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Jason Moran: Sticking Tricks and Striking Chords

Lucy McKeon
Contributing Writer
mckeon.lucy@gmail.com / @lucy_mckeon

Last spring at SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, Jason Moran and his Bandwagon (with guitarist Jeff Parker) played as Bay Area skateboarders rode a mid-sized half-pipe situated in front of the stage. The interactive jam session proved so popular that they’ll be doing it again this year. Recently in his studio, Moran took a break to talk about the process and aesthetic of the skateboarding collaboration, the conceptualization of what a jazz performance can be, and what he’s working on now.

Jason Moran & The Bandwagon with SF Skaters from Radiclani Clytus on Vimeo.

from the team of the upcoming Moran documentary, Grammar

How did the idea to collaborate with the skaters come to be?

So anytime an institution approaches me about, “Oh will you do something for us? Or make a program for us?” I try to think about, very selfishly, what is my relationship to the city? And start there. So my relationship to San Francisco began when I was a kid, where my parents took us maybe two or three times in our young lives. One of those times we took our skateboards – we were way into skateboarding in Houston – black folks skateboarding, there weren’t many, and there was like one on a professional team, so… but we were all into it. All the cats in my neighborhood were all into skating so when they knew we were going to San Francisco they were like, “Oh shit!” So we brought our skateboards and went skating there.

So when the jazz people [of the San Francisco Jazz Center] came to me and said, “Can you curate two weeks of program?” I thought, “Let’s do something outside, have some ramps, and play for the skaters, like it’s an open jam session.” And they were like, “Oh, well we don’t know if we can do it outside, but we can do it inside.” So I was like, “Oh shit, that’s crazy!” So that’s really the genesis of it. It was two things. It’s one, to show my relationship to the city and two, to thank the city for fostering this kind of weird behavior – weird skater behavior. Which is culture. Skater culture – which finds its way into a lot of things, from fashion to music to sports, you know. Jazz and skateboarding also have these outsider counterculture aspects. You ignore jazz when you hear it at a restaurant. You ignore skateboarding when they skate by on the sidewalk, whether they’re practicing a trick or not. There’s a way that you’re like, “Oh whatever.” Or you don’t even pay attention to it, it’s like white noise. One of the skaters said an interesting thing in that clip. Joe says, If you ask the audience if jazz is an art they’d be like yeah, but if you ask them if skateboarding is an art they’d be like um…[laughs]. And that’s interesting. I just wanted to see what happened if we didn’t choreograph anything but just played together. That’s how it started. And luckily, the people in San Francisco understand the power of skateboarding and its effect worldwide. It was like an homage to all that activity and those people – the people I know, which is very few, and the legions of people I don’t know – who have affected the scene.

It seems improvisation is central to both forms.

Yeah, so the improvisation aspect is key because you have to learn this language to be able to even function within [the premise of skateboarding] or you hurt yourself! Over and over and over again. In jazz, you just have hurt feelings. But I think that’s also key to so many in-the-moment activities. And sports generally showcase that more physically. In jazz some people really don’t know when that melody stops and the improvisation begins.

I also felt it was about how people made the most out of very little. Like, you spend hours at a park bench [skating]. And a thing like musicians who wrote [blues songs], Charlie Parker to Duke Ellington, you look at this one very simple amazing style of music, one form, twelve bars of music, and you’re like, “This is everything. What couldn’t I do in these twelve measures of music?” And you steadily go back to it as the thing that grounds much of American music – you might not hear it as much now, but grounded for many decades. I think it’s these returns to these very simple elements that most musicians and skateboarders understand. Until your wheel breaks and you’re like, “Aw I gotta go get another board.” Or your string breaks or your horn— you’re handicapped. Like, I don’t even know how to function now. It’s that marriage people have to their instruments, or a rider to his board. It’s also that level of commitment that I think is honorable, but also a little bit, like, a little off.

That’s the outsider part, right? I think George Rocha, who built the ramp for the event, said something about the similarity being your constant reaction to the environment around you.

