Jazz, Doom, and Space: Jason Moran at the Walker

Concerts throughout the summer reveal a jazz innovator getting personal in a new collaboration with the Walker Art Center

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Joyce/The Walker Art Center

The apocalypse fascinates us here in the 21st century. Look at U.S. culture so far: Novels draft how it’ll end, by local authors as recently as mere months ago (including Louise Erdrich in Future Home of the Living God and Kaethe Schwehn in The Rending and the Nest). TV finds dark humor in post-epidemic loneliness, or else plots dramatic character arcs against the weather-like patterns of a peripatetic zombie horde. This spring, local playwright Christina Ham staged Southern fallout at Theatre Unbound, following a group of barren women scrabbling to rebuild.

Everyone has a fresh take. And with federal arts funding under threat, artists’ visions are heating up. They’re turning from eschatological ennui (think: the ecological comeuppance in a painting of Brooklyn underwater, grown over with vines) to political urgency (think: carving the president’s face into a melting glacier).

In this shift—from disaffected decay to enflamed alarm—one of the century’s great jazz innovators, pianist Jason Moran, reminded us that political Armageddon is also personal Armageddon at the Walker Art Center this month. His concert, called “The Last Jazz Fest,” was commissioned alongside a retrospective of his visual work, titled Jason Moran.

It’s a project long in the making. Moran’s star began rising in the jazz world in the late ’90s. The Houston native was recognized for introducing elements of hip-hop to the decades-old genre. He started collaborating with the Walker in 2005, a few years after a curator there caught him studying the galleries after a performance. Like a doting Midwestern parent, the Walker encouraged Moran’s interest in the visual arts, and he ended up penning suites inspired by pieces from the museum’s collection (resulting in a 2006 album called Artist in Residence). Since then, Moran has explored sculpture, film, choreography, and installation, both here and in New York.

In the new Walker exhibit, open through August 26, you’ll find a stash of archival photos, scribbled-over sheet music, and other souvenirs from Moran’s career. He calls the effect a “good yearbook” of collaborators leaving notes behind. A minidisc player, basking under glass, once opened his ears to prerecorded sounds. Long swathes of fabric that Moran laid atop his keys bear the smudgy, frantic markings of his charcoaled fingers while they played—notating the passage of time a different way. The larger part of the exhibit, though, explores a bigger, more epic past, and in life size.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Joyce/The Walker Art Center

The Jason Moran gallery contains three replicas of real, now-closed New York City jazz clubs. Of the two sets Moran designed previously, one recreates the golden arch of the Savoy Ballroom, known for ’20s- and ’30s-era big bands, while the other commemorates the tight, padded quarters of the Three Deuces bebop setup, active from the ’30s to the ’50s. The third, making its debut, piles sawdust next to a jukebox and a small performance space, evoking the free-jazz, dive-bar funk of Slugs’ Saloon in the ’60s and ’70s. Each set glows like a shrine. Each is haunted by tinkling music. Three summer concerts, part of a series called Sound Horizon and happening June through August, will take place in the sets, featuring Moran along with other prominent jazz artists.

“It was kind of an ancestral calling,” he says of the installations, “seeing these spaces that I knew had charged so many musicians up.”

When you walk into the darkened, sacred-feeling space, it’s easy to sense that ancestral calling—and, in it, a warm-blooded instinct for preservation, if not nostalgia. Describing his elaborately staged concert commissioned by the Walker, “The Last Jazz Fest,” Moran equates it to a protective gesture: a last-ditch, definitive performance before what he calls simply “the doom.”

“Music disappears in the air, so it kind of falls away as a substance,” he says. “But it lives on in people, and in the walls.”

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Joyce/The Walker Art Center

Music and Visuals

The connection between music and visuals—neatly tied in Moran’s three sets, as well as in the two films on display—might seem tenuous to some. But for Moran, seeing has always informed hearing.

He recalls practicing piano in his childhood home. His parents put art everywhere. Large glazed bowls and paintings by muralist John Biggers sat right under the piano. “There’s something about watching an instrument in relationship to another object, like a vessel,” he says, describing one of the bowls—“that was the type of interaction I saw so frequently in my house.”

That subtle relationship, between an object and a music-producing object, influences every genre. Musical styles live in their own visual worlds—whether those worlds are of dive bars or opera halls, leather jackets or zoot suits, photography or abstract painting. They help us judge what that music means.

