Jazz pianist, composer, and performance artist Jason Moran was born in Houston, TX in 1975 and earned a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with Jaki Byard. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010 and is the Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center. Moran currently teaches at the New England Conservatory.
Moran is deeply invested in reassessing and complicating the relationship between music and language, and his extensive efforts in composition, improvisation, and performance are all geared towards challenging the status quo while respecting the accomplishments of his predecessors. His activity stretches beyond the many recordings and performances with masters of the form including Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, and the late Sam Rivers, and his work with his trio The Bandwagon (with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) has resulted in a profound discography for Blue Note Records. The scope of Moran’s partnerships and music-making with venerated and iconic visual artists is extensive. He has collaborated with such major figures as Adrian Piper, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Stan Douglas, Adam Pendleton, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker; commissioning institutions of Moran’s work include the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dia Art Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Harlem Stage, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
Executive Producer and Host — Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer — Kayla Lattimore
Associate Producers — Irit Reinheimer & Zoë Greggs
Managing Producer — Alex Lewis
Executive Editor — John Myers
Final mix and mastering engineer — Justin Berger
Additional assistance — Danya Abdelhameid
Music Supervisor — David “Lil Dave” Adams
Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil’ Dave.
This episode features music by Jason Moran.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
John T. Biggers (1924-2001)
Miuzi Weighs a Ton (performed by Public Enemy, 1987)
Bill T. Jones: Still / Here with Bill Moyers (directed by David Grubin and Alice Markowitz, 1995)
Selma (directed by Ava DuVernay, 2014)
13th (directed by Ava DuVernay, 2016)
Jason Moran’s work on paper
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Jaki Byard (1921-1999)
Andrew Hill (1931-2007)
Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017)
Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
‘Round Midnight (performed by Thelonius Monk, 1986)
Mickey Leland (1944-1989)
McCoy Tyner (1938-2020)
David Jolicoeur (1968-2023)
Cecil Taylor (1929-2018)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You are listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes. In this episode, I sat down with a talented pianist, curator, and artist, Jason Moran. Jason was born in the Third Ward neighborhood of Houston, the son of an investment banker and a teacher. He began learning the piano at the age of six. As a teenager, Jason came across the music of Public Enemy on the radio and encountered Thelonious Monk at home. These revelatory moments shifted his understanding of what music could convey to an audience. Jason received his BM from the Manhattan School of Music and went on to record his debut album, Soundtrack to Human Motion, in 1998. Since then, he has produced 14 albums and scored several films, including Selma and 13th. Jason is the Artistic Director of Jazz at the Kennedy Center, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and he recently curated the permanent exhibit here to stay at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. Jason joined me in person here at the Black Star Projects Office. And now my conversation with Jason Moran.
[00:01:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: I thank you so much for being on the show, Jason.
[00:01:36] Jason Moran: My pleasure.
[00:01:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: It is lovely to have you here in person. Can you talk about what you had for breakfast today?
[00:01:42] Jason Moran: I woke up and I had coffee and grapefruit. Apparently, when Louis Armstrong was really trying to figure out his weight, he made a diet for himself and it consisted of grapefruit and coffee for breakfast, and I watched my son eat a breakfast burrito in the microwave and whatever else he ate fast before he left. What did you have for breakfast?
[00:02:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: I had a gluten-free pop-tart.
[00:02:13] Jason Moran: Whoa. Is it advertised that way on the…
[00:02:16] Maori Karmael Holmes: It’s from a bakery.
[00:02:17] Jason Moran: Do they get to say that it’s called a Pop-Tart.
[00:02:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: No. They call it some other kind of tart, but it’s a Pop-Tart. I don’t know what else to call it. I need to do the coffee and grapefruit, but…
[00:02:31] Jason Moran: I don’t know if it works sometimes, but I appreciate that Armstrong had a diet he was trying to think about.
[00:02:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: I really appreciate… He’s the one that had the teal kitchen, right?
