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Pianist Jason Moran reaches for 'the drama, the comedy and the tragedy' of music


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I hope you're enjoying this Thanksgiving Day. For the holiday, we're going to feature one of my favorite recent FRESH AIR episodes. In August, Jason Moran, a terrific musician and composer, joined us at the piano. The first time I interviewed him in 2005, when Moran was 30, I quoted our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, who called Moran "one of those rare up-and-comers who makes you optimistic for the future of jazz." Moran is no longer an up-and-comer, and he certainly fulfilled his promise. He's making exciting recordings that draw on the early roots of jazz, as well as the avant-garde. He's the Kennedy Center artistic director for jazz, and he curated the permanent exhibition in the new Louis Armstrong Center in Queens, N.Y., which is across the street from Armstrong's preserved home. Moran also teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music. He composes music and has also put his own spin on the works of early jazz pianists and composers, including Fats Waller and James P. Johnson.

He has a recent album that's a tribute to James Reese Europe, an important but little-remembered figure in jazz history. In the early 1900s, Europe led his own band and founded the Clef Club, which functioned like a union for Black musicians. He was the music director for the then-famous dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle. In World War I, Europe joined the Army and fought with the 369th Regiment of the infantry known as the Harlem Hellfighters. He also led a regiment band that combined military music and syncopation, creating a new sound. Jason Moran's album "From The Dance Hall To The Battlefield," features Moran's take on James Reese Europe's compositions and pop music of that time. When we spoke, it was available only on Bandcamp for streaming or download. Now it's also available on CD. Moran joined us from the studio of WNYC in New York.


GROSS: Jason, welcome back to the show. It's so exciting to have you at the piano and to have you back.

JASON MORAN: Oh, it's a pleasure. I'm smiling like crazy (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, great. So the first thing I want to do is play some music. So first I want to play James Reese Europe from, like, the 19-teens - I think it was, like, the late 19-teens, playing the "Castle House Rag." And the Castle refers to the dance duo Vernon and Irene Castle. So first I want to play some of the recording, and then we'll hear your interpretation of it at the piano. So tell us what you'd like us to listen for in this recording. And I should say, I really love James Reese Europe's music.

MORAN: You know, in this recording, there's something so raw about the percussion. It's like they're not necessarily playing drums or cymbals. It's like some other kind of contraption from the early 1900s. And then there's this phrasing, you know, knowing that James Reese Europe becomes one of the pivotal forces of dance music, there's something driving about it that the way I hear it now is I hear it related to house music or techno music. There's something about the repetition of that first phrase, and it's just a driving beat. And it seems like, you know, it's a galloping song that's about to go out of control, but it's so contained, too, in its energy.

GROSS: All right. Let's hear it. And I want to say to our listeners, it's a very old recording. It's a really early recording, so it's not going to sound like what you're used to, but, you know, try to get past that and just really listen to the music and not to the recording quality.


GROSS: So that was James Reese Europe's band from, like, the late 19-teens, doing his composition, the "Castle House Rag." And Jason Moran's new album is devoted to the music of James Reese Europe.

So, Jason, let's hear your interpretation of it. But first, introduce it for us. Tell us what you wanted to do with it.

MORAN: Well, you know, like I said before, repetition is so important. I think just for, you know, for all civilizations, we need phrases to repeat. And James has this simple phrase in the right hand - (imitating drum beat). It's just a rhythm, really. But I wanted to kind of plant it with a little bit of, you know, house music - bass notes. And then by the end, it becomes an anthem more about a kind of solitude, too. So I try to move it through a bunch of different moods over the next two minutes. So this is my version of "Castle House Rag." (Playing piano).

GROSS: (Applause). That was great. (Laughter) I love that. Thank you so much.

And that's music with his whole band that's on Jason Moran's new album, "From The Dance Hall To The Battlefield." But he's performing this for us at the piano at the studio of WNYC in New York.

So where do you see James Reese Europe fitting into the history of jazz? Because, you know, one of the things I love about his music is that the drumming often has, like, a military sound to it, like, the drum rolls...

