When Jason Moran was appointed as the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for jazz last year, the 37-year-old knew he had big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Billy Taylor, served in the role for 16 years, and was one of jazz’s most beloved figures until his death in 2010 at age 89. But with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a USA Prudential Fellowship under his belt, Moran is no slouch, either. On November 6, the pianist plays an Election Night Jam with his group, the Bandwagon. We caught up with him to discuss politics, jazz in Washington, and why he loves his headwear.
How did you come up with the Election Night Jam idea?
When I was being announced as the new jazz adviser last year during the Kennedy Center Honors, I was in the midst of all these people, standing there and thinking about Washington, and how it’s so Washington to deal with the President—why not make an event out of it? But the Kennedy Center also prides itself in being nonpartisan, so that’s how we’re presenting the music, too: as relating to the history of America and presidential politics without any sway on either side.
How would you describe the jazz scene in Washington?
There’s a beautiful thing happening right now. DC has always had a lot of musicians who’ve emerged from that scene, so the historical element is there. But recently there’s been a real blossoming of venues around the city, large and small. It’s thrilling to come along at a time when it feels like the city is in a mode of revitalization where jazz is concerned. My bassist, Tarus Mateen, lives in DC, so he’s my ear to the street in terms of who’s doing what and who I should think about collaborating with.
Dr. Billy Taylor was one of your mentors. What did he teach you?
He always liked to ask, “Jason, is your music danceable?” I always think my music is danceable, but no one is dancing to it, so this is a problem. I made up the Fats Waller Dance Party, which will come around later in the season, as a response. But Billy Taylor also did great things in bringing music out of clubs and into neighborhoods.
You wear a lot of hats: musician, teacher, father. How do you balance it all?
I don’t. There’s a lot of imbalance. You have to try to push everything up the hill one at a time, and hopefully do it all fast enough that nothing feels neglected.
You also wear a lot of hats on your head. What’s that about?
When I was about 13 or 14 I wanted to be Thelonious Monk, so I bought a lot of hats, but they weren’t jazz hats—they were like hip-hop sock hats. Once I started working as a musician, I got more of a collection. For a while, my wife said I looked like the jazz Grim Reaper, so I tried to get some that were a better fit for my generation. But it’s a constant thing. The second thing is that when I’m performing, I like to be really, really warm. I don’t ever feel cold if I have a hat on.
Election Night Jam with Jason Moran and the Bandwagon is in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center November 6. Free. For more information, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.
This article appears in the November 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.