Trading Fours with Jason Moran

Lee Ann Norman speaks with jazz musician Jason Moran about his multidisciplinary approach to music and what inspires him.

New York Live Arts presents

Marjani Forte
Nov 15-19

I’m always looking for an excuse to visit Café Grumpy in Chelsea. I love the vibe that discourages digital mediation in favor of analogue interactions and face-to-face conversations. I’ve done a lot of reading, meeting, greeting, laughing, talking, and thinking there, so I was excited when award-winning jazz pianist Jason Moran agreed to take some time out of his busy schedule to chat with me. Since the late 1990s when he became a fixture in music circles, Jason Moran has been determined to keep listeners on their toes. Although the 2010 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center works primarily in jazz, Moran is always eager to expand definitions of the genre. He often weaves elements from dance, language and literature, the visual arts, and other musical forms into his arrangements and compositions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about multidisciplinary work—the messy kind that isn’t easy to categorize. Such work usually requires knowledge and technical expertise that forces the artist to reach beyond her studio, writing table, piece of Marley floor, or practice room. To go outside of the self for creative expression is exciting, but inherently risky, and maybe a bit dangerous. “Collaborative efforts are never easy and everyone has a different spin on them,” I wrote in an email message to Jason prior to our conversation: “I’m quite curious to learn more about your approach … why you find it valuable. I’d also like to learn more about your process, what projects you decide need collaborators and why.”

I enjoy working with others to create something larger than I could on my own, but collaborating is hard work. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth all of that messy ambiguity and negotiation—that feeling of cat herding—that inevitably results as part of the process. Talking with Jason, though, reminded me that the rewards of collaboration far outweigh any of the struggles.

Lee Ann Norman You kind of raised your eyebrows a little bit when I said, “Collaboration is hard.”

Jason Moran Well because jazz is so collaborative, at every turn you’re entrusting someone else with something. The gene make-up of the music is that you listen to others, that you respond to others, that you have your own idea and you know how to weave it into a bigger idea.

LAN I guess that’s true. I mean, I sort of started out my creative life as a musician—I studied clarinet as an undergrad.

JM Oh, wow. Where?

LAN I went to Michigan State.

JM Oh good.

LAN: With ensemble playing you have this time where you go away and do your own thing but then come and merge with other people. I think in the last eight, ten years, I’ve been writing and hanging out with all of these visual artists, and it’s a very solitary sort of thing.

JM It is, it is.

LAN But you were saying that you work with a lot of visual artists and writers, multidisciplinary people. Do you find that there is any sort of negotiation to figuring out [how to work together]?

JM Always. I think that’s just normal when you meet people. You negotiate your grandparents when you have a conversation with them. (laughter) That part—artistic sensibility aside—in itself is important. I like to work with people who you can actually enjoy dinner with. For me, I think the interesting part is finding out people’s practices—like working with Joan Jonas, hanging out with Adrian Piper. You know they’re rigorous.

LAN To say the least!

JM It’s not that musicians don’t have rigor, but what I was missing in my work was what I was seeking in other people’s work. And I wanted to work with those people who would help balance what I thought I was lacking —like how Adrian Piper can really pinpoint an emotion, you know? How can a song do this similar thing? Duke Ellington accomplishes it. Or Louis Armstrong accomplishes it. These people stand as examples of how to challenge the concept of how I do the work. Whether it comes off, I don’t know, but that becomes the part that attracts me most to wanting to work with someone. Being well rounded is a big part of what I’m attracted to. I don’t know if that’s my sign, the Aquarian in me, but I really feel like everybody else has a lot more to say, or help me to say.

LAN I think it’s about having these larger conversations or asking a lot of questions. I think we ask questions for different reasons. Some people ask questions to kind of confirm what they think they already know, and then some people are questioning to seek.

JM You know, I hadn’t thought about that at all in relationship to jazz or improvisation until I met Glenn [Ligon] and we were having a conversation about Thelonious Monk (because he’s a huge Thelonious Monk fan). He said, “Well, you know I think the work is more about the question than it is about the answer,” and I was like, “What!?” It was such a bizarre concept—not focusing on the answer. Some of the compositional studies I was doing were about making this theorem, and here’s what it spits out: an answer. I just had to start rethinking everything. How do you leave things open for understanding, but also put in content? This is heavy, this question thing.

LAN I think even with sound, there is a set of ideas, whether we put words to them or images, or notes, whatever … I think there’s a way where you can make things go in a direction or lead to a place without having to say, “And this is it.”

JM With language, that thread that starts from the first page in the first paragraph and continues. I’m always wondering how people get that first phrase or the first line. Whether it stays in the beginning, who knows, but I always wonder how people take that first step. I don’t know how y’all do it. I can just put my hands on the piano and say that’s a start, I’m done, I’ve broken the ice … but then, how do you break the ice with a sentence?

LAN I don’t know. Maybe it’s the same thing—a thought with words, a phrase with words, I feel this, or I think this … maybe a reaction or something? Maybe it’s magic. (laughter)

JM Divine intervention.

LAN So when you went to Manhattan School of Music, and you started playing, was there a critical moment where you figured out: I want to try something else, or I want to say something else—where you knew you needed to work with other people?

JM How old are you?

LAN I’m 35.