[00:02:41] Jason Moran: Yes. Incredible. His house in Queens, New York, which was bought by his wife, Lucille, is really wild and really gorgeous to see an artist’s space, a husband and wife, the way they live together. And opening in a few weeks is the museum dedicated to Louis Armstrong, across the street, that I’m helping curate. I’ve spent a lot of time with Armstrong and what it meant for an artist to become of age at the same time that technology is changing dramatically from recorded sound and to visual. He was making music videos in the early thirties, so he had a relationship with the camera. It was very different from a lot of other performers.
[00:03:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: I didn’t realize that you were curating for the museum. Can you talk about that? Is it just a one-time exhibition or will you be always curating there?
[00:03:36] Jason Moran: It started with their permanent exhibition that’ll go into the museum space. And because Armstrong’s archive is incredible, and what I mean by incredible is, everybody in the world who obsessed about Louis Armstrong, if they found out the museum existed, they donated all of their items to the museum. And Armstrong took care of his own images. He always had a video camera, film camera. He always had a picture camera. He always took a recording device on the road with him and recorded himself backstage. He also wrote letters, obsessively carried around a typewriter with him. His story is in his language, captured many ways, and he made the records. The archive is immense. And for me, I consider it one of the treasures of black artistry because it exists. It’s not myth, it’s real.
[00:04:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: Where in New York do you and your family live?
[00:04:33] Jason Moran: I live in Harlem, since I moved to New York in ’93. The piano history in Harlem is too immense to leave, so I’m staying uptown for that reason.
[00:04:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do you see yourself in Harlem for the rest of your life?
[00:04:48] Jason Moran: I don’t know.
[00:04:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: I know that’s a big question.
[00:04:55] Jason Moran: Philly looks good today. Philly’s amazing. I think the West Coast is incredible. New York is so uninviting. I’m saying that as a Texan who moved to New York. You see people piled on top of each other on a little island, frenetically moving from place to place. And that’s so beautiful to me. The struggle of every day is great, but it also can be a bit tiring. And so when you ask about if I see myself living there for the rest of my life, definitely not. I made it 30 years so far, that’s great.
[00:05:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s significant. I read that your family lived near the muralist, John Biggers and that it was your father, who was an investment banker, who put the idea in your head as a team that you should collaborate with artists as a musician. What was the reason for that? What made him think you should be making music with artists?
[00:05:45] Jason Moran: Oh, it’s really simple. I’d be playing piano right here, and it’d be a John Biggers right over my head. If you just saw that every day… For me, it was visible. And I think my family and my uncle, Joseph Moran, who studied with John Biggers, they regarded him as the great teacher. As he is. His impact is pretty important to Houston and to Black art. And I remember him saying it though, and I remember thinking, “But I’m 17.” I don’t know what to say to an artist. I went to a performing and visual arts school in Houston called HSPVA, so I knew artists. But I never thought like, “What is collaboration with an artist?” But I think my father saw something in the way that Biggers dealt with mythology, symbolism, and technique, and the way he used sometimes just crayon or pencils. Incredible. And then the way he used oil on canvas, just incredible. And then he expanded to these massive murals. It felt like he is a part of our family.
[00:06:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: I also read that your father wanted to be a musician himself, and so he encouraged your pursuit early on. And I’m very curious, as a little kid, did you ask for piano lessons or were they put on you?
[00:07:06] Jason Moran: First of all, did you take piano lessons?
[00:07:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: No.
[00:07:08] Jason Moran: Did you take any music lessons?
[00:07:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: I did. I studied trombone because I had to for my magnet school. But my mother had been forced to study piano, so she didn’t want to force me to do anything.
[00:07:18] Jason Moran: So she wanted to trombone?
[00:07:20] Maori Karmael Holmes: But she did want to be a dancer, so she was like, “Go to dance class.”. But yeah, I wasn’t really forced to do much.
[00:07:26] Jason Moran: The reason I ask is because, when you figure out what it takes to play music…
[00:07:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, I was terrible. I don’t play music. It was only for the school requirement and then I was done. I chose trombone because I thought it was obnoxious. I was like, “It’s this big thing, I’m going to get out of this.” And I did.
[00:07:45] Jason Moran: Oh, that’s great. Also, I went to a magnet school and everyone had to play violin. And Miss Sadbury was incredible. And then Ms. Parker was incredible. These were sisters who were teaching everybody to play violin and then piano. So I switched to piano and I think… I have two brothers, one older, one younger, and we were all playing instruments. Not as a, “You got to be a musician,” but just…
[00:08:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: Be well-rounded.
