The Kennedy Center’s Jason Moran on Walkouts, D.C. Jazz Venues, and Becoming the Jazz Establishment
This weekend, the Kennedy Center hosts the finals of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which effectively opens its jazz season. It's the second with celebrated pianist Jason Moran as the institution's artistic advisor for jazz; his debut in 2012-13 was marked by adventurous choices, along with Kennedy Center favorites and a surprising amount of Moran himself.
Ahead of the new season, Moran talked with Washington City Paper about some of the choices he made in his inaugural season and the lessons he learned—and how that informs his second year of KenCen jazz programming.
Washington City Paper: When you look back on your first season at the Kennedy Center, what would you say were the biggest learning curves for you as artistic advisor?
Jason Moran: I think what I hadn't realized coming into this was kind of the magnitude of the position. I took for granted some of the things about Billy Taylor and who he [was], and how big a presence he is to jazz, especially in relationship to America. Meaning his relationship to jazz education, to jazz as a public, and to musicians, as he helped to promote their music by booking them at the Kennedy Center. So stepping in, it was like, “Oh! That’s right! Billy Taylor’s this spokesperson, so now, to a degree I have to think about—as I had before, but I had to think about it very consciously—how I was going to stand as the spokesperson for this music that I have loved for so many years. And I hadn't anticipated that.
I hadn't thought about how to address the education standpoint within the Kennedy Center. And as we jumped into it, I had to get my feet running quick. And the education programs, like the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, I had to retailor it to a degree to make it fit what I thought young musicians that I've worked with, what I feel they could stand to learn from that program.
I also learned, at the other end of the spectrum—I was glad about the things they let me try out this first season, but I have to figure out how to try to touch the edges of reality a little bit more gracefully. [Laughs] And I learned a lot about how much they will support me in my endeavors! Because they continually said, “Let’s try this.” It’s a beautiful position to be in.
WCP: You made some bold choices—like Anthony Braxton, where there were substantial walkouts. Did you find Washington audiences tend to be more traditional, or conservative?
JM: Well, I don’t know. You know, I’ve been audiences in New York where people leave. I went to a Roscoe Mitchell concert where people walked out—and actually they yelled at Roscoe Mitchell as they left! And I also haven’t attended enough shows with audiences at the Kennedy Center to get a feel. Because what I’ve felt, when I’ve gone to see shows there, was kind of this real dedication to listening. I don’t want to peg an audience as more or less traditional, more or less risk-taking, but I think there are audiences out there that are waiting to be tried. And I feel like the Kennedy Center can have that audience.
I don’t want to say that if you come to the Kennedy Center that you should expect something in the middle of the road, because things move in lots of directions—and audiences grow. And hopefully the audience we have there will continue to grow, too.
WCP: Right after you were first announced as artistic advisor, you came down and checked out the local scene. What’d you find out?
JM: There are lots of great venues in D.C. right now that are putting on great work: the Atlas, Bohemian Caverns, HR-57. And we want to make sure that, as an aggregate of arts promoters, that we are all educating our audiences about how the music is moving forward and the many avenues it travels down. And I think we are all figuring that out. Now, every time I’m in D.C., there’s like three other things I want to see besides what’s at the Kennedy Center. And that’s positive. I’m excited about that. That’s what I enjoy about living in New York!
I was reading this article yesterday where the Coen Brothers were talking about making films together and they realized that “All of a sudden, we’ve become The Establishment.” And I find myself in conversations—you know, I used to think of the institutions as a “they,” and now I have to adjust to thinking that I’m a part of this institution. So how do we feel as an institution about jazz, about improvisation, about abstraction, and multimedia? This is the conversation that I think other people in D.C. are also having, and that for me is exciting. And I hope that D.C. feels like reaping the benefits of it.
WCP: You were also on the bill yourself, quite often—seven times. Why was that, and why not so much this year?
JM: I think the first season, I wanted to just be around. The unfortunate part about living in New York is that I can’t constantly see what’s happening there, and booking me there made me feel like I could walk around and have a bit of a home. And if I’m not necessarily onstage, there are behind-the-scenes things happening there that are equally important.