MORAN: Right.

GROSS: ...And, you know, kind of marching beat.

MORAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And I actually love marches, and I love that kind of drumming. But it's crazy, you know? But it's like that kind of drumming gone a little crazy.

MORAN: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that's kind of what his moniker is as one of these syncopation kings. And I think, I mean, one of the things I had to rethink was, well, what does syncopation mean, and what does syncopation mean also as a metaphor for Black progress, too? And when he's coming up in the early 1900s, you know, his parents move him up from Mobile, Ala., up to D.C., and he starts taking violin lessons with Joseph Douglass, the grandson of Frederick Douglass. Like, he's getting something put in his mind about futurity. And that's what excites me. So I think we hear that in the rhythm.

And one thing one of my great teachers, Muhal Richard Abrams, used to like to say was, you know, progress in music is - usually shows up in rhythm first, you know, faster than it shows up in harmony. He says it's in a rhythm. And if you think about how rhythm has changed in popular music over the past 120 years - it's changed drastically. But the rhythm is the thing that we hear. So what you're hearing in that drum - you know, in the time of, you know, post-Emancipation Proclamation, what is the rhythm that we need to tell us, like, where do we follow it to? And I think James Reese Europe starts to try to find a place to plant that in the songs.

GROSS: James Reese Europe also founded the Clef Club, which was kind of like a union for Black musicians. Tell us more about it.

MORAN: Well, I think he forms this organization because the music of that time is being put everywhere, right? It's on the stages, in these houses, in these theaters. And also, I think what James Reese Europe and others see is there's something about the lack of respect given to the musicians that are playing the music, especially when they walk off of the stage, too. So what is it? If we are making the music that is in demand, then you should come through the door and pay us respectfully and treat us respectfully as well.

And the Clef Club is a massive organization. I mean, they even owned their own building in Midtown. And it's something about this idea that you have to come through this door and respect us this way with this pay. And that also, you know, helps out families, too. It's not simply about the musicians and the respect they deserve, but it's also about the community that they live in, as well.

GROSS: Did the band play for a lot of, like, white social functions?

MORAN: I mean, you're right. This is what it is. I mean, there's no DJ back then, so you need the bands, right?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MORAN: So you need the actual people. And James Reese Europe is, like, go-to. He's like a go-to figure in the community. And he's with other composers of the time, too - Bert Williams, H.T. Burleigh, William Grant Still. Like, these are composers who are also looking at this breaking point, I think, trying to figure out a way out of the vaudeville stereotypes of Black folks and into this place where we claim a presence that is our own.

GROSS: Well, one of the songs that you play on "From The Dancehall To The Battlefield" is "Ballin The Jack," which is by a Black composer, Perry Bradford. The song is from 1913, a long time ago. Why did you choose this, and what did you want to do with it?

MORAN: Well, the song is - "Ballin The Jack" is, like, a hit. And if I play it now, people generally come up to me and say, what was that song? I know that song for some reason.

GROSS: I grew up knowing that song. I know all the lyrics to that song.

MORAN: (Laughter) Right? It's a dance too, right? And the great thing about a song that's a dance is, you know, it's like the Harlem Shuffle or something. You know, like, it tells you how to do the dance. And, like, I try to think about who's making a song that tells us how to dance today. I know Lil Uzi Vert's "I Just Wanna Rock" (ph) - even though he doesn't tell you how to dance, it becomes a dance craze. So there's something that - about these songs that tell us how to move in the time.

But I also wanted to pair the song with a great composer, Geri Allen, and her song "Feed The Fire" because I also think it's really important not to segment these composers and to consider them only making music for that era. And Geri Allen, you know, as a great mentor, is a woman who really was looking at the vast history of piano traditions and trying to find ways of amplifying them and also reflecting a new way to play them. So I try to mash together "Ballin The Jack" with Geri Allen's "Feed The Fire."

GROSS: Would you play it for us?

MORAN: Yes. Let's see what this sounds like today (laughter). (Playing piano).

