Update on Jason Moran’s Kennedy Center program

Some months ago we ran a piece detailing some of pianist-composer Jason Moran‘s plans for his new post as Artistic Advisor to the expansive jazz program at the Kennedy Center, succeeding the Jazz at the Kennedy Center godfather, the late Dr. Billy Taylor. At the time I’d just had a conversation with Jason on an Amtrak train on the way to New York. He was obviously excited about the prospects for realizing his plans, and was particularly animated speaking about several programs. Among those was a recent evening in collaboration with guitarist Bill Frisell and his wife, the opera singer Alicia Hall Moran, at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club. Forthcoming is another evening Moran has worked to realize – Anthony Braxton‘s first ever Kennedy Center appearance, a gig on which Jason himself will guest with Braxton’s ensemble.

One project Moran spoke excitedly about was an election night event, and what a success that was! Poll results-watching with friends – MSNBC being the tele-vehicle of choice, with the brilliant Rachel Maddow our chosen anchor for the evening – being chief on my agenda, I made sure to arrive at the KC early enough to catch Jason’s Bandwagon set from 6pm-7pm. The program was a free offering as part of the KC’s Millennium Stage programming and the house was impressively packed. The plan was for 3 hours of performances by artists representing varying genres – from Moran’s opening set, to classical and bluegrass, and some mixing and matching collaborations.

L to R: Taurus Mateen, Jason Moran, Donvonte McCoy, Nasheet Waits, Marshall Keys on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage kicking off the election night special

Upon arrival Bandwagon drummer Nasheet Waits was deep in the throes of a rather martial drum solo, leading a trio launch into a spirited “Battle Hymn of The Republic”, bassist Taurus Mateen animated on his instrument and replete with white framed glasses. Meanwhile Jason picked out the chords decked out in a modified gray stars & stripes sweater. He introduced trumpeter Donvonte McCoy and veteran DC alto man Marshall Keys, with a huge screen looming over the Millennium Stage beaming the action to the far reaches of the KC’s prodigious lobby; at 7:00 that monitor, with close captioning, would be switched to the election returns.

Vocalist Brittany Tanner on the big screen prior to the switch to election returns

Moran next introduced their version of the Loretta Lynn classic “Crazy,” which had been Ross Perot’s curious choice of campaign songs! McCoy led the band into “West End Blues” with his reprise of Louis Armstrong‘s historic cadenza, and it was time for some serious Americana. The horns then played “This Land is Your Land” in trio with Waits, Moran and Mateen soon joining in on percussion for a spirited take that delighted the house. Vocalist Brittany Tanner was introduced for a slightly tongue-in-cheek rendering of Sam & Dave‘s “Soul Man”, reincarnated as “Dole Man” for Robert Dole’s campaign. And on the set ensued in an appropriately presidential campaign mode, through Moran’s high octane arrangement of “Happy Days Are Here Again”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, in a nod to George McGovern’s campaign, and “Signed, Sealed and Delivered” for Bill Clinton’s triumphs; a bit of serendipity there as the piece was reprised by the deejay the Obama campaign had spinning at the McCormick Center later that evening after the Prez was declared the victor.

Coming up this weekend is another of Jason’s inspired KC programs, his endeavor to return to the days of jazz & comedy doublebills with this program:

An Evening of Comedy & Music
hosted by David Alan Grier with Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon, Faizon Love, and Marina Franklin

Comedy and jazz have a vibrant history; comedian Richard Pryor would regularly open for Miles Davis, or Redd Foxx would perform backed by a big band. The Kennedy Center continues this tradition as David Alan Grier and other comedians, including Marina Franklin and Faizon Love, join an ensemble led by pianist and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran.

Grier, known for his work in the TV variety show In Living Color and most recently in Broadway’s Porgy and Bess, is extremely versatile, receiving Tony® nominations for both musicals and dramatic work while appearing regularly in television and film productions.

Sun., Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. | Concert Hall

Related Event

Explore the Arts:
All in the Timing: A Discussion of Comedy and Jazz

It’s improvisation in jazz meets improvisation in comedy meets improvisation in your brain as Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran, comedian Faizon Love, and Dr. Charles Limb discuss improvisation, the creative process, and the intersections of comedy and jazz.

