On Jazz Day, Jason Moran Makes The Case For Relevance UNESCO recently set April 30 as a day to raise awareness of jazz music's potential as a cross-cultural unifier. But in the U.S., the audience is aging, and the music has struggled to connect with younger generations. Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center's artistic adviser for jazz, hopes to change that.
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On Jazz Day, Jason Moran Makes The Case For Relevance

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On Jazz Day, Jason Moran Makes The Case For Relevance

On Jazz Day, Jason Moran Makes The Case For Relevance

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On this first international Jazz Day, some renowned musicians will celebrate what UNESCO describes as the universal music of freedom and creativity. Concerts kicked off over the weekend in Paris and New Orleans, and there's a performance tonight at U.N. headquarters in New York. But amid the gala, a question: Is anyone listening?

American audiences for jazz continue to shrink and grow older. Jason Moran intends to meet that challenge. The pianist and composer just took over as artistic adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center from the late Billy Taylor.

We want to talk with jazz musicians today: How do you keep your music relevant? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Jason Moran is a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, and he's been called the most influential jazz musician under 40. He joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you on the program today.

JASON MORAN: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I've read that you perform actually more outside the United States than you do inside.

MORAN: Isn't this a shame? But no, this is partially true. This is true. It's just a part of a trend of a developing jazz musician that can consistently travel to Europe and play small towns all throughout Europe.

CONAN: And those same opportunities not available here?

MORAN: Well, you know, I would love to say that I was - I took a plane to Mobile, Alabama, and then drove two hours to a remote town, and then there was this enormous jazz festival there. This is what traditionally happens in Germany, in Spain, in Switzerland. So there's - there aren't as many. You know, I don't know, this disappearing act that's happened.

But I think there's a way, if we re-seed America to a degree, and that's, you know, that - but we have to start putting the seeds back in the soil again.

CONAN: You spoke about those great jazz festivals in Europe. The New Orleans Jazz Festival kicked off over the weekend. The headliners are Cee Lo Green and Bruce Springsteen.

MORAN: They swing, right?


CONAN: Well, yeah.

MORAN: Well, you know, Cee Lo, I will say Cee Lo has, you know, a lot of knowledge about music. My bassist, Tarus Mateen, used to play with Cee Lo when he was in a hip-hop group - oh my goodness, now I'm spacing on their name. But anyway, Cee Lo kind of comes from a space where music is really integral. I mean, and nobody's going to argue with Bruce Springsteen and his attachment to American music.

CONAN: Yeah, but nobody's going to call it jazz, either.

MORAN: Nobody's going to call it jazz, either, but that's also - you know, sometimes this is just how things develop, and I often wonder, in 50 years, when how will hip-hop be treated, you know. Right now it seems like it's a thing that we'll promote. And I've been on many festivals where Snoop Dogg or any number of hip-hop people have been on the act, as well, even Mary J. Blige on a jazz festival.

So, you know, the music kind of becomes - you know, jazz is the great umbrella that everyone wants to be under for some reason.

CONAN: Well, it provides a kind of legitimacy because, well, you know, what, 70 years ago, this was America's great dance music, not so much anymore.

MORAN: Right, no, not so much. I mean, one of the projects I did last year was I took Fats Waller's music, and I worked with a great bassist and singer, Meshell Ndegeocello, and we made Fats Waller's music a dance party again. So there were very few chairs and, you know, hundreds of people dancing to this music just to kind of put it back in the mind that, you know, that Fats Waller is dance music as much as it is concert music.

So how do we kind of like - for me it's the recontextualization. Or what is the functionality of the music anymore? It's the same when you go to a museum. What's really the function of looking at a Mark Rothko painting, you know, the function of it? Like how - where does the emotion lie? So in music where does it lie?

And are we, as humans, kind of gaining any insight on how to talk about ourselves and how something as abstract as, say, a Charlie Parker record kind of gets us into a dialogue about, you know, our emotions and our, you know, thoughts.