GROSS: I really appreciate the way you combine the past and the present...

MORAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...The avant garde and the very roots of jazz. How did you start doing that?

MORAN: I mean, you know, I grew up in the '80s. And cut, splice, sample, trigger, you know, drop is very much a part of living in that time and listening to hip-hop music. And so knowing that there's, you know, what they call now the blends today, like, finding two songs that can live together, is an important part of kind of making a set of music. So I'm always looking past the song to see what its cousin is.

GROSS: So I want you to play another song here. It could even be just a short excerpt of it. There's something called "Russian Rag," which James Reese Europe recorded, and you play it on your new album. And I should mention for anyone who's looking for the album, it's only available on Bandcamp. And we'll talk later about why that's true. Your runs on this, your descending piano runs on this, are, like, so much fun. They're so fantastic.

MORAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: And on James Reese Europe's recording of it, I think it's just, like, a clarinet. It's hard to tell because it's so - it's such an early recording. You can't really hear things that clearly. But your piano runs are so much more dramatic than on the recording. But anyways, what do you love about this piece?

MORAN: Well, I mean, I think you said it. It's drama. I mean, this - when this band - I think this is the first song I heard that made me fall in love with the band - was hearing them play "Russian Rag." There's just something so kind of abrasive about how they play it. And it just - it shows up in the opening phrase. (Imitating instrument). And you just feel the breath of these musicians kind of assaulting the microphone or the cone wherever it is in the room. And that was something about that intensity of attack that - I try to find a way to do that at the piano.

GROSS: You - would you do it for us?

MORAN: Yes, I'll play a little bit. Let's see. (Playing piano).


GROSS: That was so fantastic.

MORAN: (Laughter) Yeah. That's - yeah, that's a fun one. And I think hearing them play this, you know, just - I don't know - it kind of raises the blood pressure, and I think good bands do that.

GROSS: How do you practice that? Those runs are so fast and yet so precisely executed.

MORAN: I was going to say, I can't play that for my teacher 'cause they'll say, that's not precise or well-executed (laughter).

GROSS: Really? Oh, come on. Those are high standards.

MORAN: You know what, though? I think playing in the past few days and as I age, I know that core is very important. Engage your core (laughter).

GROSS: Oh, and I - really? I never - I always think about the fingers and arms, not core. Yeah?

MORAN: No, like, 'cause you need a place - you know, when I watch, like, a person like Cecil Taylor play piano, as much as it is about his arms and his hands, it's really about the waist, the hips, the back and the core that allows you to kind of, like, maneuver through the instrument. And so I know when I'm playing those octaves, those descending octaves, my core has to be, you know, supportive of the arms.

GROSS: That is advice Bill Evans never followed.


GROSS: He was always just kind of, like, slumped over the piano.

MORAN: Yes. Spaghetti noodle.


GROSS: So I want to ask you another thing about James Reese Europe because it's so relevant to his music. He volunteered for the military during World War I. And he was a lieutenant in the infantry and fought with the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, led the regiment band. And some of his music refers directly to the war. And do you know why he volunteered? Because this is a period when - let's face it - I mean, Black people had so few rights in America. In the North, it wasn't as bad as the South. But, you know, there was no such thing, really, as equal rights back then.

MORAN: You know, there's a lot of - I mean, there's lots of ways to think about when one signs up to dedicate not only their body but their - also their relationship to their family, to decide to join a war or to fight for the good of a people. When he uses his music to gather other soldiers to say, oh, you know, you all should come with us, not only for this music that we're going to play, but we should try to do this because this is another kind of promise that maybe we can make to show the country how much they owe us - I think it's bold to think this way.

And it's also one of the ways that the music, to a degree, gets weaponized. James and his band would go around to neighborhoods and play the songs, you know, play these W.C. Handy blueses (ph). And people would want to be near that music, so they'd sign up. It's kind of like if Kendrick Lamar decided to, like, just go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MORAN: You know, people would follow Kendrick, you know, into the battlefield. And James is that important. But I think he sees and wants to try something else. What I've understood him as is that he never saw a stage too big for him. And I felt that he saw the precipice of not only a war on another continent, but the idea of it was so large that he wondered, how much space could his music take? And he met the match.

