The Tale of the Rich Jazz Pianist

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Byline: Seth Colter Walls

If Jason Moran won't sell out for a $500,000 MacArthur grant, he never will.

Jason Moran is wise in a couple of ways. There's the brilliant-musician thing, what with his being equally adept at interpreting Thelonious Monk and Afrika Bambaataa. But then he also knows that Americans don't listen to much jazz piano today--never mind Bambaataa's early hip-hop. So Moran realizes his being named a MacArthur grant "genius" isn't necessarily going to make you sit up and pay attention to him if you hadn't already. He likens the problem of jazz to that of the three-star restaurant wanting to expand its client base. "But only a certain type of person goes there," he says. "Affluent, apparently, with a wide palate, and someone who wants to experiment with 'What is food? What can food be?' So then they wind up serving the same person over and over again."

That doesn't trouble Moran just for jazz's sake; part of him is asking whether he himself has been compromised. The final, hidden track on his excellent new record, Ten, is, pointedly, a vaudeville number made popular by Bert Williams, an African-American entertainer from the turn of the 20th century who performed in blackface. "As far as America and the global culture has come, there are some things that always reduce you to a minstrel, like being asked to come play for money," Moran says. "Or like being shown in through the back entrance of a theater. Some artists don't think about it, but it's a part of my psyche that I'm trying to deal with." So how does getting $500,000 from the MacArthur crowd play into that frame of mind? For now, Moran believes this is a less troublesome kind of transaction, since the grant comes with no strings attached. …