A Message In Our Music Part 1: Jason Moran

Courtesy of Jason Moran

After assimilating the phenomenon which is Jason Moran, his eminence in music is even more mind-blowing once you consider the fact that he is just 37 years old. In addition to receiving just about every award, acknowledgement and accolade within the jazz spectrum, he is also recipient of the 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has just recently filled the imperial shoes of the late Dr. Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz. Leading one of the most relevant and longstanding piano trios of our time, Moran has also performed and recorded with contemporary and legendary artists like Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd. He’s a special guest on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new release, Sound Travels; a stellar album with an array of artistic powerhouses like Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Lionel Loueke, and fellow Manhattan School alum, Ambrose Akinmusire. (Moran also produced Akinmusire’s critically-acclaimed Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.)

His impressive resume aside, Moran’s influence as a pianist and composer is tremendous. The Houston native’s love for the visual arts has led to exciting and deeply resonant endeavors. It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project and it created a special opportunity to explore the mind of the man who is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, “shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz.”

Check it out, as Moran and I share some of our thoughts based around three pivotal social albums.

Charles Mingus Ah Um

“Mingus is…I think he’s related to me [laughs],” says Moran when asked about his decision to pick this album as part of our discussion.  “Only because I studied with Jaki Byard.  That’s how I think of my family.  Jaki Byard makes a lot of other people my relatives because I was really under him.  So, considering that Jaki was playing with Mingus was when they were playing much of this political music, I always think about what Mingus represented as sort of a much more hard-edged Duke Ellington, you know?”

An artist who has brilliantly utilized multi-media platforms to express himself as a musician, it’s no surprise that Moran would rely on more than the music to impact his students when teaching a master class at Manhattan School.  “I showed 45 minutes of [an episode of the PBS series] Eyes on the Prize.  It was the episode when they discuss the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Governor Faubus and…how crazy he was.  So I showed them the film for about 45 minutes, then at a certain point I just turned on a live version of “Fables of Faubus”.  It was around 12 minutes long…and then I watched the students react.  Because [for] most of them, “Fables Of Faubus” is just words or something that maybe Mingus made up.   There was a student from Finland in the class, and he said after watching it and listening to Mingus’ song, ‘Well, now it makes a lot more sense.  Because being in Finland, my friends and I used to always wonder where that energy came from.’  I said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’  This is an entire segment of the population whose life is dealing with stuff like this.  And we’re just watching an edited excerpt of people’s everyday lives.  You can’t imagine what that does to a population mentally and physically.  And we’re still trying to cope with all of that…even now.  So it broke down a lot of people’s understanding of society and the affects it has on music.  That everything is not just about a chord, or a melody or the greatest groove…it wasn’t about that.  It was therapy.  People were using the music as therapy.”

“You know, sometimes I go to these museums all around the world and they have portraits from the 1600s and 1700s, during the Victorian era [etc.].  Bunches of portraits…so we kind of get accustomed to seeing portraits of people other than us.  And in music, it doesn’t exist in the same way, but it’s part of the reason [my wife] Alicia and I are embarking on writing a series of portraits for artists we know, most of whom are African Americans, because for me, as a composer, I mean, I’ve written a song for my parents, and my family in Texas, but wow, maybe I should continue trying to explore that even further because what if you started to document your community?  Photographers document their community, writers document their community, or you’re doing it right now through an interview.  And musicians, what do we document?  How do we document our lives and the people who are around us?  That’s how you kind of put a date stamp on where the population is.  You take that moment to snapshot everything that’s around.  So Mingus does that.  He snapshots how crazy America is in the 1950s and 60s.   People won’t know that history so frequently, but here we are still talking about it.”

John Coltrane Live at Birdland

Personally, I will never forget the first time I heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”  It was haunting and spiritual on impact, way before I would learn of the gruesome events from which the song is inspired.  Spike Lee transports us to the height of tension in the Civil Rights movement in Malcolm X, when the song is a backdrop to footage of the brutal Jim Crow South, where four black girls Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Written and performed by Coltrane just weeks after the tragedy, I have often wondered about how he dealt with something so devastating, so I was very excited when Moran suggested we talk about this album.

“I was at an event at Princeton and there was a panel discussion of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” says Moran. “They were talking about how crazy it was to be down there in the South. Some of them were from up north and someone asked if there was a difference between how racism feels up north, versus how it feels down south. The panelist said the first day he got down south he was driving from the airport, and a cop pulled him over and told him, ‘I know why you’re down here, you need to get out of here.  You’re down here to make trouble.’ And that cop is not only the cop, he’s the sheriff, he’s the mayor, he has the biggest businesses in town. It was that massive and overwhelming sense of danger. Also, Nasheet [Waits] gave me some interviews of Kenny Clarke, and he’s talking about being down south with Louis Armstrong. When he got fired by Armstrong’s manager, they just kind of left him down in Georgia with his drums. A black cab driver was like, ‘What are you doing down here, you better get in this car’ and he took him someplace where Kenny was able to find his way back north. I mean, you can’t actually imagine this kind of trauma that people were feeling personally, and as a community. Then put it in the context of hearing about this bombing when Trane plays that song up North in New York…it’s like a hymn or a low moan. It’s impacting, it’s mourning, it’s most dark, you know? This is something real. It’s something prominent and it sounds like this. And it’s a collective moan of African America at that point.”

