Jason Moran is a jazz pianist who plays well beyond his years, showing an uncanny balance between respect for the past and progress into the future. He was born on January 21, 1975, in Houston, Texas, and began studying classical piano when he was seven. He hated piano lessons and wanted to quit, but changed his mind at age 13 when he first heard one of his father’s Thelonious Monk recordings. This sparked his interest in a career as a jazz musician and he returned to his piano studies with renewed enthusiasm.
While attending Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, he became a member of the school’s jazz band and the leader of its jazz quintet. His fellow students introduced him to the works of lesser-known musicians and to different viewpoints on jazz, exposing Moran to a variety of musical styles. “I’ve always been attracted to players who maybe weren’t the normal heroes,” he told Larry Blumenfeld of Schwann Inside Jazz and Classical. “Thelonious Monk wasn’t a normal hero until he became more popular in the 1980s. I’ve always been interested in players like Andrew Hill or Horace Tapscott or Herbie Nichols. They were the cats that were off to the side. There weren’t your run-of-the-mill piano players, but they knew how to run the mill.”
After graduating from high school, Moran moved to New York City to attend the famed Manhattan School of Music. “The only reason I went was that Jaki Byard was there,” he told Blumenfeld. “Some people have a very hard time finding the right teacher—one you can really sit down with and have them break down the music for you. Or one who, for instance, can speak from experience about playing with Charlie Parker.”
Byard became a role model and friend as well as a teacher. In October 2001 Moran told Aaron Cohen of Down Beat magazine, “Studying for four years with Jaki Byard at the Manhattan School of Music was huge. I don’t like to say that something’s a must for somebody to succeed as a musician, but studying with an older musician or having an older musician in your presence really helps out a lot.” Byard encouraged Moran to experiment with all of his musical ideas. Moran caught on quickly, telling Cohen, “Students should listen to everything as much as possible even the things that you hate. Because your taste is going to change so fast. You’re not going to notice what your taste or style is until later on. There’s just too much music to confine yourself.” Moran was also influenced by other instructors at the school, including Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill, who taught him to find his own sound, control his own destiny, and to put art before money whenever possible.
In 1997, during his senior year, a friend of Moran’s from high school, drummer Eric Harland, recommended him to alto saxophonist Greg Osby, who needed a piano player for a European tour. After the two talked by
Born on January 21, 1975, in Houston, TX. Education: Manhattan School of Music, degree in jazz piano, 1997.
Discovered jazz at age 13 listening to Thelonius Monk; attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, TX; studied with Jaki Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Andrew Hill at the Manhattan School of Music; joined Greg Osby on tour, 1997; released debut album Soundtrack to Human Motion, 1999; released Facing Left, 2000; released Black Stars, 2001; released Modernistic, 2002; released Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard, 2003.
Awards: First Run Film Festival Award, Best Original Score, 2003; First Annual Nightlife Awards for Unique Jazz Performance and Outstanding Jazz Combo Performance, 2003.
telephone, Osby hired Moran without ever hearing him play a note. It was the beginning of a friendship and a musical career; Osby, who obviously admires Moran’s talent, told Schwann Inside Jazz and Classical, “Jason has all the stylings and shadings of someone 50 years his senior.”
Following the tour, Moran made his recording debut on Osby’s Blue Note release Further Ado. His contributions on the album caught the attention of Steve Cold-man and Cassandra Wilson, who pursued him for their own releases. He also caught the attention of Blue Note executives, who signed him to his own recording deal. In 1999 Moran released his first album, Soundtrack to Human Motion, a collection of tunes that represent a day in Moran’s life. The album topped New York Times jazz critic Ben Ftatliff’s end-of-the-year list.
His 2000 album, Facing Left, included Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Modernistic has “Gangsterism on Irons,” and “Gangsterism on a Lunchtable”; Bandwagon, released in 2003, contains “Gangsterism on Stages.” “It’s like a composition class, or composition assignment,” he told Down Beat in December of 2001. “You have one theme, which is based on an Andrew Hill theme. You take it and work it one way. And then the next record you work it another way. And then the third you work it another way and on and on. For the third one, it’s written for Sam Rivers, so I added a section in the middle so he can get loose on it.”
Modernistic, released in 2002, featured Moran’s penchant for combining the old with the new. The title track was based on a piece written by James P. Johnson called “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic” in 1937. “That’s so perfect,” Moran told Down Beat in December of 2001. “A killer piano player writes something like that and gives it that title in 1937. So it’s getting all of that—that left hand, because they really knew how to evoke certain rhythms to make people dance.”
While the jazz industry is known for its formulaic method of developing stars, Moran has used his own skill, imagination, and intuition to lead him. In 2003 he won the Best Original Score Award at the First Run Film Festival for his soundtrack to the film All We Know of Heaven. In that same year he won the first annual Nightlife Awards for Unique Jazz Performance and Outstanding Jazz Combo Performance for his performances at the Village Vanguard and the Jazz Standard/New York City’s Town Hall.
Moran loves what he does, and works hard at it. “I have a fairy-tale career,” he told the Boston Globe.
Soundtrack to Human Motion, Blue Note, 1999.
Facing Left, Blue Note, 2000.
Black Stars, Blue Note, 2001.
Modernistic, Blue Note, 2002.
Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, 2003.
Boston Globe, May 11, 2002, p. C14.
Down Beat, June 1999, p. 59; October 2001, p. 18; December 2001, p. 18.
Schwann Inside Jazz and Classical, June 2001, p. 17 ft.
“Jason Moran,” Blue Note Records, http://www.bluenote.com (May 20, 2003).
Jason Moran Official Website, http://www.jasonmoran.com (May 20, 2003).
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