JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


Jason Moran?

Ok. Jason Moran seems to me to be a kind of ideal, symbolic figure for contemporary jazz because he's everything you want. He's a superb pianist; he uses all the influences of contemporary music in his art. He's always surprising. He knows how to make an album, which a lot of artists do not. They just go in there with their band and a bunch of originals and hope for the best. His albums tend to be thematic - they tend to explore different kinds of ideas. He's not afraid of the past. You know, we spend a lot of time analyzing his version of James B. Johnson's "You've Got to be Modernistic," which is what, from 1926, and yet it sounds like a really avant-garde, modern piece of music as Jason plays it. He takes tunes by some of the more obscure jazz figures of the ‘60s, like Jaki Byard and Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams, and he brings them into a modern context. And he has a beautiful touch.

And he also represents for me I think the saddest aspect of jazz today, which is that everybody who hears him falls in love with the way he plays. I presented him at an interview at [the City University of New York] graduate center. And people just couldn't stop raving. They had never seen him before, and it was just an unbelievable success for him. And yet, in the culture, where does an artist like that work? Where do you hear him? You don't see him on television. You don't hear him on radio except on listener-sponsored radio stations in a couple of cities. He doesn't have – tour all the colleges. And this is a shame. I'm not saying that everybody's going to love jazz. I have never said that and I've never believed it anymore than I believe everybody will love James Joyce or that everybody will love classical music. I'm simply saying that if people have the opportunity to hear it, a great many people are going to respond like I did and they're going to love it.

And the difference between now and a few decades ago is that you know longer have that opportunity. There was more jazz on television when you had three networks than there is now with 200 cable stations. And so people go through their whole lives in the United States, especially in the Midwest, the South, from the womb to the tomb never knowing who Duke Ellington was. And that's a crime. That's a crime against American culture – it's a crime against this astounding achievement. You should know who Jason Moran is, just the way you know who the latest rock guy is or hip-hop star. Because he's an extraordinary young American artist, and there are many, many, many others like him. And if you say, you know, "I heard him and heard Brad Mehldau and I heard Danilo Pérez – it doesn't do anything for me." I'm fine with that, as long as you had the chance to hear him. And one of the reasons we're trying to get jazz into the academy is so that at least more people will have that opportunity.