[00:08:15] Jason Moran: No, keep your ass busy.
[00:08:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Same thing.
[00:08:19] Jason Moran: Yeah. It comes well-rounded later. Keeping your ass busy. But I feel like that’s what it was about.
[00:08:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: Did you have thoughts about what you might do as a kid? What did you think you would?
[00:08:31] Jason Moran: Yeah, herpetology. Studying reptiles. I adopted a snake at the zoo, African egg-eating snake. What is the reason for a snake to eat a whole egg, break it in their throat, and then spit out the eggshell? Go ahead, Earth. That that’s what I wanted to do. I just wanted to be back there with all the alligators and the snakes and iguanas. I felt like that’s what I wanted to do. That was in middle school. It was kind of my world. I did like it, until I had to hold a snake. That’s when it became like… I had snakes and a tragic thing happened, and it was definitely my departure. We had two garter snakes and one of them… I put some fish in a bowl, and one ate the tail, one ate the head, then they died. And I was wounded, and I was like, “You know what? Maybe I’m not the best caretaker of animals or snakes.”
[00:09:38] Maori Karmael Holmes: Your father was born in Pleasantville, Texas, and I was wondering if you know how your family came to Texas? Have they been there for generations?
[00:09:46] Jason Moran: My grandfather, they moved from northern Louisiana, Natchitoches, and they moved to get jobs, that they left the country. And the uncle of mine who really is an artist, Joseph Moran, he was the one who wanted, after they came to Houston, when he grew up, he moved back. He wanted to be in the culture, and he’s an incredible photographer and painter, but they came to Houston for jobs. Houston was interesting in that way. I guess in the forties that there was a lot of industry happening. Honestly, for decades, my grandfather worked at Anheuser-Busch, in the refinery.
[00:10:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: In addition to the music that you heard your mother and father play, you started hearing hip hop around the age of 12. And I’m curious for you, because I know what my moment was. What was that song?
[00:10:41] Jason Moran: The group, and the song specifically, was Miuzi Weighs a Ton by Public Enemy. And I think it was because when we were growing up, you couldn’t just hear the song. You had to wait on the song, on the radio. And I remember Ben, my brother, he was washing dishes and my other younger brother, we were just sitting around the radio and the kitchen waiting on the number one song. And then came Chuck D’s voice. And I thought, “Oh my goodness. What is this power? What is this sound?” It didn’t sound like Run DMC. I loved all them, too, but this was something else. And it’s just something else that he was planting in the music, too. I just thought that’s the mix that I think is good chemistry.
[00:11:26] Maori Karmael Holmes: How has hip hop influenced your approach to jazz? So many of us, or I’ll speak for myself, learned about jazz from hip hop. And I’m curious if that’s true for you, or were you studying them simultaneously?
[00:11:41] Jason Moran: I guess simultaneously. We had a homeboy who lived around the corner, who was a DJ, and he was also a carpenter, so he made a half-pipe ramp for skateboarding in the back of his house. It all lived a bit together. And then in those records, you look on the back and see what was sampled. But my dad had all those records that the stuff was sampled from. And so we would just always be in each other’s spaces looking, searching.
[00:12:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: Did you ever want to pursue hip hop as an art form?
[00:12:09] Jason Moran: Oh, definitely not.
[00:12:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re not going to MC? No beatboxing?
[00:12:12] Jason Moran: Okay, in class, during theory, I did write rhymes, yes. But no, nah. I enjoyed transcribing rhymes. That was fun for me.
[00:12:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: You press pause and play and…
[00:12:24] Jason Moran: Yeah, over and over again.
[00:12:27] Maori Karmael Holmes: I heard Quincy Jones say once that you don’t own genius, that it comes through you. And I have had moments where I have been half asleep and then I wake up and whatever I was editing or writing is better. And I’m like, “That wasn’t me.” And so I think it’s really clear with music, it’s really clear with dance. Other people can witness people being a channel. Then also, if you could briefly say why you don’t like jazz and what you call your form.