CONAN: Charlie Parker, though, would have regarded himself certainly as an artist but also as an entertainer, and sometimes that distinction, well, some people say the entertainment part has been lost.

MORAN: Well, maybe so. I mean, you know, there's a thing that happens when we start to take the form for granted. So, I mean, even stylistically, if I'm looking at photographs of Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington with his 18-piece orchestra, impeccably dressed, sitting behind, you know, equally formatted music stands, all with the title Duke Ellington - you know, like an immaculate set for a stage, as well.

You know, we take that form for granted about how to present the music, and I think to a degree, we have to rethink just how do we present this music in 2012 and for the future. I mean, it can't be on the same model that happened in 1908 or 1958, you know. It has to continue to move because the way the world works is not the same.

CONAN: I don't know if you saw a piece by Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, but he said effectively that jazz has become a fine arts music, as symphonic music is, and needs to market itself in much the same way.

MORAN: It can. I mean, but there are strands. You know, like the one thing about talking about this form of great music, jazz, is that there's so many different strands, and not every one is under that same kind of DNA code. Some of the people's codes are much more progressive than others. And so each of those kind of like cliques of artists also have a kind of dialogue about how they want to talk about their music.

My great teacher Andrew Hill(ph) said the one problem that he felt was that the music was just under-promoted as a whole, not even the kind of promotion but it's just under-promoted. It's not ever what's in - you know, rarely what's in the public context. So therefore, no one really has any reason to think about it because we don't talk about it.

This morning I was in New York, I'm here in New York, and I was listening to WKCR, and they were playing a special on outlaw country music. It was riveting. For hours I was listening to my roots, Texas country music. You know, but, like, now I had a new respect in the context within which to listen to country music. And now I'm ready to buy all the Waylon Jennings I can.


CONAN: We're talking with Jason Moran, a jazz pianist and composer, music advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center. He was appointed there in 2011. And we'd like to hear from jazz musicians today. How do you keep your music relevant? And we'll take some calls in just a minute, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

But there are already some upcoming performances listed on the Kennedy Center jazz calendar. One group, Medeski Martin & Wood, has been described as genre-defying. Here's a song of theirs called "Pappy Check."


CONAN: So as you can hear, at least some of the scratching there, a little hip-hop.

MORAN: Right. I mean, how long can we act like that doesn't exist, that that form of music hasn't happened? So it's important that, you know - I mean, the great thing about jazz is what it's traditionally been built on is that it kind of really reflects what current, contemporary is.

So if we don't understand that, you know, in the late '70s, DJs up in the Bronx started scratching on records, and that became a new instrument, then we have to kind of reckon with it as musicians. Or right now people working with a lot of laptops. So these are new forms of communication just as much as a piano is.

CONAN: Let's get Adam(ph) on the line, Adam's calling us from Oklahoma City.

ADAM: Hi, it's a pleasure to be online with Jason Moran. I am a sax player here in Oklahoma City, and one of the best ways we found to reach a wider audience is pop music, and like you were just speaking about. One of my favorite bands that does this is a band, a little trio called Dirty Loops, and they re-harmonize some current pop songs, Brittney Spears, Lady Gaga, Adele, and that's definitely one of the best ways to get a wider audience.

CONAN: And are you getting that wider audience, Adam? Who's there when you play?

ADAM: Yeah, I mean, Oklahoma City is not the biggest jazz, you know, epicenter, but it's definitely more appealing to come see a funky pop-jazz, you know, a mixed-genre group than for someone to see the so-and-so jazz trio or whatever. I do see a bigger audience for these mixed-genre groups, and it does introduce the audience to jazz in a great way.

CONAN: And what kind of venues are up and running?

ADAM: Around here we've got just small clubs. Bricktown in Oklahoma City is the downtown area. There's a lot of clubs and restaurants around. And really a lot of private parties and weddings, too, are of course a great, great venue to play jazz in. But, you know, you don't get to invite an audience to those, so...

