Jazz pianist Jason Moran avoids the obvious. His music has channeled Johannes Brahms and James P. Johnson, African-American spirituals and Afrika Bambaataa. He makes connections — the latest, with skateboarding. A couple of weeks ago, at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco, Moran and his trio, the Bandwagon, performed to the accompaniment of eight skateboarders — Bay Area skating luminaries, who will do tricks on a ramp in front of the stage. He says it will be “a joint jam session.”
Based in Manhattan, Moran talked about his upcoming shows by phone from Tallinn, Estonia, where he was on tour with saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet. He explained, at length, his skateboard fascination.
Q Jason, where did this skateboarding idea come from? I mean, jazz and skateboarding?
A OK, it was like this: I grew up skating with my brothers in our neighborhood in Houston, Texas, so we had our own little skateboarding show. And in particular, I had this friend. He made his own ramps, had a half-pipe in his backyard — but he also was a deejay, making beats. So that was kind of my environment: the culture of hip-hop, the culture of skating. And then also around that time — I was 11 or 12 — I was getting into jazz. Thelonious Monk.
And I went to San Francisco with my parents — twice, I think. My brothers and I always brought our skateboards, because it’s the skating capital. And there’s this place, the EMB,they call it.
Q The Embarcadero, along the water?
A That’s it. Lately, I’ve been saying to people that what Minton’s Playhouse (in Harlem) was to bebop, the EMB was to skateboarding.
Q What else do you remember about those family trips?
A There’s a plaza in downtown San Francisco that had these amazing walls, and these long concrete steps. So everybody who was street skating would go there. And somehow my older brother, Yuri, who’s three years older than me, knew about this place, and my parents would let us roam the city for a couple of hours. We would just sit and watch, because the pros were there. And just having the opportunity to see the skaters who decided to skate in that city and skate those hills — it kind of made a big impression.
Q Someone told me that a lot of skating videos had jazz soundtracks when you were a kid, in the ’80s and into the ’90s.
A That’s true. Videos became the big way of learning what people were doing on their boards. You’d get to see parts of it in the magazines, but you couldn’t really see how they did the tricks. So videos were huge, and accompanying those videos usually was some punk stuff or hip-hop stuff — but then classic jazz, too. You’d hear Art Blakey, or you’d hear Bud Powell in a little trio setting behind the skaters.
Q How are the aesthetics related?
A People kind of don’t understand either one — skateboarding or jazz. If you’re a lay person listening to jazz, you don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening within the form. But you get the sense of it, the feel of it, because you’re getting to hear something that develops right in front of your face. And it’s the same thing with skating; you can feel the sensibility of a skater, how they reach their potential and how they succeed. You watch how things develop: the way they enter the ramp and build their speed, the way they fall and how they get up and recover. The same things happen in music.
Improvisation is like that generally, whether it’s music or skating. And with each, as an outsider, you don’t have to know all of the tricks to appreciate the form.
Q Are you composing “skateboarding music,” something special to complement the eight skaters?
A No, I’m not composing, precisely. It’s more about bringing the energy. Those skaters aren’t skating to ballads! It’s the pulse, it’s the drive, it’s the freedom. The idea is to play with the skaters’ tempos and propulsions in the music. We’ll all be listening to what the sound of the music is with that added element, the sound of the skateboard on the ramp.
You know, very few of us have our special listening room, where we close off the rest of the world and only hear the music. As musicians or as listeners, we’re generally interacting with music, wherever we are, whether we’re on a train or on the street.
Q Or performing with skateboarders in a concert hall?
A Exactly. I think of this as a two-way interaction, kind of like a joint jam session.
We’ve got a lot in common. Watching skaters watch other skaters — seeing how they respond to each other’s moves — is like when a bunch of musicians get in the room and hear someone play something special or unexpected, and everyone goes, “Ohhhh!” There’s that sense of awe.
Q You’re bringing a special guest to play with your band at these skateboarding events — guitarist Jeff Parker. A lot of people know him from the band Tortoise.