[00:12:58] Jason Moran: I call my music soul music, because jazz is a term to sell. It’s like 2% milk. I don’t know. You said it was 2%. I don’t know. It’s just what the label says. And also, there’s just been a good movement, really spearheaded by a brother in New Orleans, Nicolas Payton, really was like, “We got to get rid of this term.” And his term is “Black American music” that he likes to use. And a lot of other people, too. I think what he’s getting at is, we can’t be deleting the word Black from the way this music sounds, so we’re going to plant it in it. It’s very complex. The way the music has been sold is never to the benefit of the artist, it’s to benefit something else that I don’t know what that is. And even though I have these titles that have the word jazz in it, I know it’s more an umbrella term. But it can’t fit how incredibly complex that knot is for what makes the music feel the way it does. And for people to be impacted around the world when they hear it.
[00:14:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do you see yourself as a channel, or do you see yourself as an architect?
[00:14:15] Jason Moran: Definitely not architect, but one that knows how to play the aura in the room. That’s why I’m hired. I know that you don’t want me to necessarily nail it every time. Nah, I don’t do that. But if you want me to unlock that other thing that’s in there, but you might be overlooking, you’ll hire me.
[00:14:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: You attended the Manhattan School for Music and, through a classmate, you got a big break touring with the… I heard it’s saxophonist?
[00:14:42] Jason Moran: Yeah.
[00:14:43] Maori Karmael Holmes: …Greg Osby, when you were just 21. How did going on tour with Osby impact you? He’s the M-base… Those are those days and all that.
[00:14:52] Jason Moran: Yeah, M-Base crew. I was 21 with a passport. And then it was like the first time… Not the first time, but it was a time to try the things I was practicing. Does it work? On the road in Europe, no less. And that first tour was important because it got me out of America. It was also important because he gave a lot of space to the musicians to just play, and he did not hog it. And that was really important to understand, as a young musician, that just because I was 21 didn’t mean that I got a shorter solo. You don’t have nothing to play about. He was like, “No, go ahead.” That felt gratifying and also scary because you know you could destroy a song, too, in that time. Meaning you could be taking a solo and it goes bad and you don’t have any skillset to get you out of it, so you just keep digging the hole, playing longer and longer. And I’m not Coltrane. I can’t take a 28-minute saxophone solo. But that was important to me at that age. And it was my golden year. I was born January 21st. I don’t know if you believe in that golden year stuff. So my 21st year was… A lot happened. Meeting Alicia, going on this tour. It was a magic year.
[00:16:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’ve also composed for film and quite a bit for dance. And I’m really interested in the work that you’ve done for dance because it has been so diverse, so many different kinds of companies, not just Black ones. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s ballet and modern and… Is that a field that you’ve been drawn to for a while or did they find you? How did that come to be?
[00:16:40] Jason Moran: I think it’s two ways. I also think Alicia has a big part of it, too. When we first met, one of the first dates was when we watched this film of Bill T. Jones about a piece he made called Still Here. The way Bill plants his story into his company, and he does it over and over again, it’s a real skill and beautiful skill he has. So we would go see a lot of dance and one year for my birthday, she took me to see Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. And then over time, in San Francisco, then we became friends and then they were like, “We want some music.” And I said, “Okay, I got something.” And then we started working together. Alicia later sang with Bill T. Jones in some work. Dance has been a big thing for us because I think it’s the real treasure. They walk into a space, there doesn’t need to be anything in the room, just the body. And when I work with a company, it’s like being humbled that way, sitting in front of this piano while they’re really out there doing real sweat. Stretching real limbs, en pointe or whatever, that’s humbling. But then figuring out the caretaking that the music has to do for the dancers, it’s a lot of work. And it feels good because it’s so much different than playing the club.
[00:18:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: I know… Was the score you composed for Selma. Have you done a lot of film work?