CONAN: No, you don't. You have to take it where it's possible to play it, Jason Moran, you've got to be there.

ADAM: And, you know, a quick and easy way to promote your music, as well.

MORAN: Yeah, and also, as the artist, you also have to figure out that balance, too. You know, like when or which songs you're playing and why you're playing those songs. You know, like for me, it was like tackling a song by Afrika Bambaataa, "Planet Rock," you know, like I had grown up with that song, and it meant much more to me than just, you know, kind of the possible crossover portion of it.

And, you know, I think we find if musicians continue to think about finding those songs within our canon, not really just relegating them that it has to be like a Duke Ellington song, or it has to be Ornette Coleman song, but we really look at what kind of sounds infect us as musicians, then those become the best portals, just as much as Charlie Parker songs.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: I want to hear from other jazz musicians today. How do you keep your music relevant? 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email, talk@npr.org. More with Jason Moran in a moment, a jazz musician of course himself, now artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center. This is a tune from his 2001 CD, "Black Stars," a song called "Out Front." I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. It's the first international Jazz Day. We're talking with jazz musician Jason Moran, in some circles known as the future of jazz. It's a reputation that may serve him well in his latest role as artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center, just the second person to hold that position. Jazz great Billy Taylor held that title for 16 years until his death in 2010.

We want to speak with jazz musicians today. How do you help keep your music relevant? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Wes(ph) is on the line calling us from Oakland.

WES: Hi, yeah, my name is Wes Walkins(ph), and I run a program called the Jazz and Democracy Project. So I wanted to chime in as far as the function and relevance of jazz music. I use it as a way to teach kids about some of the tenets that undergird the writing of the U.S. Constitution. So I'm teaching kids about jazz as a way for them to really think about civic engagement, U.S. history and government.

CONAN: Kids how old?

WES: I teach elementary, middle and high school.

CONAN: And somebody might notice that jazz, you can debate about when it was invented but some years after the writing of the Constitution.

WES: Exactly, yet still if you think about jazz music being invented by the very people who are outside the democratic promise of this nation, there are some profound things to learn about what our democracy could look like by looking at how great jazz musicians interact with one another onstage.

CONAN: Jason Moran, I know that you've thought about the relationship of the origins of jazz in slavery and there in New Orleans, that this is something I know that's dear to your heart.

MORAN: Yeah, I mean, I thought it very - it's great to hear about his - he's doing a great job because if a kid can't think about the simple nature of kind of what their function is in their own environment or their own society, it's going to be difficult to then kind of navigate the rest of the world.

You know, so as a musician, then you think about, like for I know myself and many others, it's a place of therapy, and, you know, and we talk about this way of which people who were not traditionally given the voice of freedom could speak their mind freely through the music, like in code.

And that, you know, and that their neighbors understood that code, you know, and this - and so it's a journal entry. I mean, these musicians, John Coltrane or Miles Davis or whomever you want to talk about, they really encode their music, and then, you know, and there are followers that they infect, and people spread the gospel.

CONAN: Wes, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

WES: Thank you.

CONAN: This sort of follows along the same lines. This is a question for you from Libby(ph) by email: To sustain relevance of a genre, we need to nurture young musicians, get them interested in some way in that style. What do you think is important to nurture the next generation of jazz musicians?

MORAN: Well, you know, the biggest thing is just study. I mean, time on the instrument is, you know, you can't really battle time on the instrument. It's just like, you know, any golfer. You know, it's like any basketball player. It's like any economist. Really, it's studying data consistently, and you figure out the technique that is involved with this area of expertise whether you're shooting for expertise or not. So, you know, I'm at that point right now, and I have four-year-old twins, and at some point in the near future, they have to just start playing an instrument, and they have to be engaged with now thinking, like, OK, I have to practice a couple of times a week for maybe an hour and just understanding what that feeling is, you know, whether they become musicians or not.