JM 35, right, so we’re around the same age (I’m 37). Growing up in the late ’80s, that’s our time, and music was really good right then. I think hearing how people chopped up old music, that’s how I learned black music. Hip-hop was sampling James Brown; Public Enemy was talking about the Black Power Movement and they talked about it better than my parents did. I think once I got to school and once I figured out some of the techniques of making beats in hip-hop, I started thinking, so why am I segmenting my practice? This is the stuff I do in the studio at school, and then this is what I play in a group, [and] they really should be together.

It was also being in New York. It was a big moment for me—and I don’t know why yet—seeing Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at MoMA, in maybe ’95 or ’96. Here’s one artist who’s pretty wild: deals with sound, deals with video, deals with lights, sculpture. I remember being in that space and thinking, one person can do all this? I don’t understand all of it, but it really makes me curious.

LAN Back in the spring, I got to talk to Ralph Lemon about why he does all these things in these very different places, and he said it was about looking for something interesting to happen. [There’s this] whole idea of questioning and putting yourself in a place that’s different, uncomfortable, and kind of stretching your limits as an artist or a creative person.

JM Yeah … flirting with it being shitty. (laughter)

LAN Right, because you don’t know.

JM And that’s positive. I mean, positive in doses.

LAN You and your wife Alicia [Hall Moran] did a residency as part of the [Whitney] Biennial this year. So five days of lots of intense, dynamic, multi-faceted things happening, lots of different people involved, and I read somewhere that she kind of took the lead on a lot of that.


KARAOKE WALKRR Improvisation with Mutually Assured Destruction, copyright John Rogers, 2012, all rights reserved.

JM Yes.

LAN Organizing and arranging.

JM Yes, she sure did!

LAN Right, maybe you can talk about watching how that unfolded?

JM I’ve known her a long time, so I always know that my good ideas have to make it past her before they go to the public. So a lot of stuff is laying on the floor bleeding. (laughter) It’s not that they’re bad ideas, it’s just that she’s like, “That’s not good enough.” I think with BLEED, we didn’t want to be monkeys in a cage that people would come and stare at. In a space like the Whitney, people are already in the mode of staring. What we sought to do was to have performance in a broad sense. Through those five days, we didn’t want it to be like, “Oh these are just their friends.” It shouldn’t be too obvious at any turn, and Alicia did a brilliant job of putting things together.

LAN Another thing that is also really fun and exciting, but also a big challenge, is you have this idea, people have these ideas, and then you come together [and] hopefully you’ll make a bigger, better idea. Is there something that you value or keep in mind in order to make space for people so that they can find a way to have some ownership in this, to get to that larger thing?

JM I think, given how we’ve known each of the people in BLEED, people really trusted our expertise with performing. People trusted that we weren’t leading them into a lion’s den to be ostracized. For some of them, this is their environment, this art world. They don’t want to have a misstep. They aren’t thinking about it like that, but they know it’s a bit of a different … unveiling. It was important for us to see if we could pull off a gathering of people like that, like a festival that we hadn’t seen exist before. I don’t know when (or how) we’ll ever do that again because it’s something that we could only do in New York at this time.

LAN That’s true. It is a really interesting moment in the art world where institutions are catching up to the way that people actually work, the way they actually think about creativity and art-making. I feel like it’s kind of exemplified in collaborations or works like BLEED, these kind of genre crossing. It’s like: I’m gonna use this tool at this particular moment, and I’m gonna play piano, and then maybe I’m gonna work with some images at this other moment, kind of thinking about what’s the best way to say what you want to say, you know?

JM Or, how does work get from point A to point B? How does it get from our house into the Whitney? What is the conversation that happens between the people off the record, the email that is sent, the prospect that something might happen? I look at my email like, Is something coming today? I send out emails to people that are like me. Right now, I’m looking to do this jazz and skateboarding event in San Francisco.

LAN Jazz and skateboarding?

JM Yeah! I used to skate when I was young, so I’m working with this organization out there, [San Francisco Jazz Festival]. I sent an email yesterday to Tommy Guerrero, a total [skateboarding] star in the late ’80s. Now he plays guitar, has a band. I was like, “Yo, I wanna do this event, man, with skaters, and I want you to play with us.” I hope he reads it and thinks it’s interesting—I haven’t heard anything yet!

Everybody has to do a lot of work, period, so that’s the other part. It’s like once you get the idea, you have to do so much work to get the idea out. So I don’t ever expect anybody to say “Yes” to my ideas, but they always keep saying “Yes,” and then I have to keep trying to do them in some way. And that’s always why I call people. If I have some new work that’s happening, I’ll have some casual conversations with Glenn, or Alicia, or Adam [Pendleton], not even really telling them what I’m thinking, but just to see what their response is. It will get me out of thinking, This chord, then this chord, and this melody. I’ve just found that after years of playing and touring the world with musicians, the conversations that I was having in other spaces outside of music were more helpful than the ones that were specifically about music.

Run Mary Run

Run Mary Run, copyright John Rogers, 2012, all rights reserved.

Lee Ann Norman is a culture maker and bridge builder whose interests lie in the ways others read the world, and how their reading(s) influence everything. She uses her formal education along with her street smarts, intuition, and wit to fuel a penchant for shaking things up in the world.

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