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 Thursday, 26 November 2015
Jason Moran Awarded MacArthur “Genius” Grant PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 29 September 2010

“Jazz offers this freedom to not only use my technique as a pianist but use my technique as a human. How I interact with people, how I lead a discussion, how I listen, all of these things come into play as a jazz musician. It’s a spur of the moment kind of performing, and when I watch and listen to great musicians perform it’s watching their brains work at an unbelievable rate…Their decisions and emotions come through sound. Jazz for me offers cultural complexities and American complexity; it offers many of these layers, which feed my palette.” – Jason Moran (Wall Street Journal, 9/29/10)

Jason Moran©Andrea Canter

Jason Moran, one of the most lauded jazz pianists and composers of the past decade, is one of 23 people awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant for 2010, the Foundation announced yesterday. The $500,000 “genius” grant will be given to him over the next five years. The MacArthur Foundation accepts no nominations by outside parties and there can be no lobbying on behalf of potential recipients.  Winners are chosen based on the MacArthur panel’s opinion of both the artists’ work to date and their likely future contribution. And the grant comes with no strings attached as to how the money is used. Moran is the fourth jazz artist to win the fellowship in the past five years, joining John Zorn (2006), Regina Carter (2006) and Miguel Zenon (2008).

Like most working musicians, Moran is used to spending considerable time on the road, going from gig to gig. Now with the MacArthur grant, he told the Wall Street Journal that “I don’t have to feel like I would have to be gigging so constantly and performing so constantly on the road. I could actually take a couple of weeks or a month off and really figure out a step that the band [The Band Wagon] or my music could take. Or another step that we can take spiritually that might or might not affect the music.” 

Named the first Playboy Jazz Artist of the Year for 2005 and a “three-peat” winner of Downbeat’s Critics Poll (Rising Star Jazz Artist, Rising Star Composer and Rising Star Acoustic Piano), 35-year-old Moran is regarded as “one of the most potent suppliers of unpredictable music around” (JazzTimes). Born and raised in Houston, Jason and his brothers were surrounded by opportunities to explore the arts and particularly music. His father, banker Andy Moran, was a jazz enthusiast who served as house photographer for La Bastille, Houston’s premiere jazz club in the 1970s. The elder Moran built a collection of over 10,000 records that provided young Jason with the eclectic foundation that would inform his own music. The Morans introduced their sons to the arts of Houston through trips to the symphony and art museums, and enrolled them in the Suzuki Music School of Houston. There, the brothers studied classical piano with Russian immigrant Yelena Kurinet, and soon each had his own piano. Kurinet remembers Jason at age five or six: “It was obvious he was talented. He was a pretty serious young man."

Jason Moran©Daniel Sheehan
Yet, Moran was starting to lose interest in the piano as a young teen when he discovered Thelonious Monk in his father’s record collection. Studying jazz piano through a summer workshop, he moved on to private lessons to learn chord changes. At the Houston School of the Performing and Visual Arts, he further advanced his skills, leading to his enrollment at the Manhattan School of Music. In New York (with his childhood piano, which he still plays), Moran found an invaluable mentor in the late Jaki Byard. “He was trying to show me how much was really out there," notes Moran. "He had me write fugues in the style of Bach, and then write something in the style of Earl Hines. He had all these ways of hiding harmony. He could do everything." In addition to Byard, Moran honed his composition chops with visionaries Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. In 1997, Greg Osby hired Moran on the recommendation of the pianist’s high school classmate, hot young drummer Eric Harland. Over the next few years, their association led to Moran's recording debut on Osby's Further Ado, which in turn led Moran to a contract with Blue Note.

His own debut recording, Soundtrack to Motion, hit the top spot in The New York Times ' Top Recordings of the Year for 1999, with the Time’s proclaiming that “He's such an obvious exception to the often-heard gripe that jazz hasn't produced individualists since the '60s.” His next recording, Facing Left (2000), dubbed by Jazz Times as “an instant classic,” was the beginning of what would become the trio, The Bandwagon, as Moran teamed with bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. Next he collaborated with Sam Rivers on the acclaimed Black Stars (2001) and released the dynamic solo, Modernistic (2002), before returning to the trio format for the first release of The Bandwagon (2003), recorded live at the Village Vanguard. Of The Bandwagon, Ben Ratliffe (New York Times) notes, “It extends the rhythm-section ideas, basic to jazz, of the 1960's Miles Davis Quintet, and it derives energy and guided, purposeful abstraction from musicians like Cecil Taylor. Mr. Moran's curt, percussive themes reflect deep listening to Thelonious Monk and Count Basie; the impact and layering and collagist instincts in the music are indigenous to those raised on hip-hop culture.”

Moran is always experimenting. With the help of a grant from Chamber Music America, he developed compositions based on tapes of speaking voices in different languages (Italian, Japanese, Turkish) and integrated loops of telephone conversations in different languages into the music of his ensemble. Several commissions included “Milestones” for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and “Rain” for Jazz at Lincoln Center, featuring The Bandwagon with Abdou Mboup (kora, djembe and talking drum) and Ralph Alessi (trumpet). These works formed the nucleus of his 2006 Blue Note release, Artist in Residence, acclaimed as one of the top recordings of the year. Last year, inspired by the 50th anniversary of Thelonious Monk’s famed big band concert at Town Hall, Moran created a multi-media performance, In My Mind: Monk at Town Hall.  He integrated samples of Monk’s original music, conversations, and photos with his own interpretations of Monk tunes, noting that “Monk is the reason I started playing piano.” Later in 2009, Moran premiered his commission, Feedback, at the Monterey Jazz Festival.  

For Jason Moran, 2010 has been a watershed year. Celebrating a decade with The Bandwagon, the trio released the magnificent Ten on Blue Note; Jason’s continuing relationship with Charles Lloyd’s “New Quartet” is documented on the new ECM release, Mirror (with Lloyd, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland); and now the MacArthur.  

It’s not nicknamed the “genius” grant for nothing! 

“Most people who say that jazz is dead have dead minds. It’s the same people who say painting is dead or silly things like opera is dead. Culture comes in waves and you can’t predict when or where that energy will come from. But over the years I’ve experienced this great support system within the jazz community from older musicians to younger musicians to pull the flame ahead and that’s a really powerful one culturally for me and I don’t ever want to put that torch down…We all have these things that we stand for and hope that they help one another, and that’s where I stand with my music.” –Jason Moran (Wall Street Journal, 9/29/10) 

Jason Moran’s upcoming performances include with the Charles Lloyd New Quartet at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis (9/30); with The Bandwagon at the Village Vanguard in NYC (10/5-10); at the Cornelia Street Café in NYC with the Alan Hampton Band (10/13); at Jazz Standard in NYC with Apex (Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green; 10/14-17); solo at Discovery Green in Houston (10/21); European tour with the Bandwagon (10/26-11/12); European tour with Charles Lloyd New Quartet (11/16-12/2). Visit

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