
And so one of the judges was Darryl Dawkins, you remember him? He would break the backboard, glass shattering everywhere. Right, right. So I was telling the boys, I was like, "No, well, that's him, that's Magic Johnson, this is Jordan." And during the break, I would show them, "Oh, no, this is what Jordan did, from the free throw line or Spud Webb did." And then we watched the presentation shift and continue to shift and we also watched the bodies change. So then we watched people's heads getting higher and higher, over the rim. All of a sudden people could now do things that just were impossible before.
R. Alan Brooks (41:05):
Jason Moran (41:07):
And we were watching it and I was thinking like — now I shouldn't even really say this in public. This is something I'm working on now. But I was thinking like, "Damn, so what's that for music?" You have to do a dunk. What's your dunk? What would you show someone in two minutes to make them be like, "Oh, shit." Or when you do a crazy dunk everybody is like, "Oh!" You know, like when the whole team, the whole front row jumps up. What could you do in that moment? And not as like a TikTok thing, I don't equate that to the same thing, that's something else, which does have a little bit of that in it.
Jason Moran (41:46):
Making up the small performance, whatever that is, but it made me think about what it could be for music and the challenge of that for the new generation, because we have to deal with these bites. And the dunk, it ain't in the game, right? It's just the dunk. It don't even count as two points, it's just a dunk competition, it's just a dunk, it's just the style. How much style could you show me in about a minute? And right, and that's a challenge, right? And I think the people that I've been talking about, Melvin Van Peebles, whoever, Mary Lou Williams, they have a style that is like, "Oof," right? It pushes you back, it makes you know that they are in the space and they command it.
R. Alan Brooks (42:35):
Yeah. Melvin got a dotted tattoo along his neck that says, "Cut here." That is some next level like, "You are going to know." You know what I'm saying? "You're going to know that I'm here." Okay. Well, so you're saying, this is the thing you're working on. What's next? Where do you see yourself headed artistically?
Jason Moran (42:55):
Oh, I always say my next thing is getting my kids to their next birthday, because it's the hardest thing to do, is raise children and as beautiful as they are, it is rough and now they're teenagers. So as much as I think that the work I make and collaborate with people on is great and all, I still know that I need to make them positive citizens in whatever community they get into and I need to enable them at every turn that they feel that they want to go, because I feel like that's how both Alicia, my wife, her parents, and my parents raised me. And you'll do things that you won't understand that your child wants to do, but you want to support them. So for me, that's where my energy is.
R. Alan Brooks (43:51):
I love that, I love that. I mean, it's the power of an engaged parent. I'm going to say, adjacent to that, I want to ask does how you participate in your art practice, is it influenced by what you want your kids to see or get something out of?
Jason Moran (44:08):
Definitely. Actually, when they were toddlers, I made this piece called Fats Waller Dance Party and so I did a tribute to the pianist Fats Waller who wrote all these great songs and Meshell Ndegeocello was like, she would sing all the songs, but I made it a party and so I've been playing all these concerts where people sit down and they do like this, drink a little, whatever [crosstalk 00:44:31], but I was like, "No, let's make a party where people..." Because that's what Fats Waller did for Harlem, he was like, "No, let's get reckless." And so, make a dance party, so that my kids could come to the show and they could wild out. That was specifically, what it was for too. I was like, "No, you can trip out, you can run up on stage, actually that's great." So they've had a huge, huge impact on—
R. Alan Brooks (44:57):
That's interesting, that's cool.
Jason Moran (44:58):
... on a lot of the things my wife and I have done and of course, and the way we've looked at Black music history, we put it on the stage and so they hear us talk about the history of Black music in America all the time, just because we working together all the time. So like I did this big thing about, James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters. And James Reese Europe led the Harlem Hellfighters band, he was already a famous musician band in World War I to France, but before he brings jazz to France during the war and the segregated army, they got a fight on the side of the French just to get over there.
Jason Moran (45:36):
But he also brings the culture with it, the sound of Harlem, he brings it, but then he gets back to New York and he's killed by one of his own band mates. But I did this tribute to him because he was a man who was not even put into jazz history, but it wasn't simply because of the music, it was actually because he was fighting for the freedom of Black musicians off stage, he had a Black music union. So what? So then my son, he's like, "Oh I'm going to write me a Harlem Hellfighters report for seventh grade."
R. Alan Brooks (46:06):
Jason Moran (46:07):
Right. So some of that stuff, whether they think Fred Hampton is a guy who's still alive, but bringing it up or working with Tanahasi or all these, that they feel like, "Yeah, no, this was a part of how I saw life growing up in my parents' household." So I think of people who grew up, like I know Kelly Jones, who was the daughter of — great art historian, who's the daughter of Amiri Baracka and when she talks about, living in that house with all these people, musicians, thinkers, poets, everybody coming rolling through, then what that makes for the child is like, a creative buffet that you can go anywhere because this, the brain is free.
R. Alan Brooks (46:55):
Well, we're going to wrap up soon, but I was going to say, the reason I asked that question is so we didn't talk about it very much, but I've moved away from music and my focus is writing graphic novels and comic books and I've gotten a lot more engagement with that, but there was a point, 2 years ago, on Christmas where I got death threats over a graphic novel I was working on.
Jason Moran (47:15):
Oh my goodness.
R. Alan Brooks (47:16):
Now, so they usually deal with social issues and racism, police brutality, et cetera, right?
Jason Moran (47:21):
R. Alan Brooks (47:21):
And so there was this part where I had to really think about like, "People want to threaten my life over comic books, you know what I'm saying? Which direction am I moving? Do I get quieter? Do I get louder?" And I have a six year old niece and I really thought about like, "Okay, worst case scenario, if something happened to me because of the art that I'm creating, it's important to me to create art that moves the world to a better place for her and that's worth it to me." You know what I'm saying? And not having kids on my own, I think it's one of the first times I really kind of connected with how much it means to have somebody that I love so much, who exists outside of my body, that it affects the very way that I exist in the world.