But I didn’t want to feel like—here’s a weird analogy from the hip-hop world. Back when the whole East Coast-West Coast rivalry was happening, Suge Knight made a real dig at Sean “Puffy” Combs at the Source Awards one evening. He said, “If you want to be an artist and be on a label, and make a video and don’t want to feel like your producer has to be standing in it, then come to Death Row Records.” Because Sean Combs was always on everybody’s track saying something in the background, wanting to have a verse—and then he was in everyone’s video, too. So to a degree, when I asked Anthony Braxton if I could sit in with his band, I felt a little like I was the Sean Combs in Anthony Braxton’s Diamond Curtain. [Laughs]
So I want to play with other people, see if I can trigger relationships; I’m still a part of the season but I don’t want to be that hog. But I do want the people of D.C. to expect that they can reliably see me at least once as a part of every season.
WCP: As far as the new season, the “Listening Party” concept seems to be something new. Talk a little bit about it.
JM: This was born out of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program. It’s a beautiful two-week residency for these young artists, and each morning I had one of the teachers host a listening party. They brought in an hour’s worth of music that they were extremely influenced by and they played it for the students. And through that experience of watching that happen, we started thinking about the importance of just listening, not just to a live performance, but listening together to recorded music and discussing aspects that we thought the audience would find important—whether or not they understand the music or help them understand it. So it’s become part of the program. The Blue Note one with Terence Blanchard will be a lot of fun.
WCP: It looks like the “Discovery Artist” program at the KC Jazz Club is being expanded, too.
JM: Yeah. I always thought that these players—I was one of those discovery artists, way back I think around 2001, 2003, somewhere in there. And I felt like the Kennedy Center really looks for these young artists to kind of let them develop—not just once but again a couple of years later. That’s an important part of an artist’s career, letting them play their music a second and third time to the same audience, so they can see the growth. That’s an important aspect to the way that the Kennedy Center has booked things.
I feel like I’ve been the recipient of that kind of confidence from these promoters over the years, to put me in the situations I’m in now, so we want to feel like the artists have a home in the Kennedy Center where they can do that as well.
WCP: And there’s something called “The Crossroads Club,” too. What’s that?
JM: Oh, that’s the same as the Supersize Club last year, where we had Medeski, Martin, and Wood. We’ve just finally come up with a name for it! [Laughs] It’s where Robert Glasper will be, and where Roy Hargrove will be; it’s our standup venue that we really hope will be a staple of the season, because not all music is meant to be sat down and listened to. We had a great time doing the Fats Waller Dance Party there, with all that energy. I think all those shows sold out last year, I think because the artists we’re putting in there have an audience that follows them wherever they go, and they know how to display music in a way that brings people a lot of joy.
WCP: There’s already some controversy about next season—the change in the name of the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival to just the Mary Lou Williams Festival—and the implications of that.
JM: Right. Well, the programming is not changing. It’s always going to be focused on women. We just are taking women out of the title. Having Trio3 [Moran, saxophonist Oliver Lake, and bassist Reggie Workman] play the program with the music of Mary Lou Williams is the only example of a group that is led by men. But for me, I thought, Mary Lou Williams is the matriarch of modern piano jazz. She’s the one who was teaching Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and Herbie Nichols, and giving them ideas about how to change the music. She was a great musician. And we want to make sure we promote her legacy as one of a great musician, not relegated by gender.
The thrust of the programming will always remain the same, though. Having us three men performing I feel like is a direct tribute to who she was and what her legacy is as a great musician—and a great woman.
WCP: Anything you’d like to add?
JM: Having “Blue Note at 75” is a real insider thing for me [Moran has been signed to Blue Note since 2000], but trying to make a Blue Note Festival over four or five days will be a lot of fun and will stretch across the city to agree. And some of the institutional work we’ve been doing, so that we’ll be partnering with the Goethe-Institut and the Library of Congress, that feels right. I think that those kinds of relationships are important. Otherwise the programming speaks for itself, and I’m getting excited about the possibilities and ideas we have for 2014-2015. It’s a thrill for me.