I was just talking with an artist-friend, Carole Walker(ph), and she was talking about her daughter spending an entire weekend trying to make sure that she figured out how to make this replication of a painting, you know, exact as her mindset. But she spent, you know, basically 48 hours painting, you know, like that - the passion will come from the time on the task, and there's kind of no shortcut.

And I think if we got away from the shortcut society, then we might enable more students to kind of get back some of the artistic leanings that they might already inherit.

CONAN: You are a teacher, too, I think at the New England Conservatory?

MORAN: Correct.

CONAN: And do you find that lack of practice, lack of technique, if you will, is a problem?

MORAN: No, I don't find lack of technique as much as a problem as lack of understanding of themselves as human beings. And, you know...

CONAN: Well, that's kind of a problem across the board, not just with musicians.


MORAN: But I think, you know, like what students really would - are enamored by is how these musicians, you know, how their favorite musicians kind of accomplish these tasks, or how did they get to this idea, you know, what were the steps involved to getting there. And they want to find out that process, and I want to engage them in thinking about their own personal process that goes further than just their time in the practice room.

Like their parents teach them how to teach, you know, teach them how to learn. You know, like their brother teaches them how to learn. And so how you kind of digest music or influence really is a product of your environment, and so you have to take that environment into account.

CONAN: Let's get John(ph) on the line, John's with us from Nashville.

JOHN: Hi, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MORAN: All right.

JOHN: Love the show, just wanted to say really briefly that, you know, I didn't grow up with a lot of music. And with jazz, I kind of came to it later in life, in high school and college and kind of fell in love with it. And I really learned that jazz is really more of a - I learned it more as an approach and technique that you can apply to any style of music.

And working down here in Nashville as a session guitar player, I've played with a lot of different artists in a lot of different genres, and I find something about my jazz training that I can apply to every musical situation that I'm in, whether it's working with a country artist or a hip-hop artist, reggae artist, the list sort of goes on and on.

And I think to me that's really the only way I've really been able to kind of stay in touch with it and keep it relevant is sort of just recognizing it as more like a vocabulary and a language that you can communicate with, rather than sort of drawing a line around it and say OK, this is jazz, and this is not jazz, and so I want to play jazz or not.

And it really is something that you can apply just - it's music, and you can apply it in every musical situation. And thanks very much, and I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: OK, John, thanks.

MORAN: Yeah, that's amazing - I mean, just like I already reflected on this outlaw country music I was listening to today, and I found myself responding to it the same way that I would respond to, say, a Herbie Hancock record or a Henry Threadgill record. Like I'll respond like oh, yeah, like mm, like with the same kind of passion because at that one level, at that greatest level that Duke Ellington talked about, there's good music and bad music, you're really shooting just for the good music thing right there as a musician.

And sometimes the style can become like a - you know, something that you have to kind of navigate, you know, as a forager, like going through the forest. So we don't want to get hung up on those weeds, either. I mean, I know people who go fishing, and if they fish in lily pads, then there's a certain lure that you have to use to catch that largemouth bass, you know. So you want to make sure that you're kind - you're kind of slick enough to slip through those weeds as a musician. So like a person like him, who's in Nashville, can function in a bunch of different styles.

It's the same for jazz musicians. I mean, jazz musicians have been on some of the greatest Motown records, they have been on some of the greatest R&B records, rock records, pop records, hip-hop records, you know, the list goes on because the musician becomes fluid in the environment.

CONAN: Well, let's listen to another group that's going to make its debut at the Kennedy Center next year. This is a group called Soulive, their song called "Liquid."


CONAN: Not hard to imagine people dancing to that.

MORAN: No, no. And that organist, Neal - Neal Evans, he and I both studied with the same teacher at Manhattan School of Music, Jaki Byard, you know, so I know who Neal is from when he was a kid, you know. And so, you know, I know that some of this stuff continues to seep into his music. And it's - and people go through a process, and then they find their space that they want to inhabit, you know.

So it's not just the 1940s and 1950s that serve as influence for jazz musicians, but then there's, like, there's funk and soul and, you know, and R&B and hip-hop that have come along after that that have really started to change the landscape for the music, and we have to kind of accept that, you know.

