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A Message In Our Music Part 1: Jason Moran

Angelika Beener
Staff Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

After digesting the phenomenon which is Jason Moran, his eminence in music is even more mind-blowing once you consider the fact that he is just 37 years old. In addition to receiving just about every award, acknowledgement and accolade within the jazz spectrum, he is also recipient of the 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has just recently filled the imperial shoes of the late Dr. Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz. Leading one of the most relevant and longstanding piano trios of our time, Moran has also performed and recorded with contemporary and legendary artists like Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd. He’s a special guest on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new release, Sound Travels-- a stellar album with an array of artistic powerhouses like Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Lionel Loueke, and fellow Manhattan School alum, Ambrose Akinmusire. (Moran also produced Akinmusire’s critically-acclaimed Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.)

His impressive resume aside, Moran’s influence as a pianist and composer is tremendous. The Houston native’s love for the visual arts has led to endeavors well beyond the mere “unexpected”. It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project; a special opportunity to explore the mind of the man who is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, “shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz.”

Check it out, as Moran and I share some of our thoughts based around three pivotal social albums.

Charles Mingus Ah Um

“Mingus is…I think he’s related to me [laughs],” says Moran when asked about his decision to pick this album as part of our discussion. “Only because I studied with Jaki Byard. That’s how I think of my family. Jaki Byard makes a lot of other people my relatives because I was really under him. So, considering that Jaki was playing with Mingus was when they were playing much of this political music, I always think about what Mingus represented as sort of a much more hard-edged Duke Ellington, you know?”

An artist who has brilliantly utilized multi-media platforms to express himself as a musician, it’s no surprise that Moran would rely on more than the music to impact his students when teaching a Master class at Manhattan School. “I showed 45 minutes of [an episode of the PBS series] Eyes on the Prize. It was the episode when they discuss the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Governor Faubus and…how crazy he was. So I showed them the film for about 45 minutes, then at a certain point I just turned on a live version of ‘Fables of Faubus’. It was around 12 minutes long…and then I watched the students react. Because [for] most of them, ‘Fables Of Faubus’ is just words or something that maybe Mingus made up. There was a student from Finland in the class, and he said after watching it and listening to Mingus’ song, ‘Well, now it makes a lot more sense. Because being in Finland, my friends and I used to always wonder where that energy came from.’ I said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’ This is an entire segment of the population whose life is dealing with stuff like this. And we’re just watching an edited excerpt of people’s everyday lives. You can’t imagine what that does to a population mentally and physically. And we’re still trying to cope with all of that…even now. So it broke down a lot of people’s understanding of society and the affects it has on music. That everything is not just about a chord, or a melody or the greatest groove…it wasn’t about that. It was therapy. People were using the music as therapy.”

“You know, sometimes I go to these museums all around the world and they have portraits from the 1600s and 1700s, during the Victorian era [etc.]. Bunches of portraits…so we kind of get accustomed to seeing portraits of people other than us. And in music, it doesn’t exist in the same way, but it’s part of the reason [my wife] Alicia and I are embarking on writing a series of portraits for artists we know, most of whom are African Americans, because for me, as a composer, I mean, I’ve written a song for my parents, and my family in Texas, but wow, maybe I should continue trying to explore that even further because what if you started to document your community? Photographers document their community, writers document their community, or you’re doing it right now through an interview. And musicians, what do we document? How do we document our lives and the people who are around us? That’s how you kind of put a date stamp on where the population is. You take that moment to snapshot everything that’s around. So Mingus does that. He snapshots how crazy America is in the 1950s and 60s. People won’t know that history so frequently, but here we are still talking about it.”

John Coltrane Live at Birdland

Personally, I will never forget the first time I heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama”. It was haunting and spiritual on impact, way before I would learn of the gruesome events from which the song is inspired. Spike Lee transports us to the height of tension in the Civil Rights movement in Malcolm X, when the song is a backdrop to footage of the brutal Jim Crow South, where four black girls Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Written and performed by Coltrane just weeks after the tragedy, I have often wondered about how he dealt with something so devastating, so I was very excited when Moran suggested we talk about this album.

“I was at an event at Princeton and there was a panel discussion of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” says Moran. “They were talking about how crazy it was to be down there in the South. Some of them were from up north and someone asked if there was a difference between how racism feels up north, versus how it feels down south. The panelist said the first day he got down south he was driving from the airport, and a cop pulled him over and told him, ‘I know why you’re down here, you need to get out of here. You’re down here to make trouble.’ And that cop is not only the cop, he’s the sheriff, he’s the mayor, he has the biggest businesses in town. It was that massive and overwhelming sense of danger. Also, Nasheet [Waits] gave me some interviews of Kenny Clarke, and he’s talking about being down south with Louis Armstrong. When he got fired by Armstrong’s manager, they just kind of left him down in Georgia with his drums. A black cab driver was like, ‘What are you doing down here, you better get in this car’ and he took him someplace where Kenny was able to find his way back north. I mean, you can’t actually imagine this kind of trauma that people were feeling personally, and as a community. Then put it in the context of hearing about this bombing when Trane plays that song up North in New York…it’s like a hymn or a low moan. It’s impacting, it’s mourning, it’s most dark, you know? This is something real. It’s something prominent and it sounds like this. And it’s a collective moan of African America at that point.”

Nina Simone Live in Concert

Nina Simone is someone I was late to discover. Growing up, I was enthralled with the “singer’s singers” of jazz, and had not really given much thought to the magnitude of Nina Simone until I had, as my elders would say, “done some livin”. Now that I have done just that, and more specifically, become a mother of a son who will become a black man in America, the significance of Nina Simone in my life has increased exponentially. Moran suggested we talk about this album in particular because of “Young, Gifted and Black”, which for me, feels more like the Black National Anthem than the actual one (James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing). It is the anthem which spoke to the time, and I think this makes it personal to me.

More from Moran…

“Sometimes I think the stylist — and there are lots of stylists within this canon — they change the context of the songs that they’re playing. So Art Tatum adds all this dazzle and this sparkle and just feels like…I don’t know, like these really intricate chains from West Africa, you know? Like these amulets of gold that kings and queens would wear, and now he’s paying a song like ‘When Sonny Gets Blue’, and he’s adding all of this to it, which is not there when the composer wrote it. Same with someone like Earl Hines, where he’s adding these chords. So Nina is the same way. She sings these songs, and she’s totally changing the context. Certain songs never sounded so real and pertinent to African Americans until they came out of Nina Simone’s mouth. You feel like it’s talking about your experience, so I think in a way, those kinds of artists also curate the kinds of songs that they think may have an abstract relationship to something political, but then she also does this boldly by writing these other songs. So here are these songs that honor these great people like Lorraine Hansberry with ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. It’s a statement that marks the time in which it was written and Black Pride is kind of at its peak in the movement. So even the use of the word “Black” puts a date stamp on where we are. I remember my grandmother being in quoted in an article where she says she was colored, negro, black, and African American, all in one lifespan. So it date stamps it, which I think is just so important for the form. That you can look at the lexicon of African-American songs that way. And also Nina as a pianist and how she accompanies herself, the kinds of chords that she uses, and how those sounds mix with the timbre of her voice…she was just unique all the way around.”♦

Watch a clip of IN MY MIND, the feature length documentary of Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall recording.

Angelika Beener is the creator of and writer for Alternate Takes, a progressive music blog which takes on jazz within a variety of social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host with awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Follow her on Twitter.