Jason Moran (48:19):
R. Alan Brooks (48:20):
Jason Moran (48:21):
Yeah, I know, that's heavy, that's heavy. Because sometimes we think about our immediate public and then there's like, or what I say to students is, "Have you played that for your mother yet?" Like, "No, take it to the home, take it to your grandmother's house, play it there, see what she thinks." Because that's where we're coming from and then for the generation below, it's like, "That's where we're going." They inherit it all, whether they want to or not, "Oh yeah, my crazy uncle."
R. Alan Brooks (48:52):
Right, right, right. And I know we were talking about that thing, like your parents were very supportive, but some people get that message from their family that art is like flighty or selfish or irresponsible, whatever, but it tells me that this person believed in the power of my art enough, that they thought they needed to threaten my life. You know what I'm saying? So why am I doubting it? Why should I ever doubt it? So I guess some good came out of that, you know what I'm saying?
Jason Moran (49:22):
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, stay safe.
R. Alan Brooks (49:25):
Right on. I appreciate it, yeah. All right. So I'm going to toss this out and choose it to be our closing, well, we got two more, but you run into young version of yourself, the same version that told his teacher off. First of all, do you think your young self would take advice from you now? And then what would the advice be?
Jason Moran (49:46):
Let's see. I mean, the advice would be, "You're right."
R. Alan Brooks (49:52):
And then he would take that, right? I think that's the best answer I've heard to that question so far. I love that.
Jason Moran (50:06):
You know what I mean? I don't know, because the other part is, "Yeah, you should trust your nose." And then your nose might tell you like, "Oh, shit, actually, maybe I won't do it that way next time." That's what you need to learn. So I say that. My younger self would listen to me at this age right now because I'm 40-something. If I was like 10 years younger, he wouldn't, because when I was coming into school, I wanted to study with somebody really old, I didn't trust somebody who was already popular. I feel like I'm past a certain stage where that may have impacted a student.
Jason Moran (50:53):
And I had students when I was teaching in my twenties and they came out great, actually. So sometimes I think like, "Oh, maybe that's not the best advice." But I was looking and I was like... Because when I went into school, the musicians who had created the language were still alive. So it was like, "No, I need to get that one source is here, I need that." Because if he dies, all the stuff goes with him. So I would trust "You're right."
R. Alan Brooks (51:24):
I love that, that's dope. Hey brother, so if people want to follow your stuff, where do they go?
Jason Moran (51:31):
Yeah. Well, my wife hates it, but you can go to Instagram, I don't even like it either, but you can go there.
R. Alan Brooks (51:39):
Yeah. I made one begrudgingly, yeah.
Jason Moran (51:42):
And also, I'm very adamant about selling my music, selling it on Bandcamp only, of all the music that I've put out in the past six years, which has allowed me a lot of freedom. After I left Blue Note after 18 years, I started my own record company called Yes Records, along with my wife and we put all of our music out on Bandcamp. So Bandcamp is a service where you could go listen to some songs and you can decide whether not you want to buy it, but it is not like stream until you...
Jason Moran (52:13):
Because I think of the music as ideas, I don't think of it just as music that you can put on in the background. I've watched people steal the ideas, but I'm selling the idea. The idea has commerce attached to it and then the history of how Black music has been taken advantage of, royalties have been stolen and masters have been kept. No, I own my masters now and so I license the music to who I want to, for whatever price I want to, not Blue Note. And Anita Baker just got her masters back, right?
R. Alan Brooks (52:45):
Oh, didn't know that, nice.
Jason Moran (52:46):
Yes, she was like, she got her masters back.
R. Alan Brooks (52:49):
That's dope, they're not sold.
Jason Moran (52:51):
They're not sold, got their masters back, right? This is a real thing right now. So in the past years I've been only putting it on that, so you'll hear only my Blue Note music on Spotify or Apple Music, but you won't hear any of the good new music.
R. Alan Brooks (53:06):
So that stuff is exclusively Bandcamp.
Jason Moran (53:08):
It's exclusive, it's stupid to do it that way. I don't even think that... See now, I need some advice from like my 70 year old self, "Does that work out? You saying that it's only available here? I need some help right here." I don't think it's smart, I don't think it's smart, but it's more like I believe in the idea of it and a $20 record is just $20.
R. Alan Brooks (53:29):
Jason Moran (53:33):
Chipotle costs a lot.
R. Alan Brooks (53:35):
Yeah, yeah, you're right, okay. So they just put in your name at Bandcamp or?
Jason Moran (53:42):
At Bandcamp, yes.
R. Alan Brooks (53:42):
Or Instagram too?
Jason Moran (53:44):
@thejasonmoran on Instagram, yeah, whatever, but I'm kind of around, you can always find me, you can find me at the MCA right now.
R. Alan Brooks (53:50):
Yeah, right, right. "I'm out in these streets, come find me." All right, brother. It's been a pleasure talking to you.
Jason Moran (53:58):
My pleasure, thank you.
R. Alan Brooks (53:58):
Thanks, yeah, seriously.
R. Alan Brooks (54:00):
Thank you to today's guest, Jason Moran. Visit mcadenver.org to learn more about his work and get tickets to see his current exhibition, Bathing the Room with Blues, at MCA Denver through January 30th, 2022. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe for more and leave review, it really helps us out. Tell a friend to tell a friend. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there too, for behind the scenes clips that don't make into the episode. How Art is Born is hosted by me, R. Alan Brooks, Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor, Courtney Law is our executive producer. How Art is Born as a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.