Yeah. It’s also that you feed off one another. We did [the event] for two days, and this year we’ll do it for another two. The second day [the skaters] were like, “Oh I’m gonna try and go off the back of the rim now.” They were quick to be like, “We ain’t doing no fucking circus show.” And I was like, “Yeah none of that shit.” And you know, that part was also great. Musicians, that community, really figures out how to push somebody into—“Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that.” The skaters had to—it’s odd to be in a concert hall on a ramp. Just getting over that sensory juxtaposition was odd. But by the second day there were skateboarders just showing up to the venue like I heard something was happening here.

But you make a lot out of what is available, and you’re always looking at what is your terrain. For a musician, you really do it by also how the audience feels. You become very aware of the energy in the room – what can make this crowd go wild? oh shit, I thought that would work! – and with other people in the bandstand, that part is also the terrain we have to navigate. And some of the songs set up their own curves you have to navigate in the playing of it. Street skating to me is the shit. You’re out with your board, navigating the world.

Did you feel like the skaters were a part of the band?

Oh yeah, and then it became really obvious when I invited some of them to come up and play – at least two of them played with us. But also the way we would play, because we mic’d the ramp so you could hear the sound of the wheels on the wood. Some songs worked really well with the slap of the tail of the skateboard onto the ramp. It was like playing for dancers in that you really focus on them. When we usually play we focus on each other, or close our eyes.

Someone said it was like having a bunch of moving conductors, right?

Oh yeah, Nasheet [Waits] said that, the drummer. Yeah, it was interesting. But also I just wanted it to be two things happening at once. Cause I feel like a lot of things happen like that now. And you can digest them both at the same time even though each one can command your attention without the other. And give you this whole other experience. [What do you mean exactly, two things going on at once happens a lot now?] I mean like, when you watch TV there’s the fucking insignia, there’s the logo of every station there kind of like telling you something else. Or the ticker across the bottom of the screen. Or if you opened up my computer right now there might be two or three windows open. Also, my biggest thing when I used to listen to jazz in college was I used to play video games while I did it. I can’t read while I listen to jazz. It’s two conversations. Music is all language too. So I can’t focus, reading a paragraph and hearing another paragraph. But I wanted to put them together – one of the biggest reasons was, so many skate videos use jazz culture or use jazz songs. So there’s a very famous video by a skater who’s enormously famous, in the late 80s, 90s, Mark Gonzales, called “Video Days,” and they use John Coltrane in it. And that kind of aesthetic is sonically part of skateboarding videos. Or they start to use the covers of Blue Note records as the underside of a skateboard design. They know good music. Even when I was listening to a lot of skate music, a lot of death metal, punk metal, there’s a lot of great bands! So there’s also like a sense of refinement to how they function. But I’m also an outsider so I don’t really know. They also like to drink straight Budweiser beer…

So are you skating these days?

That’s my board over there [pointing to a wooden skateboard]. The board that George [Rocha] gave me, the guy who designed the ramp. I just skated to the Apollo today for a meeting, representing the Kennedy Center [laughing]. So he gave me that and that’s the only thing I’ve been riding. It’s like a cruiser board, can’t do anything else. It’s nice to push around the city.

I was curious about whether you all, the musicians and skaters, talked about what had gone on between the two days of performance. Did you debrief or analyze together, or did you want to avoid that?

We didn’t analyze. We did go drink with them. One of them was having a party, a young guy, so we went by there. He said, “Yeah it’s like a trap music party.” I was like trap music? Cause I’d heard it, but I didn’t know the word then. So we rolled by this place and it was all these skaters and their girlfriends and boyfriends, about a hundred people. And they were kids! So we were old. But we stayed for a little while and I thought, “If I was young this would be fun.” But I’m old now. I dig this, but I can see this is their scene. I didn’t want it to be about that, I didn’t want there to be pressure on them. Because I already put the pressure on them – when they needed a break, and we needed a break, I took a microphone and we started talking to each other. And that kind of put them on the spot – I didn’t tell them I was gonna to do that. And one of them, I noticed that he disappeared. And I was like, “Oh shit, did I forget Billy?” – the guy who was throwing this party, with the trap music. And I was like shit, I left him out. I felt bad. The next day I told him “I’m sorry man, I left you out.” He was like, “Oh no man, I’m totally terrified of speaking in public. I went and hid until you guys were finished.” And I was like, “Oh shit, that’s so funny, cause you listen to that ignorant ass music with nigga, bitch, slut, fuck, all that, all loud. You listen to that shit but you won’t talk in front of the microphone!” [laughing] I always find that an odd parallel. You listen to that shit like Yeah, yeah! And then you’re like uhh…