[00:18:08] Jason Moran: Yes. Well, I don’t know if I’d call it a lot. I know people who do a lot, and it’s definitely not a lot in that sense. I enjoy working with film because you have to go over it over and over again. And I say enjoy because I really don’t. I like improvising and having it be done, but to say, “You know what? I can cut closer to the scene” or “I can leave space here.” And with Ava, that was something we both had to figure out together for Selma and 13th. And 13th is drastically different because in a documentary, you just need tons of music. And I didn’t know that, so I was like, “Oh yeah, we can do it.” And I was like, “Oh God, you need an hour and a half of music. And it’s about this subject. Oh my God, that means I have to digest all of this over and over again.” And I think the hardest thing is the emotional part about working on films like this, because you have to check in on everybody to make sure everybody’s okay. It’s my life, so I’m walking back into it after I’ve finished at the computer working on it, and I still have a knot in my back from that film. It’s not going away.
[00:19:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did your work as a curator and the other engagements that you’ve had in the art world come to be?
[00:19:35] Jason Moran: One of the first festivals I put on was a festival dedicated to Houston musicians who moved to New York. My MacArthur? The first check was spent on that. I was like, “All right, y’all, let’s make a festival. Two days of all the bands and we all play with each other. I want to put a festival on for us, living here in New York.” I’d say it started there and just thinking about what everybody did and saying like, “Here’s a frame for us.” It was called 713 to 212. That’s what it was called. Because I love that, I love them, musicians. Later on, working at the Kennedy Center or the Park Avenue Armory in New York or even at the Louis Armstrong Museum, is thinking about, “What is the story that it needs to tell? Is it a kind of constellation?” And also just to make sure that it doesn’t dot the same constellation over and over again. The constellation can change, but I think living in New York was also helpful for me because I saw a lot.
[00:20:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did you come to your object-making and installation practice? I know that you make sonic paintings, these works on paper, and then you also make these set sculptures that are in homage to iconic jazz venues. How did those two practices emerge?
[00:21:05] Jason Moran: I’ve done a lot of work with an artist named Joan Jonas, and over the years of working with her, watched her also make a recording of the performance by doing a series of very fast drawings. And I thought, “What’s that version for a concert?” If we make a record, then we make a record. Okay, everybody can listen to that. Okay, that’s an easy recording. Or we see a set list on the stage. Okay, that’s like a journal of what the song order was, but what else? Do we have the sweat from Aretha Franklin in front of her microphone stand? Or do we have the bass drum pedal of Bernard Purdie? What size shoe was he wearing when he hit the bass drum? Can we register the attack? That’s kind of where it was. And how does the attack look? We hear it, but what does it look like if we see it? And thinking about the piano and the way the hand attacks the piano became a way to try to record it that way. And the venue thing is more about America’s love of destroying, and especially Black cultural spaces. Philly has a ton of them. LA has a ton of them. Houston has some of them. New York has a ton of them that are no longer there. And then something always comes to stand in its place, usually around commerce. The way that the Black culture gets peddled, in a municipal sense, it’s very strange to watch.
[00:22:46] Maori Karmael Holmes: Is there anyone with whom you want to collaborate that you haven’t had a chance to do so yet?
[00:22:52] Jason Moran: Oh, this is real though. But the person I want to collaborate with was my mother. She’s not here. She’s been gone for a long time. I had a career before she passed, so she knew what I was up to. And I wasn’t aware enough, as a late-twenties kid, when my mother passed, so I didn’t get that interaction with her. So that’s a thing I think about. I do think about it. Sometimes when I play solo shows, concerts, I put an empty chair next to me. That’s for her. When she used to watch my piano lessons, she would keep obsessive notes about my technique failing. I sometimes got annoyed at it. So I leave the seat there sometimes for her to show up. She learned how to play piano by watching all of my lessons. But I leave it there just like… That’s the one that lives on my list because I don’t know what that would be.
[00:23:59] Maori Karmael Holmes: You collaborated a lot with your wife, Alicia Hall Moran, who is an operatic mezzo-soprano. And I was curious if you started collaborating early in your relationship?
[00:24:10] Jason Moran: Oh, God, yes. Dating, for musicians, that’s a whole show. You’re interested in something that a lot of other people aren’t interested in. She’s singing German lieder, French songs from the early twenties, and she’s writing her own pieces. When we would date, the thing that we’d do is, every once in a while, we would go to a practice room and sit at two pianos and she wouldn’t sing. She would improvise on the piano because she could really play piano. And I was like, “Oh my God, I love her.” She gets it. She understood and she could play it, and she liked weirder music than me. The collaboration started there. We were both looking for a kind of flexibility that each of our forms may have only showed us some signs of, but where was the follow-through in the new generation? And so I think every once in a while we would try to figure out what that possibility was, and we still do.
