The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday tapped 36-year-old pianist and composer Jason Moran to be its artistic adviser for jazz, a post held by acclaimed musician Billy Taylor until his death last December at 89.
The generational handoff wasn’t planned in advance but makes sense as jazz evolves, musical directors at the Washington, D.C., center said. Moran, who lives in New York City and teaches at the New England Conservatory in Boston, won a $500,000 “genius grant” last year from the MacArthur Foundation and is known for mixing visuals and other media with some of his productions.
Moran told The Associated Press he thinks often about how to place jazz in a 2011 context.
“It’s not like it was in 1959, and it’s definitely not like it was in 1939, and it’s not like it was in 1900,” he said. “Things have changed. Jazz is at a different place right now. So where does it fit, and with whom does it echo?”
As artistic adviser for the next three years, Moran will help select artists and develop one of the nation’s largest jazz programs. The Kennedy Center presents more than 30 performances each year, including concerts in its own jazz club and performances broadcast on NPR.
But hiring a young, daring adviser won’t necessarily bring big changes to the program, said Kevin Struthers, the center’s jazz director. He said Moran can “swing with the best of them” but also take the genre in a different direction.
“I think we have selected someone who is firmly rooted in the traditions of the music,” Struthers said. “Jazz is not to be put on a shelf as a museum piece. It is important that we pay homage to the past, and I think Jason does that through his music, but he puts it in a contemporary setting.”
Taylor, a pianist and composer who played with luminaries such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, became an ardent jazz advocate through radio, TV and his Jazzmobile arts venue that visited urban neighborhoods. He profiled musicians for CBS’ “Sunday Morning” show – winning an Emmy Award in 1983 for a piece on Quincy Jones – and assumed the Kennedy Center post in 1994.
Moran said he considers Taylor a mentor because he always had advice and critiques to offer. He began learning from Taylor at age 16 during a master class at his high school. The young pianist performed at the Kennedy Center for the first time in 1998 through a program to identify young talent.
“At a certain point, my generation has to stand up to continue to hand down the information that has been given to us,” he said. “Billy has been a person who bridged the gap between jazz and the American public ... So that’s the thing I want to continue to model in whatever I do.”