UNTIL MICKEY LELAND DIED, Jason Moran thought of jazz as that music his father listened to. Like most preteen boys in the late eighties, Moran was a hip-hop kid. Riding his dirt bike around Houston with his brothers, he wasn’t thinking about John Coltrane’s way with a 32nd note or Dizzy Gillespie’s bent horn. Beats and rhymes were the soundtrack running through his head: Chuck D exhorting Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad to bring the noise, Prince Paul slipping a foreign-language record beneath De La Soul’s mush-mouthed raps, Kool Moe Dee visiting the Wild, Wild West years before Will Smith had even heard of the place. Jazz? Those were the moldy records his dad stored in a room with a Keep Out sign nailed to the door—the sort of thing Moran had ditched seven years of piano lessons to get away from.
But then Leland, the revered Houston congressman, died in a 1989 plane crash. Moran’s father—an investment banker and a mover and shaker in the city’s black community—had been a friend, and as the family watched the memorial service on TV, someone put a Thelonious Monk album on the turntable. The needle hit the vinyl, Monk’s fingers hit the keys, and for the first time, Moran heard.
“The first track was ‘’Round Midnight,’” remembers Moran, now 24, as he sits in an Austin hotel room while keeping an eye on a horror flick that’s playing silently on the TV. It’s mid-March, and the pianist, who like most ambitious jazz professionals has resettled in New York City, is swinging through his home state as part of Blue Note Records’ New Directions tour, priming the pump for the release of his debut album, Soundtrack to Human Motion. “Monk was playing a solo,” he continues, “and it almost had a hip-hop-type feel, because he was keeping that steady tone in the left hand. The way he attacked the piano, moving at all different angles…After I heard that record, I went out and bought, like, six more. His tunes were great, and he’d just rerecord them all the time—and every time, he played them a little bit different. I was like, ‘Man, this guy has some balls, to record the same tunes for thirty years straight!’”
“Balls” isn’t the word that first comes to mind these days when discussing jazz. In the past the music exhibited no shortage of cojones, from Louis Armstrong’s emergence as a virtuoso soloist to Charlie Parker’s creation of the bebop idiom to Ornette Coleman’s coinage of free jazz. And from the twenties through the fifties, jazz played a role in American culture that matched its nerve. For the first half of the century it was the preeminent expression of African American ambitions, a radical recasting of the Western musical tradition that was popular with both frat boys and intellectuals—and probably turned more than a few frat boys into intellectuals. By the sixties, although rock had supplanted jazz’s popular role, albums like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme were totems of beatnik and counterculture credibility, as necessary to any self-respecting hipster’s record collection as the latest Dylan or Hendrix opus. Somewhere between the sixties and the nineties, however, jazz lost almost any claim on the mass mind. Jazz albums are still being released by the bucketful, but they are, with few exceptions, tending the embers of old styles—a neoconservativism best exemplified by Wynton Marsalis and his lavishly hyped and funded Jazz at Lincoln Center program in New York.
Arguably, it is hip-hop that has taken over jazz’s role as vanguard black music—though many would claim the two need not stand in opposition. “Traditionally, the social role for jazz was to play popular song-and-dance music, but in a more inflected way,” explains Scott DeVeaux, a professor of music at the University of Virginia and the author of The Birth of Bebop (University of California Press, 1997). “That suggests that when dance grooves change, the music should change too. Seventies jazz-funk fusion was one attempt to do that. And the funk beat has now evolved and morphed into a hip-hop beat, so the music is likely to be about that—unless the musicians decide, under the spell of Wynton or somebody similar, that they have to put those childish things behind them and get with the gospel.”
Moran won’t play that. “I’m a prime example of a person who loves hip-hop, and I will defend it till the day I die,” he says. He digs the beats, the lyrics, and the bravado, but as a pianist, he is moved by the rappers’ “flow,” the unique rhythmic sensibility. “It’s amazing, because some MCs come up with the same improvisational schemes that we come up with—certain clichés and other types of things. For a while I was working on transcribing rap lyrics and then converting them into rhythmic patterns on the piano. And so in my mind,