Jason Moran Redfines Expressions Of Jazz

Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran won a MacArthur Fellowship for his work as a bandleader who mines a variety of musical styles. He was recognized for genre-crossing performances that expand the boundaries of jazz expression. Host Michel Martin speaks with Moran about the award and his work.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And finally, our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we hear from people who enlighten us with what they've learned and contributed throughout a lifetime. Now often such folk are a long in years, but for the last few weeks, we've been focusing on a distinct group, many of whom have not yet hit 40, but have been recognized for their genius. They are winners of this year's prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called Genius Award. It goes to some of the brightest and most creative people in this country whose works stands out for innovative and unique aspects. The winners are as diverse in background as the disciplines for which they are recognized, and the award comes with a $500,000 prize to be used anyway the recipients choose.

In this latest installment, you'll hear the words and work of MacArthur Fellow Jason Moran. He's a jazz pianist, composer, and bandleader.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAY TO LIVE")

MARTIN: We thought we'd just give you a little taste of what Jason Moran has to offer. That was "Play to Live," from the latest CD called "Ten." Jason Moran is now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory, but he's here with us now from New York.

Welcome and congratulations. Thanks for joining us.

JASON MORAN: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

MARTIN: Now I've been asking all of the winners: what were you doing when you received the call and what was your reaction?

MORAN: Well, I was just finishing a class at New England Conservatory, was walking back to the hotel and was actually expecting another call at that time when they kind of snuck up on me and with this phone call and was very CIA of them, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What do you mean?

MORAN: They really don't - well, you just don't know who this is and so I answered the phone expecting someone else and they say well, do you know who this is? And I say yeah, you're the reporter from Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And he's like, no. Have you heard of the MacArthur? And I was like, oh goodness gracious. I've lost my voice since then, twice so...

MARTIN: From, from...

MORAN: ...I'm getting it back now.

sol

MARTIN: From screaming? From crying?

MORAN: Well, you might say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: Crying and...

MARTIN: Yelling?

MORAN: ...screaming, yelling and drinking, you know, all of the above.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Well, thank goodness because I was - the other question I've been asking people is what are you doing to celebrate? And people have been coming up with these really lame answers like, you know, doing laundry. And so I'm hoping you having something more entertaining to tell us.

MORAN: Yeah. Unfortunately, you know, yeah, I don't have anything really entertaining...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: ...because the celebration really is that that I continue to play as a jazz musician - that I get to get on stage. That's the celebration for me. Every time I touch the instrument it's a different kind of validation I feel right now. I mean it's actually affected some of the moves that I make on stage now, I got to say.

MARTIN: Really? Tell me...

MORAN: Well...

MARTIN: Tell me more about that.

MORAN: As a jazz musician, I always kind of and have tended to think about my teachers and my mentors and various drama or my - or your mother, you know, things that if they were sitting in the audience they would approve of. So your mother might not approve of your cursing on stage. I mean, okay, I curse of little bit on stage and or, you know, I might choose to just play a bunch of songs that I hadn't played in a while because I thought well, maybe those weren't ready to perform. But now everything is ready. You just kind of begin growing more out onto the plate for the audience, and it's been rewarding over the past couple of weeks.

MARTIN: What do you think you will do with the award money? Have you given it any thought?

MORAN: I mean I've given it some thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLEARING THROAT)

MORAN: A lot of it I think will - okay, I'll say a lot, but let me just say, some of it will go towards study, which I think is important right now. I felt that a lot of my performances have been in America and in Western Europe and we've only touched the continent of Africa one time. And for a continent that has offered so much to me, musically, I think it's time that I spend more effort investigating the culture of West Africa, of South Africa, of North Africa, spending time over there performing and learning.

You know, I think another one is to present more music in rural America. I don't ever perform really in Mississippi or Kentucky or Tennessee or Alabama - I mean even a piece I had written about the Gee's Bend quilters of Alabama. I've played in Philadelphia at the Philadelphia Museum of Art because they commissioned it and then I went all the way over to Belgium to play it. But it would be nice to take it back to the women who actually inspired this piece of music, to go back to Gee's Bend, outside of Birmingham.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're speaking with jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. He is the latest in our series of conversations with MacArthur Fellows.

You know, your work is been recognized, in fact, well, this is what the MacArthur Foundation said in awarding one of the fellowships to you. They said that your signature corpus marries established classical blues and jazz techniques with the musical influences of his/your generation, including funk, hip-hop, and rock.

I wanted to ask about that, if you ever feel, as a young man, out of step in some way with your generation - given that jazz, you know, used to be the music that people went out to and danced with. And then it became the music of - and I don't mean to be disrespectful - the music of the museum piece.

MORAN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: It's something that you visit but don't live with.

MORAN: Of course.

MARTIN: Okay. And I wondered if the like in a way you're a bridge between the generations or does that not factor into it at all?

MORAN: Well, I think it's an important issue. But I think, you know, it's a larger topic for me, which I think is the problem that America has with kind of arts and culture. I mean it seems like it's not really a part of the American appetite. It's in the schools but, you know, minimally and it's continually being reduced. So when we get to thinking about something like jazz, which is a complex form of music, and it demands that they consider that they will have to figure out some of the answers, rather I think in much of pop music the answers are so displayed and they even have videos, you know. What I'm hoping to kind of accomplish is that a younger generation or my generation and younger than I - I'm 35 - that we start to reconsider that jazz is not black and white anymore; it's actually color and it's actually digital. That there's many forms that it can kind of present its face in, and that it won't be the same face that their parents think that jazz is.

MARTIN: We looked at all of your CDs and in every one there is a song titled "Gangsterism." There's "Gangsterism on the Rise. There is "Gangsterism Over 10 Years." There is "Gangsterism on the Set." Gangsterism on the River," "Gangsterism on Wood." What's up with you in gangsterism?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: That's a...

MARTIN: What's up with - what's going on?

MORAN: Well, part of it is a tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat and he has a painting called "Hollywood Africans." And in this painting he has - I mean he has many words throughout lots of his painting and one of the words strewn across "Hollywood Africans" is the word gangsterism, and this was on a poster that I had on my door right after I graduated college. Because, you know, out of college you can't afford $3 million paintings or whatever. Anyway, so that word was kind of...

MARTIN: Well, I can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: I don't know who...

MARTIN: I can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: So I'm looking at this poster and seeing this word and I begun thinking about my teachers and some of their repertoire. And one song of my teachers - Andrew Hill's, he has a piece called "Erato," and I could not remember the entire piece but I kind of started well, what, you know, Ice Cube in the '80s called ganking, you know, when you gank something it means to steal it.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MORAN: So I ganged Andrew Hill's "Erato" and changed the melody up and it became, that was "Gangsterism on Canvas," which was the first one in maybe 1998 or whatever.

MARTIN: Okay.

MORAN: So each series is I readdress that song and I put it in a different format and change the medium. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Let's play a little of "Gangsterism on the Rise." Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTERISM ON THE RISE")

MARTIN: Well, so much to talk about and so little time. So we appreciate your taking the time to talk to us. But we always like to ask, do you think you have any wisdom to share?

MORAN: Well, the wisdom I think, I might reflect to something that one of my mentors said to me. The mentor is Muhal Richard Abrams, and he greeted me at the club and shook my hand and said, man I'm so proud. And look, make sure you stay healthy and take care of your family. That was as pure as...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORAN: That was as pure a demand as I've heard in relationship to the MacArthur, and it's the one piece of wisdom that I have for today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: All right. Well, thank you.

Jason Moran, jazz pianist, composer and bandleader of the group Bandwagoneers is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations once again.

MORAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

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