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, when I was taking a solo, I would be saying the lyrics and trying to play actual notes to their rhythms. Now, the influence just comes in and out in my playing.”

More-traditional jazz aficionados bristle at this synthesis. “It’s nice that Jason Moran wants to do whatever it is he wants to do,” says writer Stanley Crouch, an artistic consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center and a staunch defender of jazz values from the encroachments of hip-hop culture. “But I don’t know what that’s gonna do for him. Maybe he’ll find some way to put jazz and hip-hop together and sell a lot of records. The fundamental problem is this: Rap music, like rock and roll, is a product of adolescence. No matter what the age of the person performing, it all comes from an adolescent viewpoint. Jazz is not a music about adolescence. That’s the great divide.”

Yet the notion of a great divide hasn’t done jazz any favors, says Greg Tate, a writer for Vibe and the Village Voice who is one of the few critics to write about jazz and hip-hop with equal authority. “I think a lot of the younger jazz players have been sold a bill of goods,” he says. “They aren’t as daring; they don’t dig as deep into the pelvis, the feet, of modern audiences. That’s a very special talent, to make people move. One of the real intentions of hip-hop is to use rhythmic agility to get into people’s nervous system. The great horn players used to do it: Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young. They physically connected with people.”

None of which is to say the average listener will recognize anything resembling hip-hop on Soundtrack to Human Motion. (Even Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall expressed astonishment when I told him Moran considered hip-hop a big influence.) Moran says that one track, “States of Art,” is his tribute to hip-hop, but you have to listen real closely to the bass line—and have a very schooled pair of ears—to hear what he’s talking about. Right now he’s establishing his jazz bona fides, which he figures will give him the credentials to pull off the jazz-hip-hop project that has been pushed back to some other time (and, says Lundvall, probably to some other label).

What Soundtrack does boast is a nervy recasting of the jazz tradition. “There’s something that’s missing from today’s music,” says Moran. “I’m not going to say who we were listening to earlier today, but it was on Blue Note, and we were just flabbergasted. It sounded like a record that was made forty years ago—and less adventurous!”

Soundtrack is nothing if not adventurous. Among its ten pieces are a cover of classical composer Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and a song called “Retrograde” that is actually jazz pianist Andrew Hill’s “Smokestack” played in reverse and then toyed with a bit. “I was playing ‘Smokestack’ backward and then I heard this melody and I taped it that way,” explains Moran. “Then I listened to it over and over again and transcribed the lines and started adding some other stuff until I said, ‘Man, this is a great piece!’”

Listening to music backward has long been a hobby of Moran’s. At first he’d sit at the turntable and spin the platter counterclockwise with his hand. Now he simply plays the record into a computer and then runs the sound file in reverse. This facility with technology distinguishes his generation of jazz musicians from their forebears. “In school I did a lot of computer work,” he says. “I’d take splices from Kurt Weill songs and loop them in bars, in beats of seven, trying all different kinds of things.”

Moran can go on and on in this mode—rapping, so to speak, about politics, herpetology (a childhood fascination), or a TV documentary on the fourth dimension he recently caught while channel surfing. “Jason is kind of an old soul,” says saxophonist Greg Osby, his mentor, bandmate, and producer. “Like the old people down South say, that boy’s been here before—he’s the reincarnation of somebody who has lived a rich life. He seems to know a lot more than someone his age should know. And he’s so curious. Every place we go, all over the world, he darts off to check out the architecture and the museums. You know, his parents just did him right. They had him and his brothers playing piano at a young age. They took them to the museums, the opera, the ballet. They exposed them to a lot of things. And the kids stuck with it.”

“They’re just strivers,” Moran says of his parents. “They never settle for mediocrity. There’s mediocre jazz, mediocre salesmen, mediocre golfers. If you want to be good, you have to really hone your skills. I think that was something we learned early on: You have to push. My mother, who’s a teacher, is part of the Urban League’s Scholarship Builders 2000 program [in which Merrill Lynch sponsors at-risk kids when they’re in elementary school and then pays for their college education if they graduate from high school on time]. Actually, right now she’s on the road taking the kids on a college tour across the U.S. She has always been a big education hound.” That paid off for the Moran kids, who are all overachievers. Besides Jason, who got his degree in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, older brother Yuri is an investment banker and kid brother Tai is a golfer who hopes to join the pro tour next year.

The family is close, as is obvious when they attend one of Moran’s shows at Houston’s Gallant Knight. The point of the Blue Note tour is for its artists to play at venues that don’t usually accommodate jazz, and this one certainly fits the bill. Typically, jazz is performed in well-appointed nightclubs where natty college students, Japanese tourists, and the occasional businessman sit quietly at undersized tables sipping overpriced drinks. The Gallant Knight, by contrast, is an old-line R&B club whose confusing tripartite structure looks like it was designed not just by committee but by a committee that freely availed itself of the establishment’s liquor supply.

But the mazelike architecture gives the evening a nicely layered glow. In one corner is Moran’s family, beaming proudly as he plays. In another are some bohemian Houston teens nodding intently to the drummer’s every backbeat. By the bar are some long-lost buddies greeting each other with a shout and a hug. By the entrance, one would-be Casanova spots a shapely woman walking in the door, and before you know it, he and his shot of Scotch are on the move.

In most jazz clubs the incessant talker is a listener’s worst enemy, the target of numerous drop-dead glares. But here, the hubbub is fine. If you don’t like it, you can just hie off to another part of the room, where the listening’s better. In fact, the chattering makes the night even livelier—the musicians have something to compete with. And it affirms that jazz doesn’t need the sanctity of a silent audience to function as Art with a capital A. Osby’s darting, angular sax solos are pretty cerebral, and Moran’s hands pound out a few chords that you know have never before been heard at the Gallant Knight. But drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen keep the beat roiling below, no matter how knotty things get up top, so the music works fine on both planes: as the focus of the hard-core jazzheads who listen to every driven note, and as a backdrop to the swirl of camaraderie, seduction, and inebriation surrounding it.

It’s music with the immediacy of hip-hop and the dense real-time interaction of jazz. It’s music that fills the room, that seems to pay attention to what you’re thinking and how you carry yourself and then slyly suggests you think this and carry yourself like that instead. It’s music that moves you in both senses of the word, and if you wanted to, you could call it, yes, a soundtrack to human motion.

Jeff Salamon wrote about the Mexican band Plastilina Mosh in the September 1999 issue of Texas Monthly.