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Town Hall Meeting

Jazz pianist Jason Moran returns home to Houston to recreate Thelonious Monk’s seminal 1959 concert.

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Jason Moran performing at Da Camera's annual gala earlier this year.
Kim Coffman

It was August 7, 1989, the day Mickey Leland, a promising black congressman from Lubbock, died in a plane crash in Ethiopia. The way the Houston jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, then fourteen years old, remembers it, he walked into his parents’ bedroom to witness them in a state of shock. “They were watching footage of the crash,” Moran said, “but there was no sound coming from the television. There was only Thelonious Monk playing ‘Round Midnight.’ And I just was like, what is that?”

Moran’s father had a vast record collection, and Moran had started dipping into it to find the source of the samples he’d been hearing in hip hop, like James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic, but something about that musical moment crystallized in Moran’s mind. There was Monk, this great black jazz pianist, with probably his most popular piece playing against the backdrop of the tragic death of Leland, a great black politician from Texas. Moran had been playing piano for eight years by then and was soon to enter Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He grew obsessed with Monk’s recording. He tried to copy and play the piece but soon realized he didn’t have the ears to hear all that Monk was doing.

Since then, Moran has strived to be like Monk, a visionary pianist who often played with his elbows and forearms, danced during shows to demonstrate to his fellow players the rhythm he was after, and pushed boundaries to make statements, such as the one on the cover of his Underground album, where he is sitting at the piano with a rifle over his shoulder and holding hostage a bound Nazi soldier. Monk proved to be a synthesizer of music, culture, and race for the impressionable teenage Moran and inspired him to chart a new path away from classical piano and the Suzuki style taught to him by his Russian teacher, Yelena Kurinets.

“Monk is a person who straddles both ways,” Moran said. ”He plays the music of his elders, whether Duke Ellington or Fats Waller or James P. Johnson. So you learn about the generation before him. You learn about his current generation, like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. And then you learn about people who looked up to him. John Coltrane looked up to him. Monk is ten years older than him. Coltrane learned so much by being in Monk’s band that he then changes the rest of music history—what he does after he leaves Monk’s band. And so Monk becomes like the tree that everybody has to come visit after a certain point.”

Monk’s influence led Moran to move to New York, where in the late nineties he landed a record deal with the venerable Blue Note label. In 2010 he earned a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant,” for his collaborative cross-genre explorations of American music, informed by the “cultural diet” fed to him by his parents through trips to the ballet, the symphony orchestra, and museums during his youth. Then, in 2014, Moran was promoted to artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, where he has been tasked with keeping the dialogue going around the genre. But perhaps Moran’s crowning achievement came back in 2007, when he paid homage to Monk with the premiere of “In My Mind,” a multimedia performance recreating Monk’s 1959 concert at Town Hall, in New York, captured on the album The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall.

This Friday night, Moran will bring the production to his hometown for one night only at the Wortham Center. Moran likened the show to an archaeological dig of the Monk recording. There are three different time periods represented: There is the present, with Moran and his seven-piece band, the Big Bandwagon, as contemporary musicians admiring Monk’s music. There is the past, where the audience sees Monk and his band rehearsing for the Town Hall concert in the New York apartment of W. Eugene Smith, a Life magazine photographer whose “jazz loft” was a hangout and performance space for musicians and artists. And then there is the beginning: the mid-1800s, on the North Carolina plantation and surrounding area where Monk’s great-grandparents were slaves. Images by the video artist David Dempewolf appear throughout and are threaded with prerecorded voiceovers by Moran that link his own trajectory with Monk’s.

The original Town Hall performance changed the shape of jazz. Prior to that, big band music was largely where it was at. But even though Monk was a huge fan of big-band titans like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Cab Calloway, there is a recording of him telling Smith, while chilling out in the jazz loft, that the form was old and stiff. Monk wanted jazz music to sound more organic. He wanted the audience to react not just by dancing or tapping their feet but also by focusing on and thinking deeply about the artistic expression.

It was an important time in Monk’s life. It was his first performance in New York after losing his cabaret card—and thus the ability to play in the city’s nightclubs—because of drug possession. This was his return, and he was also accompanied by his largest ensemble ever. The music was new and exciting. There were also societal implications to consider. “America was kind of at a place where the ground was shifting politically,” Moran said. “So these songs are part of that—about what is possible, about what is new, about what is complacency, about what ideas are old.”