CONAN: You now have an institutional position, obviously performer, pianist, composer, your eight, I think good - well-selling albums, but now an institutional position at the Kennedy Center that gives you the ability to be an important force. What are you going to try to do?

MORAN: Well, you know, I think about the music. Right now, we're talking about kind of how jazz functions within the music forms. But for me it's also about that context outside the forms, so how does jazz and comedy interact. I mean, they've had a long history, but it's a long, now-forgotten history, unfortunately. But Richard Pryor and Miles Davis used to work together all the time, you know.

Or how does jazz and art? I mean, I work with so many contemporary visual artists and performance artists. Like next week at the Whitney Museum - or in two weeks, I'll have a residency with my wife, Alicia Moran, called "Bleed," where we spend five days in the museum presenting 27 different events. Maybe a quarter of them are actual jazz events, as they are kind of how the music intersects or how kind of art and music intersects.

CONAN: She's an opera singer.

MORAN: She's an opera singer. You know, or how does jazz and dance, how do those - I mean, there's so much to kind of discuss. And I think sometimes we kind of lose sight that the music has a wider context. So I want to continue those dialogues, I mean. And that's - those are the kinds of things that I want to foster, kind of creating new works too, you know?

Not only just looking at the past of what, you know, great choreographers that worked with great musicians back in the 1930s or '40s, but OK, now it's 2012. So what do Bill T. Jones and Cecil Taylor have to discuss onstage in sound and in movement? For me, that's riveting. I want to be in the audience for that, you know? And this is the kind of dialogue that I think other musicians are kind of also eager to have.

CONAN: Here's some emails, Joe(ph) in Shawnee Mission, Kansas: I play as a hobby around Kansas City. Friday night, we opened a dinner set with "Knives Out" - seemed appropriate to us - a Radiohead song introduced to the jazz world by Brad Mehldau.

MORAN: Right.

CONAN: A local group, the Westport Art Ensemble, has provided new perspectives on songs like "Eight Miles High," "I'm So Lonely I Could Cry." And Pat Matheny, among others, has looked to Jimmy Webb's "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress."

Talking about going across genres. This is Fisher(ph) in Charlotte, North Carolina: Talk about gender bending - genre bending, excuse me - my band, Church's Band, mixes classic hymn texts with jazz, blues, neo soul, you name it. Jazz will always stir the soul of those willing to listen.

And this from Stacy(ph)) in Jacksonville: My daughter is a middle-schooler at a performing arts school in Jacksonville. She idolizes Mr. Moran. She's a pianist with a jazz band at her school. Being relevant to middle school musicians is a real challenge. Will you come to visit our school to give a master class?

So you get a gig out of this.

MORAN: Of course.


MORAN: Any good fan. No, you know - yeah, that's - see, and that's, you know, one of the questions I wanted to ask some people who have just kind of, they say, come to the music late is like, what is that moment? See, for musicians, it's different. So I was a pianist at age six and hearing Thelonious Monk at age 14. That's the moment, OK? It's like, OK, I want to sound like that. I want to do what he does. I want to look like him. But for a person who doesn't play an instrument, then how do they find that - you know, what is the sound that hits them that says, oh, I want to learn more about this, you know?

CONAN: You could hear Thelonious Monk even in that little clip that we played of your music. You could hear the Monk still in there.

MORAN: Oh, he's always there. He's always there.

CONAN: We're talking with Jason Moran, jazz pianist and composer, musical adviser for jazz at the Kennedy Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Michael - Michael, a caller from Oklahoma City.


CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

MICHAEL: I actually serve on board - the assistant board of directors for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. And one of the things that we've started doing is trying to get like jazz musicians and big band and folk and all sorts of different genres to come play with the philharmonic, which kind of exposes that audience to a whole new audience, like a whole new genre of music. And for me, I found all sorts of jazz musicians and other musicians that I've never even heard of before that now I love and listen to all the time.

