Nearly a decade ago, I ended a feature story about Jason Moran with this comment from him:
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt. But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”
Much of my work since then and all of Moran’s—which has earned him, among other honors, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and artistic directorships at The Kennedy Center and SFJazz—has been in some way an attempt to understand and celebrate the tensions within such duality.
So it made perfect sense when I learned on Friday that the Manhattan-based Luhring Augustine gallery had signed Moran among the artists it represents.
“The new works I’m creating have started to bear objects for the gallery,” Moran explained. “It’s a natural progression.” The papier-mache Fats Waller mask, above, created by Didier Civil, is owned by the gallery. “I actually sold it in a gala auction for Harlem Stage three years ago, and Roland Augustine purchased it,” said Moran. “He’s a big Fats Waller fan.”
According to gallery representative Lauren Wittels, co-owners Lawrence R. Luhring and Roland J. Augustine met Moran quite some time ago through his relationship with another gallery artist, Glenn Ligon. “The gallery will represent Jason in all matters relating to both his collaborations with visual artists and his own autonomous performance projects, whatever form they take,” Wittels wrote via email. “The gallery works with a number of other artists whose practice is collaborative in nature (Charles Atlas, Ragnar Kjartansson), as well as other artists who sometimes pair with creative forces in a variety of areas (Janine Antoni, Roger Hiorns), so this relationship with Jason feels very natural to us.”
The gallery’s press announcement gave a fair summary of Moran’s stature and its connections to the visual-arts world:
Moran’s rich and varied body of work is actively shaping the current and future landscape of jazz. His activity stretches beyond the many recordings and performances with masters of the form including Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, and the late Sam Rivers, and his work with his trio The Bandwagon (with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) has resulted in a profound discography for Blue Note Records.
The scope of Moran’s partnerships and music-making with venerated and iconic visual artists is extensive. He has collaborated with such major figures as Adrian Piper, Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Stan Douglas, Adam Pendleton, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker; commissioning institutions of Moran’s work include the Walker Art Center, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Dia Art Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Moran has a long-standing collaborative practice with his wife, the singer and Broadway actress Alicia Hall Moran; as named artists in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, they together constructed BLEED, a five-day series of live music. BLEED explored the power of performance to cross barriers and challenge assumptions, and it was widely hailed as groundbreaking in the music and performance realm.
Moran’s upcoming ventures include the world premiere of Looks of a Lot, a site-specific performance at Chicago Symphony Center with Theaster Gates in May 2014, and an appearance with The Bandwagon at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in April in conjunction with the museum’s Carrie Mae Weems exhibition.
Moran’s father is an avid art collector, and my experiences with Moran suggest that he shares that passion. Here are two joined excerpts from that magazine feature I did on him: the first is set at a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit; the second, the ending, explores his connection with Adrian Piper among other things. And though this story is from 2005, it still rings as relevant to me:
“As a jazz musician, you’re an artist trying to make a statement,” Moran says. “But you’re also a performer who is hired to entertain.”
We’re standing in front of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting “Hollywood Africans” in the midst of a sprawling retrospective of Basquiat’s work at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a quiet, cloudy mid-week morning outside, but the museum bubbles with the chatter of grade-school kids on a field trip. Basquiat’s paintings, densely filled with random-seeming images, bold with splashes of color, and often including scrawled names, numbers, and phrases, suggests a lot about Moran’s music in both its sensory cues and its references to African-American history. “Hollywood Africans” has a special connection for Moran.
“Any black artist is a Hollywood African, I suppose,” he continues. “Some get caught up in the Hollywood part of it, in being a popular entertainer. But how do you entertain and push the limit? That’s a hard balance, and it’s something I’m really trying to accomplish. One way I’ve approached this question is by trying to separate the walls between me and the other members of my band,” he says. “I want to create a sound that draws listeners in but without leaning on their preconceptions about the role of the piano or the drums….
….Moran created another commissioned piece, “Milestone,” for The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In preparation, he visited the center and spent days rooting around in its archives. As an admirer of visual art and design (he has a passion for modernist architecture), Moran saw the task as a labor of love. But it was also a search for new inspiration, which he found in the work of artist Adrian Piper.
Piper is an African-American woman whose work has spanned photography, video, performance art, and written discourses on the philosophy of art. Much of her art wrestles with issues concerning race and gender, often in both playful and hard-hitting ways. Moran visited Piper at her Massachusetts studio. “I’d heard Jason’s music,” Piper says, “and I recognized how accomplished a musician he is already at a young age. And I can sense that he wants to question how listeners frame what they hear, how they think of a piano player in the first place.”
Moran based much of “Milestone” on a statement that Piper made in one of her videos. “Artists ought to be writing about what they do, and what types of procedures they go through to realize a work,” she said. “If artists’ intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down some of the barriers between the artists, the art world, and the general public.”
At the Walker, Moran presented more than just a piece of music; he crafted a set piece that entirely recast the experience of listening to his quartet. At one point, he had one of Piper’s visual images projected onto a screen behind the musicians, and he made use of her voice, through audiotapes he’d made during discussions with her. He had the musicians sit under harsh lighting and face the crowd while their pre-recorded conversations about repertoire, band mechanics, and audience responses played through the sound system. And, in addition to playing both familiar and newly composed material with his group, he performed in duet with his wife, the opera singer Alicia Hall, who sang at one point about the separation caused by a jazz musician’s touring schedule.
Based on his Blue Note recordings to date, there can be no doubt that Moran sits proudly within the legacy of a storied jazz label. Yet he sits differently in that context than have others. Most clearly, there’s the red-lacquered, straight-backed chair made by Danish designer Susanne Forsgreen that he favors over a standard piano bench (it offers added support, he explained, and it possesses a natural springiness that aids his lunges toward the keys.) But in a less obvious way, Moran seems intent on some existential examination of his place in that lineage, and of the lineage itself. Maybe he’s taken Piper’s directive as one more warning to avoid becoming a “Hollywood African” or just another jazzman shuffling through sheet music after taking the stage.
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt,” Moran said the last time we spoke. “But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.”