I kind of want to get the music back on a road it hasnt been on for a while, Jason… (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE…)
During an afternoon sound check at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, pianist Jason Moran was asked if he could play “Auld Lang Syne” as a promotion for NPR. He didn’t quite remember the melody and wanted someone to hum it for him.
In the next three minutes, as he sat at the piano, Moran wove improvised beauty, transforming the familiar New Year’s Eve war horse into a gentle jazz hymn. He created new harmonies, shifted to a different key, added a touch of abstraction without departing from the song’s melancholy melody.
It was a subtle demonstration of how the 36-year-old Moran is ringing in a new era of jazz.
He is perhaps the country’s most influential jazz musician under 40. He’s got plenty of street cred on the music scene, but he is quickly gaining institutional validity as well, most notably with last year’s award of a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. In the latest confirmation of Moran’s rising cultural stature, the Kennedy Center last month named him its new artistic adviser for jazz.
“He has a vision,” said Kevin Struthers, the Kennedy Center’s director of jazz programming, “and we wanted him to bring a vision to us.”
Moran takes over a position that was created by Billy Taylor, the venerable pianist, educator and broadcaster who died last December at 89. In a 16-year association with the Kennedy Center, Taylor increased the number of annual jazz performances from four to more than 150.
“It’s an honor to continue what he started,” Moran said during a recent interview at the Kennedy Center. “I think of it as a challenge. How do you carry on something Billy Taylor has done so well and so eloquently for more than a decade?”
The full effect of Moran’s programming ideas won’t be seen for several months, but they will undoubtedly reflect his questing, eclectic personality.
“Jason is very forward-thinking, but he also has a deep respect for the past,” said veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who has had Moran in his quartet for the past four years. “He loves music, and he loves a lot of it. He’s all-encompassing. He has a deep, quiet center.”
Over the past 18 months, Jason Moran has gone from being just another busy musician to a one-man musical industry. Besides the MacArthur fellowship and his appointment at the Kennedy Center, he joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory and toured the world with Lloyd.
His 2010 recording, “Ten,” his eighth album, has been hailed as an instant classic. DownBeat magazine put him on its cover for winning its annual critics’ poll for album of the year, musician of the year and pianist of the year.
Moran has a reputation for being polished beyond his years — he showed up for a Saturday interview wearing a suit and tie — and didn’t once answer his cellphone or look at a text message. He often breaks into laughter and speaks with knowledge of other art forms, including painting, dance and design.
The idea that he might be able to collaborate with artists in other disciplines was, in fact, one of the things that made him accept the offer from the Kennedy Center, where he has a three-year appointment.
“He was our first choice,” Struthers said.
Moran has already worked on film projects and has composed for dance troupes and theaters. In Washington, he wants to take the music beyond the Kennedy Center’s concert halls, possibly in joint programs with other institutions.
Another part of his duties at the Kennedy Center will be helping to guide an educational program begun by Taylor. His own experience as a teacher, Moran said, has taught him that jazz can appeal to people of all ages — if only they have a chance to hear it.
“It’s just exposure, at all levels,” he said. “Clearly, there are students who get enamored by the idea of improvisation. It happens every day.”
With his MacArthur grant, Moran hopes to find a way to spread the language of jazz across the American landscape. Noting that he works “exponentially more” overseas than he does in the United States, he hopes to rekindle a love of jazz in the land of its birth.
“I kind of want to get the music back on a road it hasn’t been on for a while,” he said. “I want to promote the arts as part of the American diet.”
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If not for a couple of chance encounters, Jason Moran might not have become a pianist — or at least not a jazz pianist — at all. When he was growing up in Houston, his parents started him on the regimented Suzuki method of piano study when he was 6.
He showed enough talent that he had a private teacher who had studied at the Moscow Academy of Music. But the young Moran had many other interests to compete with the piano: hip-hop music, skateboarding, kung-fu movies, snakes and golf. (The only question he ducked in his interview was revealing his golf handicap.)