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As beloved as he was in Washington and the jazz world at large, Dr. Billy Taylor was a man of fairly conservative taste in jazz. This was reflected in the jazz programming at the Kennedy Center, where Billy Taylor served for 16 years as the center’s first artistic advisor for jazz. Even in his innovations, such as the popular Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, Taylor’s legacy tended toward straightahead, crowd-pleasing jazz, with a handful of KenCen staples rotating at the top of the bill. When Taylor died last December at 89, it was reasonable to expect his eventual replacement would be similarly conservative.
Thus, this morning’s announcement of 36-year-old pianist Jason Moran as the new artistic advisor for jazz is a complete surprise.
Although they share an instrument, Moran little in common with Taylor. He is an edgy, literate, conceptually brilliant musician who has carved out an idiosyncratic career. Moran’s vision encompasses classical music, old and new; modern rock; film music; hip-hop; and an impossibly broad spectrum of jazz piano, from James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington to Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and Muhal Richard Abrams. As such, Moran leads an envelope-pushing piano trio, Bandwagon, with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist (and D.C. resident) Tarus Mateen. Simply put, he’s an adventurer.
This the Kennedy Center acknowledges. “Jason Moran’s bold approach to his craft has allowed him to bring innovation to jazz while also respecting the American art form’s distinguished traditions,” Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser said in a statement. “I look forward to the exciting ways in which his leadership will influence the future of the Kennedy Center’s jazz program.”
And what might that influence bring? Hard to say. It’s unclear how much of a final say the advisor has in KenCen programming, for one thing; for another, edgier thinkers than Moran have been known to cool their heels in the service of a massive cultural institution. But it’s possible, perhaps even more than possible, that we will see a reawakening of jazz possibilities in Foggy Bottom, something more than the brilliant but ultimately safe jazz totems that have dominated their stages thus far. Call it “Gangsterism at the Opera House.”