Pianist Jason Moran's Journey From Art-World Darling to Electrifying Jazz Soloist

Farzad Owrang/Jason Moran/Luhring Augustine, New York.

As an accompanist, the multi-talented musician has worked with artists ranging from Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon to director Ava DuVernay, writing scores for her films Selma and 13th. Now, with a self-titled retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the MacArthur “genius” goes from art-world accompanist to celebrated soloist. 

Whenever he’s touring, jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran likes to land in a new city by noon, so he can take in a museum or gallery show before sound check. These visits aren’t just leisurely detours; they’re a key part of his process. “In the daytime, you go look,” he told me at a café near his Manhattan apartment, “and then, at night, you digest through trying to play it,” much as the brain incorporates a day’s experience into dreams.

Because of its improvisatory nature, jazz demands innovation night after night. New ideas are precious currency, and Moran, 43, has found an inexhaustible source of them in art. The art world has embraced him in return. In the past 12 years, he has collaborated regularly with the video and performance artist Joan Jonas, whom he considers as much of a mentor as any of his pianistic forebears. He has also worked with such celebrated artists as Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Kara Walker, and Glenn Ligon, as well as the director Ava DuVernay, writing scores for her films Selma and 13th. More recently, he composed a piece based on murals that his fellow MacArthur “genius” grant winner Julie Mehretu created for SFMOMA, interpreting her enormous canvases as if they were a musical score. Conversely, he wanted his score to be read like a painting. “There was no bar one,” he said of the piece—layered and ruminative, like Mehretu’s work—which he released as an album titled MASS {Howl, eon} on his own label, Yes Records. “Just two pages of music, and you really could focus wherever you’d like.”

With a self-titled retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Moran goes from art-world accompanist to soloist. “Jason Moran” (April 26– August 26) includes multimedia pieces, videos, performances, and large-scale installations. Among the highlights will be Moran’s contributions to the 2015 Venice Biennale, STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1 and STAGED: Three Deuces, recreations of the bandstands from two long-lost New York venues, the respective stomping grounds of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Moran has added a third for this show, the defunct Lower East Side club Slugs’, best known as the site where trumpeter Lee Morgan was killed by his common-law wife in 1972. When not hosting performances, the empty spaces will serve as reminders of the transience of jazz and our failure to properly appreciate its role in American culture.

A new piece, Jazz Fest, created with the video artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, emphasizes that last notion by stitching together cliché or condescending mentions of jazz in the media, including TV shows, commercials, and what Moran called “the dreadful La La Land.” Another example is a recent FedEx commercial, the punch line of which is “jazz fusion.” Moran, handsome and dapper with a lifelong fondness for hats, laughs easily and loudly, and this piece reveals his sense of humor. “We’re pulling apart how jazz is perceived,” he said.

Since its origins as what Moran called a code for oppressed African Americans, jazz has been designed to break confines and conventions, especially its own. By merging jazz and contemporary art, Moran said, “I feel like I’m only keeping within a certain tradition.”