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

“Oh, he loves doing that. That’s one of our favorites,” said Waits, laughing about my story a few weeks later when I saw the drummer at another gig. “Jason likes getting people thinking about rhythms in real life and rhythms in music and how they are comparable.” 

Moran left Houston and moved to New York, studied at the Manhattan School of Music and was influenced deeply by Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, two pianists with unique styles. He joined the band of saxophonist Greg Osby in 1997 and started the Bandwagon in 2000. His distinctive sound was apparent almost immediately to jazz fans and became known to a wider audience when, on his 2002 recording Modernistic (Blue Note Records), he covered Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal hip-hop hit, “Planet Rock,” and added a postscript to the tune that melded the beats into the backdrop of a hymn. 

Moran has received numerous commissions. Three years ago, he developed a stunning tribute to Monk’s seminal 1959 Town Hall concert, merging video of Monk rehearsing for the show, visuals from artist Glenn Ligon, and an expanded version of the Bandwagon to play the music and illustrate the relationship to Monk’s music of both the legendary composer and Moran. The performance is part of a documentary called In My Mind. The film will be screened Nov. 20 at the St. Louis International Film Festival. (Moran’s most recent recording is Ten on Blue Note Records.)

At the Vanguard, Moran and the Bandwagon were drawing from their full repertoire. They played a searing cover of Bjork’s “Joga” and followed it with a rendition of “Planet Rock.” Then out came the MP3 player; Moran and the band sat and listened intently to Billie Holiday’s poignant take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Big Stuff.” Then the band played its own masterly version of the classic. It was the clearest demonstration I have ever witnessed of a band’s unique sensibility with a well-known song.

Now that the rent is not going to be a worry for a while, it will be fun to see what Moran does next. Moran admits that it’s mind-boggling to think of what he might do with the money, but don’t expect anything immediately. His next year is already booked, and it includes a reworking of Fats Waller’s music next spring and a piece he’s writing for the Open Mind Festival for a group with guitarist Mary Halvorson and his wife, Alicia Hall Moran. 

He admitted he did have a list of dream projects, and one of them seems immediately feasible. “One was to perform free concerts within America, especially in rural America,” he said. “I feel like much of what I’ve done has been in the major cities, yet much of the Midwest, Southwest, North and South gets neglected. So the fellowship would make the issue not about money, but about taking the music to the people.”

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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