GROSS: There's a song that he wrote with a lyric by Noble Sissle, who was part of the songwriting team with Eubie Blake, one of the most famous songwriting teams of that period and of the '20s. And so Noble Sissle wrote the lyric. And this is - it's a song called "On Patrol In No Man's Land." And I've never quite heard a song like this. It's all about being on patrol in no man's land, which is the land between the two warring enemies.

And remember, this is trench warfare. And so it's all about fighting in - you know, being on patrol in no man's land and, you know, grenades going off and machine guns firing at you and poison gas attacking you - because poison gas was used in World War I - having to put on your gas mask. And, you know, Noble Sissle is singing this on the James Reese Europe recording. And it's a pretty incredible recording. And I think that he actually wrote this in the infirmary, like, in the hospital. And again, I want to say it's a really early recording, so don't be put off by the sound quality. Try to just listen to the music and the lyric.


NOBLE SISSLE: (Singing) What's the time, 9? All in line. All right, boys, now take it slow. Are you ready, steady? Very good, Eddy. Over the top, let's go. Quiet - sly it or else you'll start a riot. Keep your proper distance, follow along. Cover, smother, and when you see me hover, obey my orders and you won't go wrong. There's a minenwerfer coming. Look out. Hear that roar? There's one more. Stand fast, for there's a vary light. Don't gasp or they'll find you, all right. Don't start to bombing with those hand grenades. There's a machine gun, holy spades. Alert, gas - put on your mask. Adjust it correctly and hurry up fast. Drop, there's a rocket from the Boche barrage. Down, hug the ground, close as you can. Don't stand. Creep and crawl. Follow me, that's all. What do you hear? Nothing near? Don't fear, all's clear. That's the life of a stroll when you take a patrol out in no man's land. Ain't it grand out in no man's land? There's a minenwerfer coming...

GROSS: So that was the James Reese Europe band with Noble Sissle singing. Sissle also wrote the lyric. I don't know. That's a pretty special recording.

MORAN: Yeah, it is.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, you play something on your tribute album to James Reese Europe called "All Of No Man's Land Is Ours." The song we heard was called "On Patrol In No Man's Land."

MORAN: Right.

GROSS: And the one you play is "All Of No Man's Land Is Ours." Now, Noble Sissle, who we just heard sing his own lyric- he also wrote a lyric to this song. The song - the Music was written by James Reese Europe. Would you tell us why you chose to play this?

MORAN: Sure. I mean, just to hear you, you know, describe no man's land - right? - so no man's land in warfare is that. But no man's land for a soldier returning to America, a Black soldier returning to America, is about something totally different. And so in this song, "All Of No Man's Land Is Ours," it's a love song. And it's a soldier returning, calling up his girlfriend or his wife and saying, you know, all of no man's land is ours.

And it's not - (laughter) it's not necessarily the battlefield, but it is the kind of love field. And with love, they seem that they can kind of accomplish anything. So the no man's land is kind of, like, America (laughter). And I think, for Black soldiers, there was something so clever about Noble Sissle and James Reese Europe and Eubie Blake that they were planning these songs, you know, that allowed for multiple readings, as Toni Morrison would say. So "All Of No Man's Land Is Ours" is kind of a - is a love song. But it's also about something that is haunting, as well.

GROSS: When you play this on your album, "From The Dancehall To The Battlefield," you don't sing. But I asked you...


GROSS: I asked you if you would sing the Noble Sissle lyric because it's such an interesting song.

MORAN: It is. And I've had some coaching from my wife.

GROSS: Who's an opera singer.

MORAN: ...Who's an opera singer...

GROSS: I heard her...

MORAN: ...And composer.

GROSS: ...In "Porgy And Bess..."


GROSS: ...In Philadelphia.

MORAN: Yeah. Alicia Hall Moran. So she's like, Jason, just - you know, you have to speak it and pretend there's a harp underneath your arms.