Sat., Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. | Atrium |

An Evening of Comedy & Music
hosted by David Alan Grier with Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon, Faizon Love, and Marina Franklin

Comedy and jazz have a vibrant history; comedian Richard Pryor would regularly open for Miles Davis, or Redd Foxx would perform backed by a big band. The Kennedy Center continues this tradition as David Alan Grier and other comedians, including Marina Franklin and Faizon Love, join an ensemble led by pianist and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran.

Grier, known for his work in the TV variety show In Living Color and most recently in Broadway’s Porgy and Bess, is extremely versatile, receiving Tony® nominations for both musicals and dramatic work while appearing regularly in television and film productions.

Sun., Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. | Concert Hall

Related Event

Explore the Arts:
All in the Timing: A Discussion of Comedy and Jazz

It’s improvisation in jazz meets improvisation in comedy meets improvisation in your brain as Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz Jason Moran, comedian Faizon Love, and Dr. Charles Limb discuss improvisation, the creative process, and the intersections of comedy and jazz.

Sat., Nov. 10 at 3 p.m. | Atrium | Tickets $15

A few weeks prior Moran successfully introduced another of his Kennedy Center innovations, the “Supersized” Kennedy Center Jazz Club. If you’ve ever trekked from the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater level (with the comfortable Kennedy Center Jazz Club just to the left of the elevator lobby and the Terrace Theatre to the right) to either of the KC’s two eateries, unless weather permitted and you took the scenic route across the roof expanse, you’ve doubtless traversed the huge open walkway. When Moran started his tenure there and got a look at that wide open expanse he came up with the idea of the “Supersized” Jazz Club. Saturday, October 13 was the kick-off for this new venue and the Moran-selected band was Medeski Martin & Wood, and specifically their acoustic incarnation. Sold out well in advance, the scene was a stand-up club with limited seating around the perimeter. When I arrived an impressive throng of 20-somethings were lined up for adult beverages. Hmmm… this is going to be a decidedly different Kennedy Center experience! The revelry was high in the room despite the fact that MMW’s acoustic incarnation took no prisoners, veering off into uncharted waters on occasion. After he bounded onstage to introduce MMW, Jason and I went off to the side for a few questions.

Tell me about this grand experiment for Jazz at the Kennedy Center.

This is a well-placed experiment. Each group that plays in here, in this room, has a history of knowing how to rock people out, so they’re not like nujacks in how to make an audience move. Medeski Martin & Wood have been doing this for 20 years as a band…

But not acoustically not in a setting like this necessarily.

Yeah, not like this… The idea is more that people can be in a social environment and listen to music. I mean like social in that they don’t just have to be quiet and stare at the stage. There are people in line right now trying to get a drink. They get their drink, they can have a discussion, you and I can talk and still hear music and not be ostracized… If somebody wants to boogie, they want to dance, they have space to do that… It’s a more flexible kind of way to hear music.

When we spoke on the train you talked about how there is a generation of people for whom the traditional setting for hearing jazz is off-putting; they don’t want to sit static, they want a chance to move around.

It just works… if your body can handle standing up for an hour-and-a-half [laughs]. Kids are accustomed to doing that. The hip hop shows that I would see when I was in college, we stood up, it was just a way to listen. With jazz, so traditionally around the world, its true that it’s a music that you sit down and focus on; it does demand that focus, but I think you shouldn’t say that’s the ONLY way that you demand focus. My big thing is that if you’re in the audience listening to whoever – Bobby Hutcherson or Medeski Martin & Wood, or whoever, and if somebody decides to start tapping their foot or putting their hand on their lap and start beating out the rhythms… then all of a sudden its like ‘wait man, you’re fuckin’ with my experience…’ And that shouldn’t be, because actually they’re having a visceral experience with the music.

AND, I suppose they can also Tweet about the experience or post on Facebook without anybody getting upset.

So I’m trying to choose artists [for this space] who just want to share the music and hopefully find those audiences that want to enjoy the music on that level.

So you’re not interested in putting artists in here who appreciate a Quiet Policy [laughs].

No, we have other great concert halls for that.

Who else have you got playing this room?

We’re doing our Fats Waller Project in here [with Meshell Ndegeocello], Soulive will be in here, and now we’re starting to talk about who’s gonna be here next year. I’ll say people like Robert Glasper… so we’re continuing to think about bands who can function in this kind of space. We want to see what our audience wants

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