Nina Simone Live in Concert

Nina Simone is someone I was late to discover. Growing up, I was enthralled with the “singer’s singers” of jazz, and had not really given much thought to the magnitude of Nina Simone until I had, as my elders would say, “done some livin”.  Now that I have done just that, and more specifically, become a mother of a son who will become a Black man in America, the significance of Nina Simone in my life has increased exponentially. Moran suggested we talk about this album in particular because of “Young, Gifted and Black”, which for me,  feels more like the Black National Anthem than the actual one. It is the anthem which spoke to the time, and I think this makes it personal to me.

More from Moran…

“Sometimes I think the stylist — and there are lots of stylists within this canon — they change the context of the songs that they’re playing.  So Art Tatum adds all this dazzle and this sparkle and just feels like…I don’t know, like these really intricate chains from West Africa, you know?  Like these amulets of gold that kings and queens would wear, and now he’s paying a song like “When Sonny Gets Blue”, and he’s adding all of this to it, which is not there when the composer wrote it.  Same with someone like Earl Hines, where he’s adding these chords. So Nina is the same way. She sings these songs, and she’s totally changing the context.  Certain songs never sounded so real and pertinent to African Americans until they came out of Nina Simone’s mouth. You feel like it’s talking about your experience, so I think in a way, those kinds of artists also curate the kinds of songs that they think may have an abstract relationship to something political, but then she also does this boldly by writing these other songs. So here are these songs that honor these great people like Lorraine Hansberry with “Young, Gifted and Black”.  It’s a statement that marks the time in which it was written and Black Pride is kind of at its peak in the movement. So even the use of the word “Black” puts a date stamp on where we are. I remember my grandmother being in quoted in an article where she says she was colored, negro, black, and African American, all in one lifespan. So it date stamps it, which I think is just so important for the form. That you can look at the lexicon of African American songs that way. And also Nina as a pianist and how she accompanies herself, the kinds of chords that she uses, and how those sounds mix with the timbre of her voice…she was just unique all the way around.”♦

Watch a clip of IN MY MIND, the feature length documentary of Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall recording. 

John Coltrane @ 85: A Jazzy Girl’s Retrospective

There isn’t a person outside of my immediate family that has had more of an indelible influence on my life than John William Coltrane.  Sounds weird, right?  But it’s true.  I never knew him personally…but I’ve known him spiritually since I’ve been alive.  You see, my first memorable musical encounter (at about 18 months old) was hearing John Coltrane.  In fact, my earliest memory at all is hearing John Coltrane.  I remember the feeling I had when I first heard his music.  My mother would play two Trane records the most: Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane.  In fact, I am named “Angelika” after the tune of the same name (different spelling) on the latter mentioned record.  I thought that she was doing something magical when those albums came on.  As soon as the needle hit the record, and the sound would travel through our Bronx apartment, I was transported to another world.  Sometimes the music would move me to tears.  My family would come over, and they’d think I was sitting off to myself crying because I couldn’t have something I wanted, or because it was time to go to bed and I was objecting, when what it really was, was taking in how beautiful Trane played “It’s Easy to Remember”.  I was a pretty different kind of toddler, to say the least, and I still marvel at how 2 minutes and 45 seconds can bring that much beauty into the world.  But it didn’t end there…the music of John Coltrane would follow me throughout my life, and see me through every good and bad thing.

I guess some would call it an obsession.  Maybe.  But if I had to name it (which I’d rather not do) I would be more inclined to label it as a connection.  I think in some way, we are all connected to something bigger than us…and that is not to say that John Coltrane, the man, was larger than life.  I read that a man once compared him to God, and it really upset and disturbed Coltrane.  He did not think of himself as above any man.  But his art…that is what is larger than life.  And that is what I fell in love with, and remain in love with.

When I was seventeen, I bought two albums: Ballads, and Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind.  I had grown up hearing both of these, but now I was a senior in high school, and I could buy my own music.  This was a big deal to me!  Somehow, hearing Ballads on my own…it was a rediscovery of sorts.  I felt more alone…more of myself…maybe I was just getting older.  A huge Stevie Wonder fan, I remember laying out on my living room floor, listening to “Send One Your Love” from The Secret Life of Plants album, and flipping out when I heard the Coltrane influence in the song, known sometimes as “Trane Changes”.  At around 19 years old, I was into Giant Steps BIG TIME, and I was obsessed with the changes, the legends upon legends of stories about how he came up with them, how long he worked at developing them, and all of the inflated but majestic stories about the recording, in between.  At about 20 years old, I had this incredible full-circle moment.

