Gangsterism On The Potomac: Jason Moran And The Kennedy Center

Mr. Moran of K.C.: Jason Moran, the new artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center. i i

Mr. Moran of K.C.: Jason Moran, the new artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Clay Patrick McBride/Blue Note Records hide caption

itoggle caption Clay Patrick McBride/Blue Note Records
Mr. Moran of K.C.: Jason Moran, the new artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center.

Mr. Moran of K.C.: Jason Moran, the new artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center.

Clay Patrick McBride/Blue Note Records

Unexpected news broke on Tuesday morning: Pianist and composer Jason Moran was appointed artistic advisor for jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Times was first, but others reported it quickly too.

That sounds sort of like a minor item, a business transaction where a moderately prominent artist is named to an administrative position. In the grand scheme of music news everywhere, it probably is — especially considering we have little idea how Moran's tenure will play out in practice. But I've been struck by how smart I find this decision, and I'd like to try to explain why.

At a lean financial time, one of the country's largest and most visible arts institutions is not only renewing its commitment to jazz — it's doing so in a way that may shake up the landscape for its field. (And, one should mention, it's also replacing a beloved figure in previous jazz advisor Dr. Billy Taylor.) The Kennedy Center has often been criticized as a conservative presenter, and its jazz arm isn't excluded. In hiring Moran, they're getting a track record which transcends the progressivism vs. conservatism debate — it's vast enough that you probably ought just to say it's generally of its time, in the best way.

(About the title: Moran has an ongoing "Gangsterism" series of compositions. Check his catalog for examples. Also, let's note here that NPR Music and the Kennedy Center have a professional relationship in recording A Jazz Piano Christmas, JazzSet concerts and the annual Toast of the Nation broadcast at the venue. I have had little to do with the programming of these things. Moving on ...)

Why is it such a smart move? Seven thoughts:


  1. They're getting a musician. Like Billy Taylor before him — who Moran considered a mentor — Moran is a professional pianist. He knows what it means to go on the road for a living, having done it for well over a decade now. He knows how top jazz talent today is educated in high school, summer camps and college/post-grad programs. (He went through Betty Carter's Jazz Ahead clinic at the Kennedy Center, and now is on staff at Manhattan School of Music and New England Conservatory.) And most importantly, he's on the scene: He knows who and what musicians generally respect, and who and what they generally dislike. The best presenting organizations generally have folks on staff who are in tune with what musicians think as a sort of quality standard; of course, why not just get a musician to show you?
  2. They're getting someone young. Moran's predecessor was in his early 70s when he first got the gig in 1994. In contrast, Moran is 36, about half that age. That means he has lived through the pop music, the broadcast media and cultural landscape of the '80s, '90s and beyond. He's of the generation which is expected to understand how information — including recorded music — is distributed, discovered and shared online. ("Friend" him on Facebook for ready evidence.) If the Kennedy Center wants to lead the way in cultivating new jazz audiences — and it knows that its future existence depends on it — it needs someone of the generation it's looking to attract. This is a good start.
  3. They're getting someone who has often worked with large arts institutions. Here's a man who has been commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Dia Art Foundation in New York and Jazz at Lincoln Center — all in one year. (It resulted partially in the 2006 album called Artist-In-Residence.) He knows a wide range of what's possible with arts institutions: He can simply play a set with his trio, or prepare a large-scale project like a postmodern dance party playing contemporary pop arrangements of Fats Waller tunes with Meshell Ndegeocello. And as one of the few jazz performers able to tour the world regularly, he has seen a lot of different types of venues. A place like the Kennedy Center is a different environment than a club or the like; it has different business models, core audiences and curatorial possibilities. Moran has intensive experience in venues like it.
  4. They're getting someone interested in forging interdisciplinary partnerships. Related to the foregoing, Moran has remarkably broad artistic interests, notably in the sorts of large-scale projects which institutions are able to foster. He scored a ballet and a film and an art exhibition — there's evidence of all that on Ten, his latest album. He's worked with visual artists Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker, as well as performance artists Joan Jonas and Adrian Piper. He performs with an opera singer on occasion, who happens to be his wife. While interdisciplinary experience isn't necessarily valuable in itself, it opens up tons of creative possibilities for where music can go. So the Kennedy Center is hiring a guy who is willing and able to think outside the box — beyond the construct of jazz as it currently exists.
  5. They're getting someone committed to jazz's past, present and future. Jason Moran has sought out sage African American piano masters to study with: Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams. He plays James P. Johnson and Fats Waller tunes — that means pre-World War II. He did a whole multimedia performance, later made into a documentary, about one specific concert in Thelonious Monk's life. He served with veterans like Greg Osby and Steve Coleman; still does with Charles Lloyd. He reaches out to up-and-comers: He co-produced the new record by Ambrose Akinmusire, plays in Jamire Williams' band, gives lessons to Fabian Almazan. And of course, he plays and records, often, with lots of folks. He demonstrably cares about the whole spectrum, from the new new to the old old, and that sense of continuum and stylistic range will be fascinating to watch unfold.
  6. They're getting someone who cares about black aesthetics. Jason Moran is an African American, which might be irrelevant if his identity were merely incidental to his artistry. It isn't. He's demonstrated interest in the lives and careers of many great jazz masters, most of whom were black — he's either sought them out or researched them thoroughly, as discussed in point #5. He's also worked with artists from other disciplines who deal with black experiences — the aforementioned Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker, for starters — and drawn inspiration from the work of disparate African American artists like Romare Bearden, Jimi Hendrix, Bert Williams and the quilters of Gee's Bend, Ala. And he's also covered the early hip-hop masterpiece "Planet Rock," covered the later hip-hop masterpiece "My Block" and talked about collaborating with rapper Ghostface Killah and the influence of producer J. Dilla. In other words, here's a man who has represented many different African-American experiences, from this century and last, within improvised music. In some fundamental way, jazz arose from the experience of African Americans. And giving a curatorial position to someone who can illuminate these cultural connections in varied and uncommon ways seems to me wise.
  7. They're getting a good guy. Here, I don't have any ready evidence other than my few personal interactions with the man. But if you've ever spoken with or had dealings with Jason Moran, I would bet you got the impression that he's fun to talk to and generally curious about all sorts of ideas. (Read/listen to some interviews.) Arts administrators must be professional when business is transacted, and amiable when called to be public figures — they have to be gentlemen. I don't think there's anyone more naturally suited to that role than Dr. Billy Taylor was; his are enormous shoes to fill. But if we're talking about good guys who care, Moran isn't a bad choice to step up.

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