Jazz Man Jason Moran Pays Homage to the Past with an Eye on the Future

By Lauren Loudermilk | April 3, 2020 | People


As we’ve just entered the ’20s again, it’s only right we embrace the next Jazz Age. Fittingly, jazz virtuoso and genius (of the MacArthur variety) Jason Moran and his trio, The Bandwagon, recently celebrated their big 2-0 together. As artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, Moran has been shaping the District’s music scene since 2014.

“This city is rich with a legacy that is rare in America,” he says of DC. “Thankfully, there have been musicians like Chuck Brown, Duke Ellington and Shirley Horn who have made the city one to listen to.” This month, Moran was scheduled to bring back one of his most popular programs—the Fats Waller Dance Party—which features classic hits from the eponymous musician. “I always love finding a hidden Easter egg in a song to help reveal a new way of performing it,” Moran says of updating the songs for modern audiences. “For ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ Fats sings his final phrase by repeating the words, ‘For you, for you, for you, for you.’ I thought that would be a great mantra for the song—an offering of love.”

The concept is an homage to the legendary jazz pianist, who became a master of Harlem’s stride style, influencing contemporaries like Art Tatum and Count Basie. Waller, a true showman, found success in music, radio, Broadway and all-around celebrity, like the time he was famously kidnapped by Al Capone to play at the gangster’s birthday party. Moran honors Waller’s larger-than-life persona by donning a papier-mâché head (think the titular oddball from the movie Frank or David Wojnarowicz’s Arthur Rimbaud photographs) of the jazz man commissioned by Haitian mask artist Didier Civil.

The musical bash gets spectators out of their seats and into the music, emblematic of Moran’s ethos of music as a full sensory experience. “Jazz is inherently dance music,” he explains. “It lives in the body… I believe conceptually there are ways to understand an experience. At the Kennedy Center, we mostly arrive as an audience to spectate. In this piece, we want the interaction. Also, I do enough serious pieces; I want to have fun too.”

In addition to continuing his work around “the Big Bang of jazz,” Moran is also excited for a new generation of jazz artists. “The future is in the high schools,” he delights. “The kids who have been raised digitally, to a degree, will birth something profound. It will be something I could never imagine as an analog kid.” 2700 F St. NW

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Photography by: Scott Suchman