The new artistic advisor for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is Jason Moran, a formidably independent pianist with an instinct for the unexpected. Though he plays and composes within the jazz tradition, he often does so with a sideways slant, embracing dozens of musical influences, from Brahms to Congolese dance-band clamors. Sometimes elegant, sometimes brutal, the elements are spliced by the 37-year-old with such energy, originality and purpose that awed audiences never feel under instruction.
Moran was born in Houston, where his father, an investment banker, had an eclectic collection of 5,000 records. At 14, he was in his parents’ bedroom when he heard Thelonious Monk playing his classic “’Round Midnight.” “That was the moment I decided to give up everything else and be a musician,” he says. “Monk genuinely changed my life.” The teen went on to study at the Manhattan School of Music and became firmly entrenched in the New York jazz scene.
In 2010 he was awarded a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and the following year he won DownBeat magazine’s annual critics’ poll for jazz album, artist and pianist of the year. At the Kennedy Center, his programming ideas will, no doubt, reflect his vision of jazz as a living, evolving art.
Though jazz puts a premium on chops and feel—on improvisations created organically and delivered live—concert attendance in the States continues to decline. “People think it’s still in black and white, with cigarette smoke in the background,” Moran says.
To draw new audiences to the progressive, unapologetic music he loves, Moran plans to stage “cultural happenings” that involve film, ballet and theater. “I have a wide view of what falls under the umbrella of creativity,” he says. “Collaborations are a way to push the boundaries of jazz and prevent its mummification.”