MacArthur Winner Jason Moran Wants to Spread the Music

The pianist says his "genius grant" will help him bring jazz to neglected corners of America.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

When Jason Moran became the 13th jazz musician to win a prestigious and lucrative MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, he was able to celebrate in a way that no other musician has. He played for a week at jazz’s most renowned nightclub, the Village Vanguard in New York City; the engagement was arranged well in advance of the award’s announcement, but the timing was a serendipitous coincidence. He used his performances there to illustrate why he was chosen and why he is one of the most forward-looking musicians in jazz today. 

Moran is soft-spoken, articulate and fairly witty, and his taste for hats could become his visual calling card. He had just finished teaching a master class at the New England Conservatory of Music when he received a phone call that left him speechless. He was informed that he was one of 23 recipients of this year’s MacArthur Foundation Fellowships. Often called a “genius grant,” the award includes $500,000 to spend as he sees fit. 

His response was gape-mouthed silence. “My mouth was open from the time that the director began informing me of the award,” he told The Root in an interview. Past winners include Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman and Regina Carter.

The 35-year-old Moran is one of the youngest musicians to receive the prestigious award, but he has been on the path to greatness for many years. He was born in Houston in 1975 and was inspired to pursue jazz by the music of Thelonious Monk. He first heard the legend when he was 13. “My parents sat watching muted television coverage of a plane crash — someone they knew had died,” he remembered. “The only sound in the room was my dad’s recording of Thelonious Monk playing his most famous composition, ‘Round Midnight.’ It was all the commentary they seemed to need, the sound of loss and despair.” 

Moran had studied piano diligently to that point, and while his peers pursued dreams of being the next Tony Hawk or Michael Jordan, he practiced Mozart. But he was growing disillusioned with music. After discovering Monk, he learned how to play “Round Midnight” and obsessively began collecting Monk’s music. “By the time I was 17, I had amassed a collection of 70 Monk recordings, and begun to think of myself as a committed pianist.”