“In My Mind” replicates all of the Town Hall songs. In some cases, Moran and the Big Bandwagon play them the way Monk played them. Others are remixed. Regarding the spin Moran puts on “Crepuscule with Nellie,” a love song Monk wrote for his wife, he uses an analogy about Texas barbecue. Instead of slicing, he chops the song—the brisket—into pieces, and then, halfway through, he converts the ballad into straight blues—he adds the barbecue sauce.

The song “Thelonious” occurs four different times. First, it is played on Moran’s headphones and the audience can hear only his reaction to the song. Next, it is played as it was recorded originally. The third time, it is played very slowly, like a dirge, for the sequence on the North Carolina plantation. And lastly, it is played on the headphones of each band member, and, like the first time, the audience can just hear their responses to it.

“What Monk does so great, and probably to the antithesis of what people complain about in jazz, is he’s able to play something simple and show you the outline,” Moran said. “That’s one of his songs that really starts with just one note as a melody. And it’s just one note over and over and over and over and over again. And it’s like insistence—like, I’m here. And this is my name. Thelonious. Thelonious. Thelonious.”

The “In My Mind” performance comes during the final year of Moran’s three-year Homecoming Residency with Da Camera, the Houston purveyor of eclectic jazz and chamber music programming. Moran’s relationship with Da Camera goes back to high school, when the organization enabled students to learn from visiting musicians the likes of McCoy Tyner, Billy Higgins, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Heath, and Cedar Walton. “That access should not be overlooked,” Moran said. “It really has a lasting effect.”

In the first year of his residency, Moran created an original composition that Da Camera commissioned. In February 2015 Moran debuted the piece, entitled “Holed Up,” a multimedia meditation on the work of Robert Rauschenberg, the visual artist from Port Arthur. Since then, Moran has participated in other performances and led in-school and community programs in the Third and Fourth Ward neighborhoods. He has become intimately familiar with the state of jazz in Texas—and he thinks there is a lot of work to be done.

“When I consider what this residency has taught me,” Moran said, “it is that the state, considering the immense jazz lineage that has helped shape contemporary jazz right now, has not stepped up in a way to continue to really act like it’s part of its brand. Just as much as a cowboy hat [defines us], you could also think of us as a jazz state. What I’m wanting to demand from Texas is that it really starts to take ownership in its pride in the art form of jazz.”
Wortham Center, October 7, 8 p.m., dacamera.com

Other Events Across Texas

AUSTIN
Pushing the Limits
It can be hard to suppress your excitement and wait until the second weekend of the fifteenth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival, but consider this amazing trio of Texas musicians who didn’t play the first weekend: Walker Lukens, Amanda Shires, and some dude named Willie Nelson.
Zilker Park, October 7–9, aclfestival.com

BRENHAM
Meat and Greet
Those who plan to go to the Butcher’s Ball, a one-day meat extravaganza with more than a dozen Texan chefs who support sustainable ranching, don’t simply enjoy consuming animals. They also admire watching said animals get masterly carved, as will happen with the live butchering of a whole elk.
Rockin’ Star Ranch, October 9, 2 p.m., butchersball.com

DALLAS
On the Street Where You Live
People tend to avert their eyes from the homeless, but often the homeless are carefully watching those around them, at least the ten Dallas citizens of the street who were supplied with a camera to capture their unique perspective for the exhibit “Streetview.”
Common Desk, October 13, 7 p.m., thehumanimpact.org

HOUSTON
Slow Art
The Brooklyn artist Jonathan Schipper creates living, breathing “time-based, kinetic installations,” like when he crashed two muscle cars into one another, in slow-motion, over the course of several days. For Cubicle, at Rice Gallery, he has created an office space that will minimally change over two months’ time.
Rice Gallery, October 7 to December 4, ricegallery.org

HOUSTON
Roll Over, Beethoven
Two hundred and ten years after Beethoven composed Violin Concerto in D, musicians are still finding ways to interpret the classic piece. In “Beethoven Recnstrctd,” Ash Danceworks is doing so through a digital reinterpretation of the music paired with live dance and interactive projections.
Match, October 7 & 8, 8 p.m., matchouston.org

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