Upclose: Jason Moran

September 5, 2017

By Bryan Reesman

Pianist, composer, and bandleader Jason Moran believes in taking himself to the next level, then pushing beyond that. Two decades into his professional career, the acclaimed musician and 2010 MacArthur Fellow fluidly integrates his many influences into his work and continues performing and recording with a variety of accomplished jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, Cassandra Wilson, and Henry Threadgill. Beyond his solo work, collaborations, and sideman gigs, he has scored at least six films, including “Selma.” As an educator, 42-year-old Moran, a Texas native and now Harlem resident, takes the same approach he would with himself and also applies lessons he learned from influential teachers as well as his propensity for self-navigation during his formative years. For him, education is not just about a teacher passing along knowledge; the student should have a clear objective as to what they want out of the experience and the musical dialogue that ensues. It took JAZZed a while to track down the prolific and busy Moran, but when we did, the thoughtful pianist had plenty to discuss.

I remember reading one interview where you talked about how it’s hard when you become successful because you want to hold onto your identity even as people try to pigeonhole you. How have you maintained your identity?

I feel like any artist’s interests are varied, whether or not they take the same kinds of risks they might with their own personal practice. I just like to work that way. I knew I could do certain things on the piano, and I thought about a variety of people to play with in terms of options, ideas, aesthetic, and sonic control. The goal was to be that kind of piano player who could play Brahms with my wife, who’s a classical singer, or play with Cassandra Wilson when she’s singing Robert Johnson or play with Charles Lloyd or Steve Coleman or Sam Rivers. Those things are portals into other places. My passion for them is equal.

You have been teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music for several years now. What is the environment like there, and how do you bring your style of teaching into that institution?

I always say that I’m a product of jazz education, from the books of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock transcripts, to teachers I had to the high school that I went to the summer camps I went to, then Manhattan School of Music and into the arena of teaching as well. I took advantage of maybe more than my peers did at those schools – how to build my own curriculum of the other things I wanted to learn, or by virtue of the woman I was dating in college learning about all this other music that they’re not teaching you in the jazz classes. Or wanting to learn about electronic instruments but having to wait till your fourth semester to get to that – I’m not going to be here for four more semesters, so I built this other curriculum for me. I added classes to my schedule that revolved around getting up early at 6 AM and going to the school and working on electronic music. So I teach with that in mind. I teach with a mind that the teachers I had were able to find in me not only the gaps that I had, but were there to accentuate my strengths. One of the things that I rarely hear discussed is how to really elevate those aspects of a person and personalize it into their music. That means that their outcome might not necessarily be jazz, and they may be doing that to satisfy some other things. But if they could let go of some of those things that have left them in a creative box, maybe they’d find their source.

You have two parents who have been very supportive of your music. Your mother was a teacher. What did she teach?

She was an English teacher for deaf students, and then she was also a mentor for students who were in a program that the NAACP sponsored [with a corporation]. She was always attached to students in her life.

I have read that your father was an investment banker who is also an artist.

He’s one who appreciates art. I don’t want to say he’s an artist. He likes to draw, but he definitely didn’t do that until after he retired. He might draw something, but his brother is the real artist in the family. His brother taught him how to look at things, so when we were growing up my father collected the things that his brother told him to collect, whether it was paintings or ceramics. Our house became a repository for some of these ideas.

So you had the “cool uncle” growing up.

Very cool uncle. [laughs] His name is Joseph Moran, and his son Max Moran is a bass player who plays with Donald Harrison and a bunch of other people.

You started on classical piano at age six and learned the Suzuki Method. How did that work for you?

In hindsight it seems like it worked great. While I was going through it I may not have had any appreciation for what I was tackling. But my brothers and I had a phenomenal teacher, a Russian woman named Yelena Kurinet, who was pretty rigorous about technique. I’d say [with] a lot of what I’m able to do now, most of it is because she instilled some of these things in my head at a very young age.

You went to Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Was there any teacher there who was really instrumental in guiding you?

The guy that ran the program back then was Robert Morgan, and he taught all of us – Robert Glass, Walter Smith, Kendrick Scott, the list is huge. A bunch of us were under his wing while we were in school. We called him “Doc.” He was the one who was really shepherding that program and ended up turning out a lot of really prominent musicians because he was a real hard-nosed teacher, a very demanding teacher.

In terms of education, when is someone demanding, and when is someone the teacher from Whiplash?