I was working as a P.A. at the Essence awards, and Stevie Wonder was one of the artists slated to perform.  I was determined to see his rehearsal, and did!  So he’s warming up, right?  All of a sudden, he segues into “Giant Steps”!  I lost my head!  Here was my favorite musician, playing the music of my favorite, FAVORITE musician…without an audience…stripped of any fanfare, or glamor.  And I was there to witness it.  Incredible.

From my late teens, and throughout my early-to-mid twenties, I listened to Coltrane religiously.  New Prestige box set coming out?  It’s mine.  New book coming out?  I’m all over it (until I get pissed at the author for saying some dumb shit.  Thanks, Lewis Porter, for getting it right, though).  I would listen to My Favorite Things on the train on the way to and from school ev-er-y day.  I loved to listen to Mr. Day on the train also…the energy and pulse of that song used to make me feel invincible.  I listened to and absorbed this music like my life depended on it…and I suppose in a way it did.  It was my spiritual food. But then in 2004, I had a tremendous opportunity to give thanks for all that I had received.

Me, psyched! (2004)

I don’t remember exactly how I found out, but somehow I learned that Coltrane’s last home in the Dix Hills section of Long Island, NY, was in danger of facing demolition.  There was a contact name and number to call and an email address for the public, if they wanted to get involved and help.  I was working at a recording studio in Manhattan, and I remember sending that email at the first chance. This was the home that Coltrane and his family lived in from 1964, where he conceptualized A Love Supreme.  This was a looming travesty that needed immediate attention.  I corresponded via email, and then by phone with a gentleman named Steve Fulgoni, who was heading up the grass roots efforts to contact the town officials and make the case for the home to be deemed a historical landmark.  Letters and support poured in, and I was overwhelmed to be getting involved.  This was a big deal. I wrote my humble little letter, and thought that my contribution would end there.  But when I was asked to read the letter in front of the Huntington Historical Preservation Commission… WHAT???  Well, you know I did.  There was a wonderful showing of support, including that from Ravi Coltrane, and Matt Garrison (bassist Jimmy Garrison’s son).  I got to meet Mr. Fulgoni, and his lovely wife, and most importantly witness when the board voted for the home to be saved and deemed a historical landmark.

You see, it’s kind of funny sometimes.  I think the beauty of art is that it is not to be simply received, it’s to be shared.  And that sharing can come by way of a lot of opportunities.  I’m so grateful that even in some small way, I helped make a difference in the honor of someone who made all of the difference for me.

I think ultimately the biggest impact that Coltrane has had on me is how to be a dedicated person.  When you listen to Trane, whether it is one song, or an entire anthology, you hear his unfailing dedication.  And that is something that has come to me more and more as I get older.  Coltrane’s life was very short, unfortunately, and because of that, it’s really easy to see how unbelievable he was.  I think about what he was accomplishing at the age I am right now…he was only a few years from his death at my age.  Yet, he was changing the world.  If that’s not inspiration…

It’s beyond the ridiculously killingness (yep, that’s a word) of his talent and gifts.  I think his sense of commitment is ultimately what makes Coltrane so incredible.  On this day, John Coltrane’s 85th birthday, I’m really thankful.  And still awe-inspired, like the little toddler sitting off in the corner.


This post is dedicated to the memory of Troy Davis.

A Playlist From My Mother

My Mum

When people get to know about me and about my passion for music, they usually think it stems from the influence of my father being a jazz musician, or because I had a jazz icon for an uncle.  While these are facts, and while there is no doubt that these fortunate circumstances informed and infused my life and DNA, it is my mother who was perhaps my most important musical influence, and largely in part, the reason I do what I do.

My first recollections of any music are songs my mother played on the record player.  Growing up in the Bronx in that big apartment with unparalleled acoustics, those songs would permeate my soul and literally hit me right in the gut in the best way imaginable.  My mom is a very spirited lady to say the least, and music was her outlet and her love.  She would dance and sing all of the ins and outs to every tune.  So much so that I would always know which parts of a particular song would tickle or move her the most, and I think she got a kick out of the fact that I studied her.  Whether it was the first line of the B section of Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie”, or when Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children” would brilliantly segue into “God Is Love”, I knew all of her favorite little spots and would tease her predictability, much to her delight.