MORAN: Right. I imagine you'll be getting a lot of calls very soon...


MORAN: ...from musicians. Oh, I want to play.

MICHAEL: Yeah, and I think it's really spectacular. You know, even if you're into jazz, it's pretty cool to see some bands that you know play with an entire philharmonic behind them.

MORAN: Right.

CONAN: Have you ever had that opportunity, Jason Moran?

MORAN: I have. Very rarely, but I've had it, and it's a very - I mean, it's not like playing in a club once you look back and there's a hundred people sitting next to you and that are actually going to perform with you, not just look at you. So it's quite a thrill and a rush, that I know musicians, you know, generally function in more intimate environments are kind of, you know, clamoring for these opportunities because they're also writing music for those opportunities, but are constantly searching for the outlet. So it's amazing that you're kind of doing that down there in Oklahoma. And I hope that continues to work.

MICHAEL: Thank you. We love it.

CONAN: Good luck, Michael.

MICHAEL: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Joshua(ph), Joshua calling from Denver.

JOSHUA: Hi. This is Joshua. I have a band that's called Ghost Star(ph). And what I've done is I've stopped booking myself at jazz venues. I've actually been booking myself (unintelligible) you would hear maybe punk rock music or maybe hip-hop music and just been playing in a jazz format, kind of an insurgent, if you will, of jazz music. (Unintelligible) to really turn people on a bit to the music that - (unintelligible) what jazz music is. And I think calling it jazz is kind of crippling, though, because there's already kind of a built-in connotation of what people think jazz should sound like.

CONAN: Crippling to call it jazz. Interesting.

MORAN: Mm. Yeah. I mean, there - and there's been kind of a nice debate happening around that very subject about the name of jazz and what it represents or what it did represent and how does it change and where - and what do we call our music. That becomes the bigger issue. Where - what do I call my music that I make with my ensemble, The Bandwagon? Or what do you call Ghost Star's music, you know? That you even...


MORAN: ...titled your band Ghost Star(ph) like already says a lot about what - you know, a different kind of concept of what I'm going to imagine as a listener. And so I'm intrigued, you know?

JOSHUA: Yeah. I think one of the things is, is that - I talked to the Bad Plus(ph) recently. They came into town. See, I started a radio program here in Denver called "The Jazz Odyssey." To be honest, what I do is I play your kind of music, and I play music of the Bad Plus. I'll even play stuff of Jon Hassell and even get me even further out to maybe people of more what we would call mainstream and playing it all on one radio show. But I see a connectivity just because of the time that we live in versus simply a genre. And so what I've done is I'm just bringing it to the people and just letting them decide what they want to call it, but it's in our hearts, we're playing jazz (unintelligible) should it matter if it's called jazz.

MORAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it's an interesting - it's a big conundrum that, you know, that we won't solve, but...

CONAN: Certainly not on this program.

MORAN: Not on this program. But you know, but I think the bigger issue that's - for some people is then, is then: how do we relate to the history of jazz, you know? So how does it relate to Scott Joplin? How do we relate Jelly Roll Morton in all this, you know, musicians from 100 years ago? And how does this, you know, music, this freedom music continue to retain that unbelievable kind of trait that it would accomplish any goal that was not necessarily presented to a people - how does this music in a contemporary form still retain that aspect that draws people in?

CONAN: Joshua, thanks very much for the call.

JOSHUA: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with Ghost Star. Jason Moran, how are you going to celebrate International Jazz Day, the very first one, other than listening to Waylon Jennings records?

MORAN: Oh, right. I'm actually going to go to the concert tonight. You know, it's beautiful to actually sit in an audience and watch a great concert rather than actually have to be on the stage.


MORAN: So I'm going to go watch, you know, these musicians, Herbie Hancock and Christian McBride and, you know, Stevie Wonder, and enjoy the music. That's what I'm going to do.

CONAN: Have a great time. Thanks very much for your time today.

MORAN: Thank you.

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