interview conducted by A Creative DC's Savannah Harris
Jason Moran’s ability to highlight continuity between seemingly opposing forces is what makes him a leading force in the music community, and as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, Moran has familiarized the KenCen audience with everything from skate ramps to Go-Go.
For him, it’s all connected. The same year he scored Ava DuVernay’s film “Selma” he also created a modern and highly groove-oriented nod to Fats Waller’s music in “All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.” Soon after, he was back at the Kennedy Center leading the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, a two-week residency for a small set of young musicians developing their sound through improvisation and composition.
After an early March installment of his collaborative series “Jason+,” where he linked up with composer Mason Bates and D.C.-based Bohemian Caverns All Stars, we caught up with Moran to learn more about his approach to multi-disciplinary work, and unlimited improvisation. Catch the next Jason+ (ft. NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd) on April 29, and the last in the series (a collab with NSO Pops) takes place mid-June.
You have chosen to collaborate with a range of artists at the top of their discipline, from choreographer Ronald K. Brown to Charles Lloyd. And in your own work, you’ve covered the bases from Fats Waller to Jaki Byard and beyond. How do all of these elements fit together?
Well, I think every individual has many facets. I grew up in a household that put a lot of value in all of the arts. So, within jazz, the intersections are many. I see them in style, in dance, in sound, in improvisation, in skateboarding, etc. I can’t help but see and hear it everywhere. When I embark on a collaboration with someone, it’s to realize a certain possibility, from a chord to a skateboard ramp. And within me, they all make sense. I think it’s the duty of the artist to investigate themselves before addressing anything else.
Does your improvisational process change depending on the playing situation? Are you thinking differently when you’re playing with The Bandwagon vs. other collaborators/ musicians?
Yes, my approach can change drastically depending on who is on the gig. When I play with Tarus and Nasheet, we really do understand how each other fly. Like 3 kites circling one another from 40 feet high. When I play with other folks, I try to have empathy the way they do. And I want to support people’s goals and sounds.
You have been leading the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program for several years now. What elements of the program are most inspiring to you? What directions do you see the younger generation of musicians going in?
What inspires me the most about BCJA is the development of a large community. After our two weeks together, we really do understand a lot about one another. I love having the listening sessions, and I also love the free concerts we put on.
How do you view your role in the changing aesthetic of jazz today?
I think it remains to be seen. I hear tendencies in my generation that I think have touched those of a younger generation. And in that way, it’s cool to watch and listen to the music shifting. My role, mostly, is to be an enabler.
You are often working on several projects simultaneously, which could potentially be stressful. What grounds you? Do you have a practice that keeps you level?
For me, grounding comes from family. It is also very stressful, but it is only stressful because I love what I do. And because I care, I realize that I must put time in on the projects for me to keep moving ahead as a player and thinker. It is normal for me, and I enjoy the negotiation of time to manage the demands.
Where are some of your favorite places just to hang and listen to music?
Village Vanguard is my favorite. I also love juke joints in the South that have live bands ‘till 4 in the morning, and serve catfish and fried chicken. I love listening to music where the music’s function is well known.
Lastly, can you give a lasting piece of advice to young creatives who want to venture into multidisciplinary work?
Say “yes” to everything, so that when it’s time to say “no,” you understand why.