It was my mother who was the first woman jazz enthusiast I knew, which was probably the single most impactful part of her persona on my life.  She could scat, and she could sing, and she is the funniest mimicker of some of jazz  music’s rarest personalities.  She is also a great debater.  She and my step-dad would have a never-ending argument over who “won the battle” between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane on “Tenor Madness”.  She voted Trane, and would quote the various aspects of nastiness in his solo to make her case. (She loves Sonny too, just for the record.)

She had a very vast album collection, and she would play an array of Black music.  From Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder to Joe Williams to Michael Jackson to Bobby Womack to Dinah Washington, we heard lots of music.  I remember her talking about a “young cat”, Wynton Marsalis, who was taking the jazz scene by storm when I was a little girl.  It’s also one of the most vivid album covers I can remember her owning.  Growing up in such a lively, musical household was of great benefit to my siblings and I.  We were steeped in our African-American heritage in a way that many of our peers were not.  My mom always let us know that this was music that we should be proud of, not by making some big jazz history speech, but by the sheer joy it brought her.  It was completely infectious.  I immediately loved this music, and she nurtured that love.  I’m certain that the gift of passing down this tradition is what made me want to pursue a career in jazz, which was always cool with her.  Starting out in this industry meant paying a lot of dues (which included sometimes earning little money) but the sacrifice never concerned her.  She was down for the cause, and I will always be grateful to her for that.  And for the music.

In honor of my Mom, I’d like to share a playlist I’ve dedicated to my mom with all of you.  This is the list of albums that most vividly speak to my formative years.

Mom’s Playlist

Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic)
John Coltrane – Ballads (Impluse!)
Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Motown)
Sonny Rollins – Tenor Madness (Riverside)
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (Motown)
Thelonious Monk – We See (Dreyfus)
Lena Horne – The Lady and Her Music (Warner Bros.)
The Jacksons – Destiny (Epic)
Dinah Washington – Dinah ‘62 (Roulette)
Wynton Marsalis – Think of One (Columbia)
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse!)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Epic)

This one’s for you, Mom!

An album a day…

In a world of iPods and media libraries, it’s almost impossible not to have musical A.D.D.  I will be the first to admit that I’m a “scroller” usually looking for my next musical selection before the song in play has finished.  And I realize that this can sometimes take away from the musical experience.  It’s become so easy and necessary to multi-task, that I think many of us have forgotten how not to do it.  But I wanted to channel that feeling I had growing up when my mom would put on a record, and from the outset of the first tune, I knew the musical adventure I would begin — hearing an album in the context the artist intended.  So, it got me to thinking about the first album I fell in love with as a complete body of work, and the most recent album I had listened to from beginning to end.

John Coltrane

This was my introduction to all music — period.  This album by John Coltrane made me feel.  It’s still one of my favorites today.  It introduced magic, mysticism, and an acute awareness of myself.  Sonically, it’s also pure bliss.  The recording genius of Rudy Van Gelder scores once again here.  This album tells a story so well.  There isn’t a specific story, but there just is one, and there’s no more fulfilling way to hear this album than in its sequential entirety.

A “hit-single” music industry combined with the technology to have an entire music library at our fingertips is definitely part of the reason that I experience less of that feeling that I felt with Ballads.  But every now and then, an album will come along and take me back to that place of a musical adventure.  And I’m not looking for what’s next…

In recent years, there have been those albums that I just need to hear the way the artist(s) intended. Radiohead’s In Rainbows is definitely one of them.  Jose Gonzalez’ In Our Nature is another.  Most recently, its been singer Bilal’s Airtight’s Revenge. The singer’s 10-year record hiatus finally ended during the fall of last year, and I could not be happier. Talk about a musical journey, literally and artistically.  I must listen to this album from beginning to end.  The music mandates it.

I wish we would take more time to take in music more organically.  In a recent conversation with pianist Robert Glasper, he spoke about a concert he just played at a university.  In the first row, an eager group of students were thumbs ablaze as they were typing away on their mobile devices.  Between songs, he blatantly asks the students, “So, are you guys in the ‘Too Cool Crew’ with your phones?”  The students, caught off guard, began explaining that they were tweeting about how psyched they were to be at the concert, and they were letting everyone know, (probably taunting their peers in the process).  While flattering, I’m sure, Glasper was making a point.  Those students were missing the musical experience — the journey.  Social networking is a great tool.  One that I greatly depend on myself.  But tweeting during a concert, or searching iPod libraries while “listening” to music, ultimately does us the disservice.  Is it more important to let people know you’re at a concert, than to actually be there in the truest sense, experiencing it as completely as possible?  The adventure still excites me…the journey I’ll travel with a body of work.  Some of it happily and predictably anticipated, and some of it morphs with time and changes meaning as my life does.  I think that’s really what music is all about.  And it’s hard to experience those feelings being technologically sidetracked.  So, every now and then, I make sure I stop and take the journey.  And I’m better for it.