Jason Moran, 42, sits alone.
In a nearly empty Nicholas Music Center, he is playing some warm-ups on piano, about 40 minutes before his program starts. His worn-in 2008 Adidas “Blue Note” collaboration sneakers are tucked under his seat, and he softly rocks back and forth.
Moran, an esteemed, award-winning jazz pianist and Artistic Director for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, came to the Mason Gross School of the Arts on Monday to perform and hold a masterclass. His lecture and performance were superb, making an event that was more about an artist’s ideology than technical aspects of artistry.
Before the event, Moran was eating cantaloupe and lounging on a couch in the green room, talking about hip-hop.
“When people think about music history they think about times they wish they were alive, sitting in the audience,” Moran said. “To be in New York City in the mid-90’s with hip-hop was kind of insane. The music was running the world at that point, and it was just echoing off of every building.”
Those echoes have continued during Moran’s time at the Kennedy Center. He has pushed for more forward-thinking arts education, and in October he helped to establish the hip-hop division at the national arts center. Q-Tip, a producer and rapper of New York-based rap collective A Tribe Called Quest, was announced as the first director and Moran and Q-Tip held a joint concert to commemorate the occasion.
Moran’s lecture was wide-ranging as he discussed many of the things he went through in college. By his junior year he felt he was ready to drop out of Manhattan School of Music, but motivation came from a very important source.
“Trust your friends. Your friends know you better than you do, you’re all in this state of ambiguity about direction, it’s normal for that age,” Moran said, who graduated with a BM degree in 1997. “My friends were the ones who said ‘Yo man you shouldn’t quit, you should stay in this,’ and I believed them enough to stay.”
Just him and the piano, Moran’s solo performance was exceptional and honest. Moran opened with a cover of Thelonious Monk’s standard “Round Midnight” where he emphasized the dissonance of the piece, a true callback to the eclectic Monk.
For his second piece, Moran performed an improvisational solo, heavily using glissando, with his hands continuously gliding up and down the keyboard for minutes at a time. It was almost like shoegaze guitar played on a piano. The sound grew and changed, at times seeming like a train entering the station, to a tranquil walk in a garden, finally settling and ending in a standard blues progression.
He closed with a piece dedicated to his wife, an upbeat tune that sounded like the Mary Poppins soundtrack, if it were rewritten by Cannonball Adderley.
Min Kwon, the interim music director at Mason Gross, met Moran last summer at the American Academy in Rome, a research and arts institution located in Italy. They were the two pianists in residence at the time, and they have kept a relationship since then.
Kwon started as an Assistant Professor in 2002, then rose to Head of Piano at Mason Gross from 2013-2017. Almost complete with her first semester as Music Director, Kwon spoke about her experience in the new role.
“Yeah, it’s been a huge learning curve, I was Head of Piano, and always did things to advocate for pianists, but now I’m doing that for the entire school. It’s been really interesting.” Kwon said, who also touched on why Moran was selected as a visiting artist.
“One of the things in the vision I have for our school and students is to really connect them with really great artists in the scene,” Kwon said. “This goes beyond what they learn in the classrooms or in rehearsals.”
During the Q&A session of the event, Professor Kwon called Moran “the perfect example of an interdisciplinary artist,” meaning someone who is involved and works in multiple art forms.
Moran’s record speaks for itself, as projects he’s involved with have been displayed in the MoMA, have won NAACP Image Awards and have been nominated for Oscars, Emmys and Grammys. Moran delved into how he felt about the importance of interdisciplinary artistry.
“Over the past 15 years, from working with a lot of artists, from choreography, to history and poetry and filmmakers and sculptors…they use a different language than we do, but in the global language they use some of the same ideas that we do about texture, about rhythm, continuity, momentum, and that’s kind of helped affirm my ideas that I had while I was in college.”
Moran’s casual stage presence and lecturing style led to a comfortable and receptive audience, ready to laugh at what he said and focus on what he played. The event was a great afternoon of learning that extended beyond the classroom and focused on the “artist” aspect of the term “student artist.”
“Find your ancestors in the music you’re trying to make, cause you ain’t making it up. You might be furthering it, but you’re not inventing anything,” Moran said. “Once you understand that you’re a small part in a long history, for me that’s number one.”
Maybe he is not alone after all.