[00:25:12] Maori Karmael Holmes: What has it been like to collaborate with her professionally and artistically?
[00:25:17] Jason Moran: Alicia makes everything better, whether I’m ready for it to get better that fast. She can always see what it needs. And her mother was an incredible editor, Carol Hall. And her father, Ira Hall, was an incredible musician and businessman, perfect with numbers. She come from stock, you know what I mean? They are thoughtful people and really beautiful. And so they were my family in New York because all my family’s in Texas, but they were living in Connecticut, so they were who I was really… We were always spending time together. And I say working with Alicia then makes you have to level up because she has a standard, and the standard for her is ordinary. It’s not like it’s an inherited one, but she has it for herself, too. And what we try to do with each other is pull each other’s territory a little bit further. And by that I mean, if she’s in a classical vocal recital world where people stand in gowns in front of the piano and grip their hands like this and sing beautiful songs. That’s the way it’s been done for a long time. Or if jazz musicians come to shuffle on the stage and they try to get their music together and they’re looking around and there’s no sense of drama, except I’m watching you and think that that’s cool. Then that’s an issue, too. And so we both were trying to tackle what would it be on the stage that we could figure out together. It’s hard, also, because we don’t turn off. We’re going to wake up and talk about something. We’re going to go to sleep and talk about something. And now we have children, so we have to also make sure we take care of the kids, too. But look, there’s burdens. This is a gift, to be able to grow music with her over these years.
[00:27:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: You have spent a lot of your career teaching, New England Conservatory and many other places. Why teach?
[00:27:27] Jason Moran: I had too many great teachers. These people were incredible teachers. And most of them are dead. And even before they were dead, I was into it. When musicians give you something, you can’t just hoard it and you have to share it over and over again to see, how does it get planted in these other students who are coming up through the music? I want the future student or future player to feel like they have me on their side, because that’s what I had in my teachers. Jaki Byard, Andrew Hill, Muhal Richard Abrams. My first piano teacher, Yelena Kurinets, I still talk to her. She checking in on my technique. You know what I mean? But I think it’s important for young musicians to have mentorship. I think it’s really important.
[00:28:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: What do you have coming up? What is your next projects?
[00:28:21] Jason Moran: Next year is Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday.
[00:28:24] Maori Karmael Holmes: He’s a Taurus, right?
[00:28:26] Jason Moran: Yes, that’s right. He is. I’m planning to scale the mountain. Ellington left a tremendous record of compositions that are difficult, because he has such a style. And I have always played one song, a little bit of another, but I’ve decided not to touch it because it’s too big. Now, for his 125th birthday, I’m going for it. Next spring, I’m going for it across the world, doing different versions of concerts for Ellington.
[00:29:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: What is the ideal way to listen to music besides listening to it live?
[00:29:13] Jason Moran: If you have a room with just any kinds of speakers that are far away from you, and you sit back from it. Like looking at a painting. Some paintings, you get up close on, and then if it’s large enough, you step away from. You want to step away, give your body some distance from the music. I like listening like that. I don’t have a setup really like that at home, it’s kind of low-key, but for me, the ideal way is to have some distance from your speaker.
[00:29:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: I read a profile of you from the New Yorker from a long time ago, which mentions this very poignant moment where you witnessed your parents listening to Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight while they watched a news story unfold about the Congressman Mickey Leland’s death on television with the sound muted. And that memory, in that article, it was so beautifully written, I felt like I was standing behind you, but it’s also because I remember that story. And I was just wondering if you’ve had a moment like that as an adult, where you’ve been moved to have a specific piece of music, in real time, illustrate your inner world?