MORAN: Thank you, Alicia. (Playing piano). Hello, Central? Hello. Hurry, give me 403. Hello, Mary. Hello, dear. Yeah, this is me. Just landed at the pier and found the telephone. We've been parted for a year. (Singing) Thank God, at last, I'm home. Haven't time to talk a lot, though I'm feeling mighty gay. Listen, sweet, forgive me not. I've only time to say all of no man's land is ours, dear. Now I've come back to you, my honey true. Wedding bells in Juney June. All will tell the tuney tune. The victory is won. The war is over. The whole wide world is wreathed in clover. Then hand-in-hand, we'll stroll through life, dear. Just think how happy we will be. I mean, we three - you, me, nine months later, we'll have a baby. We'll pick a bungalow among the fragrant bowers and spend our honeymoon with the blooming flowers. All of no man's land is ours. All of no man's land is ours. All of no man's land is ours. All of no man's land is ours. All of no man's land is ours. (Playing piano, whistling).

GROSS: I am so proud of myself for asking you to do that.


GROSS: That was lovely. That was really so good. And the fact that you whistled was a bonus.

MORAN: They - you know, I think James Reese Europe and all of them understand that when you present music on stage, it's not simply the sound. It's also the drama, the comedy, the tragedy. And all of those emotions kind of have to show up. And they all have signals in ways that they can show up. And you don't only have to use the piano. There's something about what James Reese Europe wants to animate about the depth of life in these recordings that also, for me, charges me up.

GROSS: So let's talk about you. You started off with classical music when you were, like, about 6 years old or something. You started studying the piano through the Suzuki method, which was a method for teaching young children to play classical music. And then you took classical lessons after that, and then you heard Thelonious Monk playing "'Round Midnight."


GROSS: And you've said in the past that that inspired you to play jazz. Can you play some of "'Round Midnight" for us and...

MORAN: Sure.

GROSS: ...Talk us through what you heard in that that changed the course of your life?

MORAN: I'll play the first opening phrase. (Playing piano).

OK, nothing in Suzuki sounds like that.


MORAN: Just nothing sounds like that. And that's the intro - you know? - and then it gets to one of the most incredible melodies. (Playing piano).

I mean, my goodness, when I heard it the first time in my parents' room, I ran downstairs to try to play it, but I couldn't hear it. Like, I mean, it's important to stress that hearing does not necessarily on-off. You - hearing ages, too. Like, how you hear and the depth of your hearing. So to hear those sounds and not be able to make them was so frustrating to me. And I spent, I guess, the rest of my life trying to figure out how to make those sounds that can charge and change a life. And Monk became that source for me.

GROSS: You were born in 1975. You grew up with hip-hop. So you were studying classical music, trying to figure out the secrets to Thelonious Monk and also listening to a lot of hip-hop. So how does hip-hop figure into your music as a composer and player?

MORAN: Oh, I mean, hip-hop is everything to me. You know, a lot of - some musicians, they say, oh, I wish I could have been there in the 1960s when Ornette Coleman came to New York. And I thought, OK, you know, but I was in New York when Biggie was here, right? I was in New York when the Roots were coming up from Philly to play shows. I was here when Pharcyde was coming through New York, you know? Like, I saw those shows. Those groups were important, for me at least, because they wanted to show the humor. They wanted to show the intellect. They also wanted to show how hip they were with the music that they sampled. You know, just that sample bank itself was music history. And so I was always listening to those songs with that in mind, too.

GROSS: Now, I've mentioned on the show today that your new album, your tribute to James Reese Europe, "From The Dancehall To The Battlefield," is available only on Bandcamp for streaming or download. And the streaming is free. And download you have to pay. You started your career on Blue Note Records. This was, like, nearly 20 years ago, right?

MORAN: Right.

GROSS: Or more than that.

MORAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, Blue Note was a major label, and this was before streaming. So people actually - you want to hear music, you had to buy the record. That's no longer the world we live in. So you no longer - you have your own record label. But this new album - you didn't even bother to cut a record. It's just streaming or downloadable.