They’re pretty close to one another. [laughs] I would say that even within the unofficial teaching environments of rehearsals or on the bandstand or in gigs across the world, or how Buddy Rich talked to his band, those are teachable moments, as they say. Doc wasn’t that hardcore, but he was into “let me see the improvement, let me hear it quicker”. If you know you can work on something, you better go home and work on it. That kept up the students’ pressure on each other, and therefore a lot of us got better by virtue of all the students battling against one another.

You graduated from the Manhattan School of Music in 1997, and Jaki Byard was instrumental in guiding you in that school.

He was pivotal. He was the reason I went to Manhattan School Of Music. He was on the faculty. He really instilled in students having the idea of who’s going to be their teacher to guide them through that process of learning about themselves. It’s really important to try to find the right teacher, and if you don’t, then try to continue that search. I was extremely fortunate to have Jaki for four straight years teaching me everything that he thought I could handle and even more stuff I still haven’t gotten to 20 years later. I think that’s a big thing for people to figure out. Jaki had a way of teaching that was less about wagging his finger in my face… he wanted me to understand things about technique, harmony, and rhythm, but then he also wanted me to understand things about life. He seemed to blend those things together pretty seamlessly so I didn’t even know all of it was happening.

For you, what’s the best formula for finding a good student/teacher pairing?

Let me just say, as a student I have to be a fan of the teacher. That’s how it worked for me with all of my teachers, from Jaki Byard to Andrew Hill. People that I call official teachers. If I’m a teacher, I hope that a student is arriving at my door with some sense of something that they need to gain from our relationship, and they have to figure out, if they’re not getting it, how to find it. I hear different things [from students] about what they think they want, and I want to give students artillery to deal with the rigors of being a working jazz musician. A lot of my piano students from Manhattan School Of Music – I taught there before I went to NEC – are now thoroughly in the field and really have their stuff together. I’m quite proud that I was able to teach them for a year or two years, and that makes me know that those students also arrived at the shore with a lot in their bag already.

At the end of your time at Manhattan School of Music, you connected with saxophonist Greg Osby and went on tour with him and developed this long-term artistic relationship and friendship with him. You recorded and toured with him. That’s amazing to have that happen so early in your career. You were only 21 then.

When I share stories with students about how to break into the business, it’s that you work your ass off without ever really knowing when that opportunity is going to come. And then when that opportunity comes, you better play your ass off! You don’t know when it’s going to show up. You might think it could be one gig, and it might not be that one. It might be the first time an audience is listening in a different way. That’s what I felt I was ready for. [After] all those years studying with Jaki Byard, when I got in Greg’s band there was enough flexibility to have some things that I wanted to try out, and doing it on an international stage turned out to be the best place to try them.

What did you learn from Greg?

Greg was applying some of the same things that Jaki Byard was talking about. How to play with options – not only does it fuel your own inspiration, but also to pin on things that were built around theory or around rhythm. Then being able to explore them but not in a cliché way. At that time, Greg was also playing with Andrew Hill, so a lot of things that I was still working out were Andrew Hill built. But Greg was also a great teacher who was helping me get my feet wet, with producing my first couple of albums on Blue Note Records and teaching me how to lead a band. Things to do, things not to do. That was a great way to be mentored into the scene.

You have been teaching at New England Conservatory of Music for a while – lessons, master classes, and different ensembles. Do you approach each format with the same style of teaching?

For lessons that are piano-based, we talk about technique, repertoire, and approach, and I really want to tailor it to the approach that the student has already developed. By the time I get to them, they’re generally either in their senior year or they’re graduate students, so they’ve been at it for a while and learned a lot. So I steer them that way. For ensembles, I really want to deal with people’s music. I want to hear what they’re writing, I want to hear them put it together, and I will suggest options for their pieces. For master classes, I change the subject every time. Sometimes it’s about solo piano, sometimes it’s about repertoire dealing with death, sometimes it’s about Jaki Byard or Andrew Hill. I have to keep it fresh for me as well. I can deal with the music of Fats Waller from multiple angles, whether it’s just a catalog of music or what did an African-American performer have to deal with in the 1930s. There are a lot of ways to discuss those kinds of subjects, and I also want the students to know that I’m thinking that way and that they should feel empowered to think that way about their own music. With a lot of these students, I know most of their favorite musicians, so I know those students also want to hear about what it is like out here in public. What is that musician like off the bandstand, or how do they approach [certain things]? I am also there to share that “working musician” part that those who are toiling through conservatory programs have hopefully set their life up for. They want to see what’s on the other side, they want to hear about it.

There are plenty of things you can’t learn in school, like how to interact with your peers. Then there are things you need to learn by going out in the world and making mistakes.