A Jeff is seriously into the skating scene, and Tortoise’s music even has been used in some skate videos. So Jeff understands the way the guitar functions in those skate videos, in this punk music and groove music or doing a classic jazz kind of Grant Green thing. I thought it would be great to have Jeff, because he can get so many sounds out of his guitar, almost like Grant Green on some of the old videos.
Also, Jeff knows cats like Tommy Guerrero and Ray Barbee (of San Jose), legendary skaters who’ve actually segued into being musicians. In fact, Tommy and Ray have a band together.
And I had a conversation a couple of months ago with Ray, a serious conversation. He said, “You know there’s this thing you want to think about: Just as there’s a jazz police, there’s a skater police. No one wants to have their form hijacked and used as a circus act.” And I said, “Hell, yeah.” He put the fear in me. I can understand a skateboarder’s trepidations about being involved with what we’re doing.
Q How has it changed your attitude going into it?
A I’ll see what it makes me do next week. I’ve got to say, my partner in this has been Kent Uyehara, who owns FTC Skateboarding in the Haight. He and I have had a lot of conversations. He’s the one who’s putting this together, who knows the ramp designer, and Kent found the skaters. So he and I have talked about it a lot, and I think he and I are both kind of hedging at how we’re going to edit this together.
I’m not Merce Cunningham, but he — the choreographer — had these ways of using the score as a chance interaction with his dancers. The music really had nothing to do with the performers on the stage; if something happened in tandem, that would be by chance.
I remember seeing Merce Cunningham in New York, and every night he would have a different composer, and that would free it up. Same thing here: We’re all kind of hanging out with each other. It’s as casual as that.
Q Have you been on a skateboard recently?
A Hell, no. The last time I bought a skateboard, which was maybe ten years ago, I thought, “Wow, this is great!” So I pushed all the way from 125th Street to 110th Street (in Manhattan), and I fell off to the side and the board flew into the street. And a truck rode over it and snapped the tail off. That was my sign. It was my last time.
Q I hear there are whole lines of skateboards with jazz images on them. FTC carries a line of decks with images from Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” album.
A Years ago, there were times when Dexter Gordon would be on the bottom of a board, or John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.” Yeah, that “Bitches Brew” series of six boards is, like, beautiful.
Q Were you a good skater as a kid?
A I was OK — just one of the legions.
Q Did you keep up on all the tricks?
A Sure. I remember this guy Rodney Mullen invented the ollie, an amazing contribution. And then the kickflip came, so you’d learn the kickflip. I was never brave enough to really deal with ramps.
Q Your own kids are little. But have they expressed any interest in skating, and would you let them do it?
A They do have an interest, as I’ve been showing them skate videos.
Tommy Guerrero has his child skating. So my boys are predisposed to music because my wife (Alicia Hall Moran) is a classical singer. They play music the way Tommy’s kid skates.
Q As you tour the world, do you get to observe different skateboarding scenes?
A Yes. In Rotterdam, you’ll see a skate park in the middle of the city. And I was just in Oldenburg, Germany, where they have a square for skaters — or in Barcelona in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a huge plaza, where they’ve allowed skaters to congregate.
Q Any final thoughts on your own skateboarding extravaganza?
A This is the kind of thing I want to be distracted by. Sometimes, as a performer, you’re so concentrated on what you and your bandmates are doing, so it’s nice to have some other people there — people who are involved in another form.
Q Providing a new kind of stimulus, it sounds like. Will you be huddling with the eight skaters before the first show?
A We’ll have a huddle of some sort, whether it’s over a beer or whatever.
Q Have you seen any of them skate?
A I’ve been seeing them skate online. This cat Adrian Williams, man, is like nuts. But I’m looking forward to all of them. Because just as in jazz, you may hear a record and you’re like, “Oh yeah, they sound good.” Then you go see them play, and it’s totally way beyond what you heard. I imagine the same thing could happen, seeing these skaters in San Francisco. There might be a shock factor.
>>>By Richard Scheinin>>>