So we didn’t really talk about it until it was all over and we really kind of kicked back and people were thrilled at the strange opportunity. Cause it still would take a while to digest just what was going on. That part was exciting. And for us it was just good to be around a whole other group of people, who talk a whole different language. That’s good for us.

And now it’s an annual thing?

You couldn’t deny the success of it – San Francisco couldn’t deny the success of it. And for performing arts institutions they’re really trying to figure out, not only how to keep people in the seats, but how to really invigorate a younger generation to get in those seats. The people who showed up to those performances were parents and their children who skated. So there were like eight-year-olds with their helmets and their skateboards, trying to get autographs from the skaters. And I hadn’t even considered who was gonna come to this. I was just thinking about how we’re gonna play with this. That was exciting. I’m actually bringing it to the Kennedy Center in September. We’re doing it outside. And actually people are wanting to book it as an event. It’ll be interesting to do it in another city, you know, a lot of cities have different skate cultures, so it’ll be a nice conversation.

The skate collaboration fits into a larger question that many of your performances implicitly ask, which is: What can a jazz performance look like? Or what can a performance be? I’m thinking specifically of the Fats Waller dance parties and BLEED at the Whitney Biennial – and then the upcoming collaboration you’ll be doing with Theaster Gates this May in Chicago.

It’s not that I’m into – well, yeah, fuck that, I’m into aesthetic. Whether it’s sound or visual. And I don’t know, there was something that I was noticing not only with myself but with my peers, this lack of attention to those kinds of details. Whereas when you go to the Opera it’s all of those details. Or if you go to a film, all of those details – the color balance has to be right, the sound has to be right. And for us, the music has to be right, and we almost stop right there. We don’t care about shit else – we don’t care how we look, we don’t care how the lights are. Are you gonna play it right? That’s all I care about. And that’s great, but there have been enough people who also cared about the other things too, even going way back to the 20s and 30s up here in Harlem with Duke Ellington and his dancers and his band, with his stylized music stand and the way they set up the stage, the decoration behind, you know. So this is not a foreign part of performance – jazz performance even – so feeling all that history already there, how does that continue? It’s two thousand fucking fourteen now. Ninety years away from when Duke Ellington was doing shit like that. Or one hundred years away, more, from when these shows would happen – these minstrel shows. You know, great music. Fucked up images.

So, considering what I’d seen in museums especially or if you go see contemporary dance, or contemporary theater, performance art— anything can happen onstage, why do we always do this?! That’s fucked up. And there wasn’t enough conversation in conservatory environments to enable musicians to think about the stage that way. The stage. And that has propelled a lot of the projects I have done. Starting with the very first one, which was at the Walker Art Center called Milestone. And it was kind of like looking at jazz performance – we examined it, as a performance. [And what did that look like?] There’s no record of it online. I have tapes, we never edited them together. So here we are, we play. And the format was I introduced it like we were gonna take a break, but then a scrim raises revealing backstage, and I have a pre-recorded conversation of us talking backstage, random shit, and we sit in four chairs and we stare at the audience while the conversation plays. And it’s about ten minutes. At this point they’re like, “What the fuck is happening? Cause I thought we were just coming to see a show.” And then it was in conjunction with working with this artist Adrian Piper. And she was already questioning all these things like, what does an artist do? And how does it help enable an audience to understand their process? And conceptualize about process. So I started trying to look at jazz performance like that. How do we expose that process?