As a young musician, you also have to know that you’ll never please everyone and you’ll definitely never please the older generation as much as you want to. [laughs] There are parts of that you’re going to have to get over. Depending upon what kind of ideas you have, someone’s always going to ride you a little bit, and that’s a normal part of being a creative person. In an art form you’re supposed to show your biases. That’s the only reason I’m going to listen to you – I want to hear what you think. I don’t want to want to hear what a batch of people think. Miles Davis thought his instrument sounded beautiful with a mute. That’s crazy, but he sure did believe that. It’s letting a student know that they can embed all of their identity into the sound. That’s the part that they have to figure out on their own. Nobody can coach them through that.

You mix up musical styles yourself. Sometimes you play traditional jazz, whereas your hip-hop stuff usually works around a repeated motif in a pop/rock vein. While your Fats Waller tribute is a complete reinvention of his music.

Jaki Byard introduced me to a lot of this music, not necessarily saying what you should do with it. He was more introducing the idea that there’s a canon of music that I should probably get serious about at some point, and as I got older and got serious about those canons, they then birthed these projects. I was also running into institutions that wanted to help me create these projects. Those things come hand in hand. Part of what a student can also start to think about is that although their dream will constantly change every couple of years, if they’re able to locate some of their dream projects, they’d be surprised when someone shows up at the doorstep and says, “What would you like to do?” Then your job is to actually go out there and do it. To create it. That’s the hard part. Nobody ever presents the dream scenario while you’re in school. They just say you’ve got to play this blues scale.

You have been a sideman on between two and three-dozen releases outside of your own work. Some bandleaders wouldn’t necessarily do that. Do you find it liberating?

It is liberating because in those other groups I can just show up and know that I’m hired to be the kind of musician that is needed for that situation. In Charles Lloyd’s band, his relationship with the pianist is one in which you’re a free agent when you walk into that chair. If I’m pianist for Cassandra Wilson, I know that there is a certain demand but there is also a certain edge I can bring to some of those songs. But I also have to know how to play in the landscape. What I learned was dealing with color and with texture – sometimes when you’re the lead instrument in the bandwagon, it’s way different. I love being a supportive player as well. As a pianist, that’s one of the main jobs, to figure out how to support an ensemble. How can you help an ensemble change direction? You figure out these points of power.

It also takes a certain humility to do that, especially after you’ve gotten to the point of being a successful bandleader.

Recently, I started playing with Archie Shepp, and I’ve been wanting to play with him since I was at Manhattan School Of Music. That’s literally a dream scenario. Now that you’re sitting with this person, what will you do? Sometimes you have to pull your mouth up off of the floor at the wonder of getting an opportunity like that, and then you have to make it work and make sounds with them. I also like it, most importantly, because I get to see how another band distributes their music to an audience. How do they talk about their music? How long or short of a set do they want to play? How do they travel? I’ve learned so much about how people deal with how they should work on and off the bandstand. That’s half the battle – how do you want to live your life? By being in other people’s bands, you actually get to see it [more clearly].

Both of us have parents who supported our artistic endeavors, but not every child is so lucky. Do you have any advice for students whose parents aren’t as supportive or who don’t get what their children want to do?

Generally, I’m able to point to artists who have dealt with a similar or even worse situation and have found a way to apply that to their artwork. The thing with Nina Simone: let alone whatever she dealt with – abusive husband or not being able to go to a certain conservatory for a number of reasons – how did she as an artist then deal with that setback? There are enough examples for me to point to. And even for the person who seems like on the surface they have this 1-2-3 setup which all seems to fit together, at some point it all comes crumbling down. How do they rebound? Lastly, I say to them [students] that they can deal with crisis management in music too. [Like] in a situation where somebody went to the B section and everybody is still in the A section. There are going to be some moments where you’ll wonder why did you decide to do this kind of work. Everybody has a situation. Most of these students are signing up to do a job that they know barely exists. They’re brave already in that they want to be a jazz musician. What are you going to play, and who is going to listen to it? And who’s going to buy it because you’re all streaming it? These kids are brave. It’s a very different setup that they’re walking into it.

What is the most valuable life lesson that you can impart onto your students?

Always work harder than the person next to you. It will always pay off. I would watch my friends do certain things, and they would just stop. They wouldn’t go that extra step. I myself would stop in certain places, and I watched some of my friends show me how to take those extra two steps. The amount of work and concentration you put into your craft never really fails. And also the health of your life. Those things are necessary to succeed.

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