Q&A with Jazz Musician Jason Moran

Wednesday Feb 3rd, 2016

Blog > Q&A with Jazz Musician Jason Moran

In anticipation of our upcoming Salon and Outside the Box events on February 6 featuring acclaimed jazz pianist, composer, educator and YoungArts alumnus Jason Moran (1993 Winner in Jazz), we asked Moran about everything from his artistic journey and musical influences to his collaborations with other artists and the relationship between jazz and social practice.

YoungArts: There is a continuous discussion at YoungArts about “critical junctures” in a young artist’s life and what influences a young person’s decision to pursue the arts. Was there a critical point in your life when you decided to pursue jazz and, if so, what influenced that decision?

Moran: My parents enrolled my brothers and I in music classes when I was around 6 years old. I started on violin and then took piano lessons. From the age of 6-13, I didn’t have any passion regarding piano. I simply thought of it as a chore my parents required of me. At age 12 I begged to quit, but they let me take a few months off of lessons.  They gave me some boogie-woogie piano books, and that felt closer to what I wanted to do. And then when I was 13, I heard a Thelonious Monk solo piano recording of his composition Round Midnight. It was over. I had seen the mountaintop. I wanted to be like whoever this Thelonious Monk guy was. My parents were listening to his music, and there was something that they appreciated in me falling head over heels for Monk, and they totally supported my move into jazz. Ever since then, my mind was clear.  

YoungArts: Who did you look up to, growing up, musical or otherwise?

Moran: My older brother is the coolest.  He’s 3 years older than me, and always was listening to great music. I thought he was cool, and his taste was cool. In high school, he was into Led Zeppelin, Public Enemy and John Coltrane. Those are some powerful groups. With him, I learned that there were no boundaries within music, and that one person could appreciate lots of music. The more curious you are as a listener, the more rewards you can find. My mother and father are the same. My mom listened to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations all the time while driving around Houston. So, that music is like lifeblood for me.  My father always finds one piece of music and obsesses over it. To this day, he can listen to one song on repeat for a full week. He’s that kind of dude. In my household were the best models of that type of curiosity.  

YoungArts: Jazz artists today seem to have more freedom than ever within the genre–from Jazz Age-inspired “hot jazz” to hip-hop-infused hybrids, to world jazz and music that defies even these categories. Can you share your thoughts on how jazz is expanding into other genres?

Moran: Jazz has always incorporated other music. From Duke Ellington’s re-imagining of Grieg or Tchaikovsky to John Coltrane rolling through My Favorite Things. The adaptability of jazz musicians has always been a powerful component of jazz’s success. Jazz is set up on the premise that your story is worth hearing. Jazz emerges from the awfulness of slavery in America, and musicians found an outlet through music to take these solos, to tell their stories. And the stories are coded. And even when John Coltrane performs My Favorite Things in 1961, subliminally we understand that this recording is also a comment on America at the time. So the gloves have always been off, and what excites people about really good jazz performances is the ability for the music to offer the audience a way of sharing stories. Somehow people pick up on that, and no matter what genre of music, that is always a welcome device. Kendrick Lamar’s latest recording is a testament to what a hip-hop record can sound like if you let a bunch of thoughtful jazz musicians steer the sonic landscape.  

YoungArts: You blend the art of jazz and skate, two seemingly disparate means/modes of expression. What parallels do you see between jazz and street skating? How did your interest and involvement in street skating in Houston begin?

Moran: My first clue between jazz and skateboarding came when I saw a video segment by the skater Mark Gonzales called Video Days. Mark is a profoundly important skater, kind of like the Charlie Parker of skating. In the video, the music Mark skates to is John Coltrane. It starts with a superb piano solo by Red Garland, and as you hear Red find and improvise the phrases, we also see the parallel in Mark developing groundbreaking ways of approaching street skating. And in that simple mashup, we see the relationship to how musicians and skaters find a line to move through music or the street. And we avoid obstacles, or ollie over them, and we always fall down, but we always get back up.  

YoungArts: The YoungArts Week experience is rooted in creative collaboration and artistic practice across disciplines. You’ve collaborated with some amazing visual and performance artists including Stan Douglas, Theaster Gates, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Adam Pendleton, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker. What makes a collaboration successful for you and what role do you think collaboration plays in a young artist’s development?

Moran: Collaboration has been a great way to learn about process. I’m curious how artists of various disciplines approach their work, and how they synthesize events into their work. And the artists above have taught me a great deal about narratives. It’s important that as an improviser that I take care in how to present a body of work over a period of time. I attended Houston’s High School for Performing and Visual Arts, and it was very natural to talk to artists of various disciplines because they were all friends. And in this way, now I have a similar group of friends that help me create work, from the score to SELMA to a skateboarding concert inspired by Mark Gonzales.
YoungArts: What role do you think art plays in community building? Can you talk a little about the relationship between jazz and social practice as you see it?

Moran: Jazz has always been a very political art form. From the turn of the 20th century jazz has always been associated with Freedom. And across the globe, the music serves as a catalyst and symbol of freedom. From Sarajevo to Tokyo, the music represents the breaking down of barriers. And performers across the history have taught us ways to break the wall. From Duke Ellington to Nina Simone, Max Roach to Abbey Lincoln.  Artists who stand up to injustice and place their collective fury in the music. Performances allow communions to happen. And the reason audiences flock to concerts is because when the lights go down, they are about to be transported. And once the audience departs the venue, they return to their society with an altered perspective. And those experiences affect how one interacts with the world. Without the arts, communities are left with no way to express their imaginations.

For more information on the upcoming Salon, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Outside the Box event blending jazz and skate, visit jasonmoran.eventbrite.com.