But whereas Moran sees jazz as contemporary, evolving, alive, for many (if not most) others, it evokes only dusty records, a grandparent’s heyday, or even elevator upholstery.

“There’s an inherent style in what people observe in the music that holds so much weight,” Moran says. He describes cultural signposts that, over time, have coded jazz, sending “so many signals and codes out to audiences who look at films or go into an elevator, or even the kind of music they play in a restaurant…But I always felt like [jazz] was way more layered than that.”

Just notice how widely Moran’s sets differ. There’s the cramped lair of a bebop session, where drummer and pianist, brushing elbows, pushed jazz in challenging new directions. There’s the swank, flapper gold of the Savoy Ballroom. Then, the gritty appeal of the saloon. Jazz has taken many forms, has grown many layers. For Moran, it still can.

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Joyce/The Walker Art Center

This is where politics comes in: “That layer,” he says, “is also this lack of understanding that we see when people don’t know how to talk to one another because they can’t anticipate that a person has any depth—so they just call the police.” He brings to mind the media-frenzied Philadelphia Starbucks that recently called the police on two black men for just sitting in the store.

“That reduction can be traumatic on such a powerful music as jazz,” he says, “because [jazz] lends itself to so much openness.” Openness, after all, is the stuff of improvisation.

The Walker’s commissioned concert, “The Last Jazz Fest,” featured Moran with his trio, the Bandwagon, plus the globetrotting DJ Ashland Mines. It flexed that openness. It also reinforced Moran’s reputation for the theatrical. On one of the Walker stages, Moran’s set looked closer to a scrappy-futuristic, David Bowie spacecraft than any New York jazz club. It recalled the Apollo 13 module: a small, rocket-like structure perched on spidery legs atop a raised platform, as if on the moon. Encased inside the module’s see-through walls sat the drummer. Beneath him, on the platform, Moran took a seat at a piano. And beneath the platform, the bassist sprawled out in a chair, forming the base of what amounted to a totem pole of three jazz musicians. Next to the bassist, DJ Ashland Mines, mounted on a ladder, orchestrated a computerized soundscape alongside their jamming, often ranging into an uncanny valley of vocal-sounding gibberish blips.

It was difficult, if exhilarating at times. Moran recognizes jazz as an acquired taste. And a snippet of audio bemoaning the gap between artists and the general public did not necessarily bridge it. But a sense of finality, of exhaustion, and reckless hope did surface.

While Moran pounded and stroked the keys, pre-apocalyptic scenes were projected onto two screens flanking either side of him. These filmed segments (by New York collaborators Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin) showed a riled-up crowd of doomsday preppers, who touted protest signs in an auditorium before it was gradually torn apart. Rows upon rows of theater seats slid off balconies. Dust lifted, and tires cascaded down the aisles, in long shots of what has become popularly known as “ruin porn” (putting to words how strangely transfixed we feel watching a place surrender to destruction or decay).

But through all that, the “last” in “The Last Jazz Fest” did not mean “the end of time” for Moran. Those doomsday preppers were jumping the gun, or else metaphorical. Because for him, “last” was personal.

“We proposed this [performance] as a ritual of prepping—not for the end of time, though,” Moran says. “This is just our last jazz fest…It’s like, man, this is the last time I’m ever going to that restaurant, you know? It’s like that. It lives there.”

Halfway through, Moran grabbed a microphone, hunched over a sheet of paper, and read through a list of final actions as if to consecrate each—from playing his last bum gig to playing his last tux gig, from eating his last catfish to welcoming his last spring. “The last…the last…the last…”

Monumentalizing not the end but his end, Moran got an audience to watch him launch a jazz-powered time capsule into space, leaving behind Earth, jazz, and whatever comes next.

Yet, like a time-traveling free agent, Moran is back with the Bandwagon on July 16 as part of the Sound Horizon concert series. Two other concerts, in June and August, feature musicians Moran curated. They will play using the sets in the exhibit, at 6, 7, and 8 p.m. each day.

June 21: Douglas R. Ewart, Ananya Chatterjea, Stephen Goldstein, Mankwe Ndosi, Carei Thomas
July 19: Jason Moran and the Bandwagon
August 9: Dave King, George Cartwright, Josh Granowski

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