[00:30:20] Jason Moran: It’s hard to say, because my parents weren’t planning that moment. During the pandemic, McCoy Tyner passed, and it wasn’t like I was close with him, but when I was a teenager, he came to my high school. McCoy Tyner you’d know from all these great John Coltrane records, he’s ripping up the piano. And he came to my high school when I was the biggest fan of him. I lost my mind when he was there, and I played for him, and he was like, “Ah, nah, it sounds good.” And then over the years, I would see him on the road and he’d be like, “I remember meeting you in Houston.” It was always like that. When I got the job at the Kennedy Center for, I think, the 60th anniversary of Blue Note Records, I brought him to the Kennedy Center, and he took me aside and said, “Man, I’m so glad you have this job.” He was always there, whispering something, encouragement. And then also sitting down at the piano playing some realness. And then during the pandemic, he passed. And I wasn’t sure how it felt about that because the way he pounded the piano I knew would not ever happen again. So I started pounding the piano. And Alicia heard me walk in the apartment, close the door, and then just starts hearing this piano, just… And for me, it was physical. As much as it was sonic, it was like, “I have to play his songs louder than I ever have.” And Alicia’s like, “What’s wrong with you?” In a good way. She was like, “What’s going on?” I said, “McCoy just passed.” Now, I use the piano to mark when someone is gone and I send them something. But McCoy’s one was tough because I think right before the pandemic, I played a show at the Vanguard, and I never talked publicly about him. Because I used to copy his style so much as a kid, I was like, you could never play to the public. It’s called plagiarism. So I just never did. I kept it off. And then one night I just let it out. And I talked to the band and to the audience about, I don’t do that, but I feel like I have to do it. I have to give it to this man. When I think of music, because I play it, then I want to make the music for the time to mark it rather than put something on. My duty is to make something in that moment.
[00:32:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do you have the music picked out for your own memorial?
[00:32:47] Jason Moran: Yeah. These trombone players. These trombone players. There was this video of these trombonists who came to play for a funeral, and one of the people in the family couldn’t come to the church. They weren’t able-bodied to come, and so the trombonist showed up to his front lawn and just set up in the ring and started playing these songs, these hymns. And there’s a shouting trombone tradition. And I thought, “That’s my soul.” And I don’t want to hear it until I’m dead. My soul will want to hear it, but I don’t want to really hear it while I’m alive. I want it to show up to escort me on. It’s not really a song, it’s just a feeling, and it’s the scoop, the way that trombones do.
[00:33:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: I was told that you wanted to talk about midlife. I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, so I’m feeling that.
[00:33:50] Jason Moran: Congratulations, happy birthday.
[00:33:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you. What are you thinking about specifically? What’s going on for you?
[00:33:57] Jason Moran: I don’t know. Legacy. And is it worth it? Like that, for real. Man, I spent all this time talking about this stuff and these people, and at a certain point, “Am I grown?” You ask that stuff to yourself. Or “Do I want to do something else?” And “Is this enough?” At midlife, you’re just like, “What do you want to carry?” I was saying earlier, what do you want to carry for the next 10 years, 20 years, if we’re blessed to have that much time? And the questions that we ask ourselves about how do we evolve. And I check in with friends who are also in the same space, “How you dealing with it?” I didn’t buy a Ferrari last year, but I did buy a very expensive piano. Kind of bought my first piano, that’s like, “This is mine. It’ll only have my information in it.” And it was a big midlife buy. I hadn’t done it yet. And I don’t know. How do you feel it? Do you feel it?
[00:35:05] Maori Karmael Holmes: But also thinking about just change. So much is different. Dave from De La Soul dying woke so much up, just thinking about what that moment was supposed to be for him, and then just, he’s too young. All of that stuff. It’s been really interesting. And I didn’t know him, but I had people who were very close, so I felt, like I was thinking about it a lot. My mom used to tell me when she was younger, she’s like, “You kind of get stuck at 19.” And I didn’t believe her, but I get it now. I still see myself like that. Yeah, that’s not true when you wake up.