MORAN: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And so talk to me a little bit about where you think you are and we are in terms of recorded music and fair pay for musicians...

MORAN: Right.

GROSS: ...To hear their work. I'm - I love, as a listener, listening for free. However...

MORAN: However...

GROSS: ...It's at the stake of the musicians.

MORAN: It is. And it - you know, and artists spend dollars to make this. You pay for everybody to come record. You pay to be in the studio. You pay to have it recorded and mixed and mastered. And I think there's something that got corrupt a while ago around the making of music and that it's a thing that lives out there for free for people. And Bandcamp, as a source, allows the artist to price the music where you want, to determine which songs are streamed or not. And so in the mode of the Clef Club, in the mode of owning the canon, I placed my music there because I know at least if someone wants it, then they can listen, and then they can pay for it. And it comes directly back to the artist.

GROSS: One of your projects now - I guess you just finished it - you did the permanent exhibition at the new Louis Armstrong - it's kind of like a museum, a new museum right across the street from where he used to live, which is preserved. I think it's a historical site now, isn't it?

MORAN: Yes, it is.

GROSS: How did Armstrong influence your playing or composing? And also, how did Earl Hines, his early pianist...

MORAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Influence you?

MORAN: Of course. I mean, Armstrong is, like, quintessential to thinking about jazz phrasing, you know, or phrasing. And - whether it's at his trumpet, or it's in how he scats or how he delivers a lyric. And so that - you know, it touches everything, especially in pop music, too. And his relationship with the pianist Earl Hines is quintessential. You hear these two kind of bobbing and jabbing at each other, the trumpet and piano, especially in the song called "Weather Bird." But to draw that long line, that historic line, Earl Hines is also the mentor to Jaki Byard, and I am the student of Jaki Byard. So in some very long, long line, I am in that shadow of what they created. One song that I started playing recently - looking at the way Armstrong sang the song "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." But I add another kind of flare, and sometimes that Hines might show up. So it's kind of like - let's see.

(Playing piano).

GROSS: Wow, thank you for doing that. So I would love to end with some music. And what I often do when I have a musician on our show who's performing, I ask them to do a song that we would be surprised they like and to tell us why they actually love that song and play it for us. Would you be willing to do that?

MORAN: Sure, I'll take you up on that. I'll play "What A Wonderful World." And, of course, it's about Louis Armstrong. But, you know, I'm an Aquarius. I kind of like darkness (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah.

MORAN: You know? And there's something about the way Louis Armstrong kind of sang that song. He sang two versions of it. And the second version is more kind of, like - he addresses, like, there's a little bit of ambivalence about singing a song called "What A Wonderful World" in the late '60s and early '70s, you know, in America. And I think I started playing the song during the pandemic and really kind of meditating on the moment when he says, when I think to myself. So this is "What A Wonderful World," you know, and in parentheses "When I Think To Myself." (Playing piano).

GROSS: That was beautiful.

MORAN: Thank you.

GROSS: And you do find the reflection and a certain sadness or sense of loss in it.

MORAN: I want to say that I do have optimism. I do. But sometimes when I play, I find something else, and the optimism fades. And it's something a little more humble than optimism (laughter). And for me, when I play it, I feel like, can I just sink inside the song and fold the song over me? And can't I be the polar bear on the iceberg, floating out to sea, you know, not really sure about where this is all going, you know, in this heated summer? And the piano, you know, it likes to spend time in that solitude, too. And so, sometimes when I play that song, you know, all of that is wrapped in there.

GROSS: Well, I just want to say, I'm in awe of you. I think you're remarkable. I'm so grateful to you for doing our show today.

MORAN: Well, thank you also for, you know, making this space. I cherish it. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Jason Moran was recorded in August. His album paying tribute to James Reese Europe is called "From The Dancehall To The Battlefield." It's available for streaming and download on Bandcamp and is now also available on CD. He was at the studio of public radio station WNYC in New York. Our thanks to recording engineer Irene Trudel.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


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