He has released eight albums, started a jazz magazine, a record label, and he is the artistic director of jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.–and he’s 41 years young.
Jason Moran is not only a highly successful jazz musician, but a passionate ambassador of the music itself. On the occasion of his concert at the Swiss Ambassador’s Residence, we had a chance to have a little chat with him . . .
Jason Moran, last December you played at the Swiss Residence here in D.C. What’s your connection to Switzerland?
JM: I have gone to Switzerland every now and then since 1996. I’ve been there many many times at many great festivals, clubs and concert halls. Moods in Zurich, Konzerthalle, Montreux Jazz Festival, of course . . . I also love to visit places like the Kunstmuseum or Lake Geneva, which is very beautiful. In Europe as in D.C., there’s been a long tradition of promoters and music listeners that are watching how the music develops.
What’s your very first memory of jazz music? When did you first realize you’re listening to jazz music?
JM: My parents listened to jazz in the car–all the time. They listened to jazz and they listened to Glenn Gould playing Bach most of my childhood. So I heard it in the car and I did not like it! Because I wanted to listen to hip-hop (laughs). At the same time, as a kid I was playing European classical music on the piano.
And then when I was thirteen, I heard Thelonious Monk for the first time. And there was something open and inviting about his music and I thought, “Wow! I want to do what he does. I want to play the piano this way.”
Do you remember when and where that special moment occurred?
JM: And it was actually a very special situation because my parents were listening to it one day in their bedroom. I walked in and I heard it and I thought, “This is special.” The whole setting was special because the very same day a well-known politician from Texas–where I’m from–had died in a plane crash, his name was Mickey Leland. My parents were watching television without sound. Instead it was only the sound of Thelonious Monk playing piano.
My parents knew the politician and were sad. This special moment combined with that music, the feeling it created seemed to resonate–his sound took hold of me.
Ever since then, most of my life I’ve really been tracing his footsteps because he seems to tap into something that seems universal to music–even if it’s something I might not like. He’s my idol.
Did this experience have an immediate effect–did you take action right away?
JM: Well, I tried to learn it on the piano by listening to it very closely. But you have to train your ear to hear certain things and my ears were not trained yet. That’s why they call it ear training. And if you really start thinking about ear training this goes to a broader global topic: ear training is also how you listen to people discussing issues. How you become aware of people’s troubles and successes is ear training. Understanding people’s problems is based on ear training. If you are trained to hear someone telling you a story, it helps you understand and respond to their situation.
How did you train your ears?
JM: I was lucky. I went to an arts high school and they had classes in ear training. Then slowly I was able to train my ear and become able to understand what Monk was playing.
At what point did you finally consider yourself a jazz musician?
JM: It’s a process. I was already a professional with a recording career. I was young and gained attention with my two records, and then I thought, “Oh maybe now I am a jazz musician!” (laughs). But before that, I wasn’t really quite sure, I was just going through motions and nothing seemed to stop me, so I just kept going.
D.C. is the birthplace of the famous jazz musician Duke Ellington and is quite known for its jazz scene. What makes D.C. a good place for jazz music?
JM: Well I mean you could just say “Ellington” and it kind of says it all. He does so much for America; I’d broaden it out of jazz, how he understood the music and how he pushed it forward and then how he shared the messages within his music with the world. And he did it with such style and grace. And much like Salzburg may have a place for Mozart, Duke Ellington and Washington, D.C., go hand in hand. And it also points to D.C. as the nation’s capital. Ellington is a universally understood master of the idiom. And Ellington personifies the capital of jazz. He is the supreme statesman of the music.
D.C. has had a long history of promoting the music because of its relationship to New York and Philadelphia. Musicians have traveled this corridor back and forth all the time for decades. Famous clubs like the recently closed Bohemian Caverns on 11th Street have been there since the ’30s.
D.C. has changed a lot in the past couple of years. Talking about gentrification and completely new neighborhoods: Do you see a change in D.C.’s jazz scene because of that?
JM: D.C. fortunately still has a lot of good places like Twins and Blues Alley. And those places have a strong sense of responsibility to the city. But when the city starts to change and wipes away its culture, then that becomes an issue. And I think most artists, regardless of their discipline, have a problem when they don’t have the space to create anymore. That’s when a city starts losing its cultural capital (assets), a capital that’s shared and exchanged among citizens. The Kennedy Center is great, for example, but it cannot fulfill the need a club, something only a small local place can satisfy. But neighborhoods have to understand these places as parts of their currency. But that’s something you can see not only in D.C., but in a lot of other cities. And it’s the miracle of culture and artists that they’ve always found a way.
So imagine having a free night just for yourself in D.C. and you want to listen to jazz music; where would you go?
JM: There’s a place near the earlier mentioned Bohemian Caverns called Twins. It’s run by two women who are twins and it has been there for many, many years now. And they have brought great musicians to D.C., so I would go there. Even maybe get some inspiration of what my own 9-year-old twins could become once they’re grown up: club owners (laughs).
You have played in many different places all over the world. Is the audience in D.C. different?
JM: Every audience is different, even within a city they can be very different. And I love that. Because as a performer you have to adjust to the energy you have in the room. The audience here really knows what’s going on. In the sense that they have been listening for a long time, they had their “ear training” and they know their city, they know what great music, great jazz sounds like.
You try to connect with the 80-year-old person in the room as well as with the teenager. And it’s not always easy because this is not pop music we’re talking about. Jazz isn’t about answers, it’s really about questions. And you have to allow yourself to not understand and be okay with it.
And maybe after a certain point you realize, “oh there actually is a language happening here.”
Are you happy with what jazz is in the world today?
JM: Well, it is what it is, I’d say. Meaning there will always be an ecosystem of people who listen to it, people who create it, people who support it, as there is for opera or dance; people who want to enjoy this.
The great part about jazz and its future revolves around the music has continuously used its way of embedding politics into the sound.
It has never been stripped of that relationship and that’s what attracts people to it because in a way it’s a sound that allows everyone on the stage to share their story. That’s very uncommon and it’s one of the freedom principles in jazz music. That will always stand the test of time. People will always want to listen to it.
You have achieved a lot as a jazz musician. Do you have a special goal you would still like to achieve with jazz music?
JM: There are jazz dreams. I started a record label. I started a jazz magazine. I’ve been making records for a long time now. I have played with really good musicians for a long time. There is one thing, though, that is a little bit bigger than jazz: the thing that I see, that is an issue for America and its relationship to cultural arts is that many of the young are not able to embed themselves in it and don’t know there is a possibility for a career. We have arts high schools in D.C., in New York, Seattle, and other big cities; but what about the small towns and their students? How can they come to an understanding that they could become an artist someday? How are they getting an understanding that they could actually run a farm in the rural part of Kansas and be an artist of some discipline at the same time?
I think the arts could answer some questions that our country hasn’t yet. It can teach and inspire you about very fundamental concepts of life and relationships. As, for example, jazz tells a lot about communication, you have to communicate with one another to make the song better. So there are lessons like that in all kinds of arts that could have, in very small ways, a very large impact. But America has devoted so few resources to the arts in schools, so that’s the thing I dream for.
Jason Moran performed pieces from The Armory Concert at the Swiss Residence in December 2016.