Jason Moran has what it takes to be a MacArthur fellow

By Howard Mandel

It’s been a great month for 35-year-old jazz pianist/composer/ensemble leader Jason Moran, during a grand year that concludes an amazing decade.

On September 28, Moran was named a fellow by the MacArthur Foundation, and was the recipient of $500,000 to be distributed over five years, no-strings-attached—except for the excessive publicity and expectations in its wake. Moran then started a six-night engagement at the Village Vanguard Oct. 6 with his trio Bandwagon.

Jason Moran

Moran’s eighth album, Ten, was released this past June, and is a celebration of the decade-long collaboration he’s enjoyed with Bandwagon bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits. It’s increased his already considerable critical reputation and the group’s college-age following.

Furthermore: Bandwagon played the Harlem day of the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in August, then Moran went on the road in the quartet of saxophonist Charles Lloyd. In My Mind, a film from the Center for Documentary Studies of Duke University about Moran’s re-envisioning of Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert, debuted at the New York Library for the Performing Arts last April. On Nov. 4, pianist Donald Sosin will play Moran’s score for video artist Glenn Ligon’s “The Death of Tom” at the Museum of Modern Art. Moran can’t be there: Bandwagon will be in the first leg of a five-week European tour.

Such prodigious productivity is typical of Moran, who has been recognized with Ireland’s Guinness Rising Star Award, the first Playboy Jazz Artists of the Year Award, numerous high standings in Down Beat and Jazz Journalists Association polls, and commissions (in 2006 alone) from Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, the Dia Art Foundation and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Besides writing and gigging, he’s been on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, from which he graduated in 1997, and has lectured all over.

This level of activity is rare, but not unique. After receiving recent MacArthurs, the jazz “geniuses”—including violinist Regina Carter (’06), saxophonist-composer John Zorn (’06), saxophonist Miguel Zenon (’08) and trombonist-computer music innovator-educator-author George E. Lewis (’02), all ramped up already multi-pronged careers rather than rest on the cushion of the grant’s funds.

Lewis is director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, a consultant to several arts agencies and is justly hailed for his monumental “collective biography,” A Power Greater Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.

What that book, which documents the 40-year-history of the Chicago and New York-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, demonstrates, though, is how much things have changed for “creative musicians” since funders (including the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation) started bestowing monies on jazz modernists.

Ornette Coleman, the first jazz-related recipient of a Guggenheim in 1967, has by now been given the Pulitzer Prize, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize and the Japanese Praemum Imperiale, among other honors. He and Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams, who co-founded the AACM in 1965, are also all NEA Jazz Masters, a program begun in 1982. But back before that, jazz musicians struggled. They were freelancers. A few copped teaching positions. Most just hustled.

There’s something invigorating about having to test one’s art on the open market, especially when you’re trying to stay true to a tradition combining vernacular and specialized aesthetics. Has the cash and credibility of honors like the MacArthur changed the sound of jazz—or its culture? That’s the question. There’s no sure answer.

Jason Moran is an uncompromising, forward-thinking musician, personally steeped in jazz traditions. So were Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others who advanced jazz from far less-secure positions. Billie, Monk and Bird faced much adversity; Moran has the luxury of support. Will he dig deep for his music? Will it capture our ears, our hearts and endure? Stay tuned—but pull for him. Legend says it’s tough to keep sight of art’s essence when being showered with gold. One solution: Stay busy.