This new thing with Theaster is developing because I’ve known him for a couple years, known his work for longer, and thought when the Chicago Symphony Center approached about a commission, in the same way I was thinking, “What do I know about Chicago?” I have a lot of feelings about Chicago. But also, here’s an opportunity to work with this guy Theaster Gates. And have him think about materials related to music. So he’s gonna build objects that turn into other objects, one of them being a music stand. One of them being a park bench that turns into a pulpit. And then let alone, he as a performer himself. So we just met last week to make noise together and it was really great. I’ve begun writing a series of twenty [blues pieces] – because of how Chicago blues sounds – and then pairing the blues with this song by Schubert called “The Doppelganger”. And it’s a very dark depressing song about a man mourning someone who’d died in the house [previously]. And he’s looking out the window and sees himself staring back and asks himself, “Why are you aping my pain?” So it doubles in on itself. Because the other subtext I’m layering way beneath the surface is about seismic waves and how they work in the world so…yeah [laughing] it’s like a lotta shit! And so Theaster works this way, through these layers of meaning. Whether he’s taking old records and repurposing them in a house he’s just refabed. He’s taking old fire hoses to then make art objects out of them. So he kind of turns that glance. And I wanted him to help turn the glance in a jazz performance. It should be pretty interesting.

I’m really also following the lead of people I’ve been in love with for a long time, whether they were artists or writers or dancers, they just kind of move fluidly, they don’t really think, “Well okay, I just deal with the paint on the canvas and that’s it.” They find other ways and mediums to really continue to shape themselves. Glenn Ligon, known for painting words over and over again that distort as they repeat. And then moving into video. And then moving into video again. And seeing how his signature is represented, how it still comes across in his video. And then moving to neon. You know? Moving through these fields, not just sticking to my painting, “’Cause, you know, I can always sell these for $300,000”. So there’s enough people who have been around who move that way.

I would say my biggest, I wouldn’t say influence but the one who really changed it all was – being in college, going to MOMA to see a Bruce Nauman retrospective. This guy, what doesn’t he do? And it’s squint worthy. I learned a lot that day. Just as much as if I’d gone to a jazz concert by my favorite musician. And it was about experience, and I want people to – especially with some of these special performances, even if they don’t like it, I don’t give a shit – to be like, “Wow, that was a world. Uh. I didn’t expect this”. To try to make spaces like that.

And with something like BLEED it’s maybe most apparent – with all these artists coming together. Between that and the upcoming collaboration with Theater Gates, this idea of something like an artist’s commune – of people coming together and sharing ideas, communicating through their arts…

Yeah, and Alicia [Hall Moran] was really the brains behind [BLEED]. It was stemming even from our own household and how we blur into each other. Her being in a classical format and me being in a jazz format. Her being a feminist, and me being a [laughing] man. And how those ideas move. So when the Whitney asked, “Can you do something for five days?” They didn’t think we were gonna invite seventy-five people. Like, “Oh no, we’re gonna have our own biennial. Inside your shit. And it’s gonna be as amazing as your two month biennial [laughing] in its own little way.” And also given the relationships we’d had with some of these artists, and to be able to put the work we’d done with them back in one place to see again. The video work with Glenn, or Alicia working with Simone Leigh, or the video with Joan Jonas, or Kara Walker. Putting those back into a space again …It starts to make a different kind of a statement about who we were as performing artists. And how we decided to use that space – it wasn’t just a space for performing, but spaces for testimonial, spaces for children. And we wanted to continue to change it because we also knew there’d be other people that would inhabit that performance space those other weeks who were really gonna just present their one thing. And for us every day was different, and there was different energy each day. That [event was] one of the things we’re most proud of. Because we had no money – we had a lot of people, giving a lot of energy. Most of all us. And it’s so great that Radi and them [Radiclani Clytus, Gregg Conde, Anthony Gannon, Joseph Alvarado, and Michael Gassert who are working on the forthcoming documentary, Grammar] caught all of it on tape. There are things that happened inside those five days that just won’t happen again. But they are within the history of art now. You know, “Oh there was this thing that happened [laughing] in the 2012 Biennial!”

2012 Biennial: Alicia Hall Moran and Jason Moran: BLEED from Whitney Museum of American Art on Vimeo.

It’s beyond interdisciplinary – it’s about the interaction. Between artists and between artists and their audiences.