[00:36:04] Jason Moran: My knee is telling me every time, “You’re not 19, bro.” I stood up the other day and my knee went… Sounded like straw being pulled apart. And I went to my physical therapist, she’s like, “Oh yeah, like popcorn?” I was like, “Damn.” I was like, “Yeah, you knew the sound.” And it’s not just the body telling you stuff. As a musician, there’s just certain things you can’t do anymore, or I don’t work at it enough. When I watch a musician, like a Cecil Taylor, a pianist who would do all these crazy things at the piano, what we’re not seeing is how many muscles he’s engaging to play those sounds. It’s insane, the fit level he was at to do that and for so long into his eighties. Then I think about that. I think about all the musicians who are on tour right now who are in their seventies. Seventies, eighties, getting on a plane, getting off the plane, getting their luggage, getting into a van-
[00:37:05] Maori Karmael Holmes: Marshall Allen at 98.
[00:37:06] Jason Moran: Yeah, Marshall Allen. Getting into a van, going to a hotel, checking in, laying down for 30 minutes, getting back up, getting your clothes on, going to the venue, do sound check, entertain some jerk for 20 minutes because you got to, eat dinner, play your show, talk to some people afterwards, go to sleep. Three hours, four hours, you got to get up at 5:00 AM to get on that van again, to go back to the airport to do the next city. I watch people do it, and I’m like, “Yo, I’m not built for it.” The music tells me I am built for it. And somehow the music, every time, it can save me. And I know it saves them because I’ve watched it happen. When Max Roach and Cecil Taylor sat down, Max Roach barely could get on stage, but once he sat behind the drums, he was alive again. Alive in that very physical way that you couldn’t see when he was away from the drum set. I also know that the music keeps people alive. And so when you ask about, even thinking about, what is it? Do you think music is going to be the one? It’s like, “Nah, it has to be.” Because that’s the thing that has gotten me this far, and I’ve watched it take care of people late into their lives, if they can figure it. And there’s a balance, a delicate balance, of understanding our health, physical and mental and whatever else we’re battling in our artwork. And hopefully it can feed you and it can feed people around you. But I think if enough of us check in on each other from the various viewpoints, because like you said, watching Dave or many other people pass away before we could think that they should be passed on, it’s been hard. And there’s another layer that is also taking us out that could be invisible to us. Just the situation of being in this country, the way it feels, what being slowly stripped away from us, even though we think we firm. It’s eating at the skin of our feet and it just is slowly sinking us. And that’s the dread part, too. And also, I watched my mom die. She was in her mid-fifties when she passed, so I have a sense of, “You better get it done, bro.” Like a rush to figure some of the stuff out. As I approach that age, I don’t ever want to think that it’s going to always be there. Anytime in these moments where I talk about the stuff that I’ve tried to do in the past, I know where that rush started happening. It was when she died, it was like, “You better make output. You better be on the ground with people, trying to help them get going.” So that when it’s over, then, “All right, cool.” I like watching age. I like it. I like hearing it and how the subjects that people talk about in their age. And then I like how musicians play with their age, and even the moments when it gets less clear, like a McCoy Tyner, Philly’s own. McCoy Tyner, near the end of his career, he had to bring a few other pianists out on the road with him to help play the concert. And every once in a while, he might play a song, and at the end of the song, he might start playing the same song again. Forgot that he had just performed it. Somehow it was like, was that the intention? I’m not really sure. Somehow it’s totally poetic. I want to go at it again. You know what I mean? Let me check it out again. Take two, in public. It’s in, somehow, that space that I also want to get to. How will the music… When I decide, “Okay, I’m tired of doing that.” What does it become then? The next stage?
[00:42:53] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you so much.
[00:42:54] Jason Moran: Thank you so much.
[00:42:55] Maori Karmael Holmes: I really appreciate you coming down here and-
[00:42:56] Jason Moran: It’s a pleasure. Also, just to give a real deep bow to what you have made and what you all have done.
[00:42:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.
[00:43:07 Jason Moran: Because we need it.
[00:43:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you.
[00:43:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: To keep up with more of Jason Moran’s work, you can follow him on Instagram @TheJasonMoran. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The Host and Executive Producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Kayla Lattimore. Associate Producers are Irit Reinheimer and Zoë Greggs. Managing Producer is Alex Lewis. Executive Editor is John Myers. Justin Berger is our Final Mix and Mastering Engineer. We had help from Danya Abdelhameid. Our music supervisor is David “Lil Dave” Adams. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave.
This episode features music by Jason Moran. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next time.