Yeah, and sometimes museums have this infatuation with fame and audience’s love having tickets and waiting in lines and – you know, fuck all that. Can’t people just come in and leave when they want to? And it’s a big enough space that we could do that.
We also wanted to make certain kind of events within those five days that, if you even got wind that this was gonna happen you’d be, “Oh. I kind of have to be there for that”. Like Friday night became – I define it this way, Alicia doesn’t. Or maybe she does, I don’t know – women fucking just took over that shit, it was unreal. There were some of the most intense things said on the podium that night. And then the performances we had, with Joan Jonas, Kara Walker, Esperanza Spalding – these are three generations of women with amazing work ethic and profound examples of artistry. It was powerful, so powerful. So powerful that just a couple weeks ago I sent a clip to Kara Walker of just a few seconds [of her performance]. I was like, “You did a roar, that just fucking peeled the skin off the Whitney. You saw all of its bones and its terror.” It was nuts and it had to happen. She didn’t know what things had been said hours before her. But the energy in that room needed to be unleashed.

So right now you’re working on the Fats Waller Album?

Yeah, the Fats Waller Album, the piece with Theaster, and I’m writing another commission that I have to premier in April, the Imani Winds quintet. This is a period of my time when my wife [Alicia Hall Moran] is on the road for nine months so for her to do that, I was like well I’ll stop teaching for a year. I’ll stop touring too. I’ll just stay home with the kids. But in the meantime I have all this other shit to do. I couldn’t have been on the road and had all this to do, I would’ve been dead! So I’m staying in New York and trying to get these things out. The Fats Waller thing like I said has been years in the making, and it’s finally getting very close to coming out, so I’m very happy about that. Cause within the process of making something, you also want to kill it too. You kill it when you put it out. It’s not that it’s dead, but it’s done. You can’t fidget with it any longer.

Do you want to add anything?

It’s mostly giving credit where it’s due. The person I worked with, Kent Uyehara, from FTC Skates, he was like my co-creator. Like, here’s my idea, and he’s like, “Oh okay, so I know a guy who can build the ramp. Call George [Rocha]. Here’s a skate team.” You know, so he was so instrumental in connecting me to people. And since then he has connected me to skate magazines across the world who wanted to cover the event. He’s been immensely helpful. Cause his relationship to it all— in San Francisco, his father used to have a surf shop. And then as Kent was growing up he was saying [to his dad], “Kids are skating now, we should open a skate shop.” And his father was like nah, so Kent opened up a skate shop and his father kept the surf shop. So they were really open to the idea.

Oh, so this is the other part. Both jazz and skateboarding have a police. Skateboarding police, jazz police. And they are the keepers of quote unquote authenticity. Skate police think the X Games is bullshit. Jazz police think the Grammys is bullshit. Actually I wouldn’t say that because I know of some people who won a Grammy last night and I love them. [So but that’s saying you’re part of the jazz police?] I think I am, I think I am. But it was that to be aware that there was gonna be a police around this event – skate police or jazz police. “Why are you doing that? The music is enough.” or “Why are you doing it there? Why don’t you get on the street and do it.” So we didn’t want to make anything a circus. When people saw how often a skateboarder falls, you actually have a lot of empathy for them. And you watch them fall and get up – it’s a lot of picking yourself up. I think that was the biggest lesson most people would not have realized. And if you’re gonna watch for an hour and twenty minutes, you’re gonna see a lot of that. That’s some real shit, you know? At one point a skateboard flew into the audience. But people are so engaged with what they’re watching – it was a woman who may have been about sixty-five, she was just like boop [mimics casually catching the board] she just caught it. Handed it back. It was awesome!

Kent picked skaters who would rise to the occasion of being in an odd environment. That was important. And I work with musicians who are like that. I can’t work with – some musicians I would never call cause they just wouldn’t get it. They might like it. But I don’t have the time to convince you. I need us to just go into it. Cause tomorrow we’re working with comedians – like, Oh shit! Comedians! So I just keep moving through music’s relationship to culture. Because I think people always look at jazz by itself while jazz is so woven into American lifestyle, or has been – and for me it still does exist that way.