ABOVE: Jason Moran performs with his trio, The Bandwagon, featuring niece, Raven Moran on guitar at Discovery Green for the ‘Jazzy Sundays’ concert series (Photo courtesy of Facebook)
The Kinder Foundation’s series of “Jazzy Sundays” continued Sunday night at Discovery Green. The headliner was jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran. Born in Houston in 1975, Moran grew up in the Pleasantville area. He attended Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, graduating in 1993. As a senior, he was student director of the jazz combo, under a jazz program then led by Robert Morgan.
Moran went on to graduate from the Manhattan School of Music and join the band of saxophonist Greg Osby. Since then, he’s become a noted composer and musician in his own right. This weekend, he returned to Houston with his trio, The Bandwagon, featuring Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. This time, they were joined by a special guest: Moran’s niece Raven Moran on guitar.
Together they worked through a dense, evolving set of songs: a rollicking, lengthy composition to open, a sophomore selection that (despite a propulsive rhythm section) genuinely swings a gentle, scaled-down ballad. Despite the buzz around him — the din of an outdoor crowd, photographers coming on stage to snap photos – Moran seemed entirely unfazed, lost in the music. He broke the spell briefly to address the crowd before his next song.
He introduced “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” by legendary bluesman Albert King. “He used to come by my house,” Moran said, adding that “he made the piano actually sound fun.” But Moran wasn’t kidding around after the band finished playing.
As the Bandwagon began the next song, Moran took the mic. “We’re talking about books now,” he said. “Talking about how dare anyone be able to take away a book.” He spoke on the importance of reading and his hope that Texas doesn’t become one of the states banning books in schools. He began quoting novelist Toni Morrison, reciting a passage in her book Song of Solomon:
“And talking about dark! You think dark is just one color, but it ain´t. There´re five or six kinds of black. Some silky, some woolly. Some just empty. Some like fingers. And it don´t stay still. It moves and changes from one kind of black to another. Saying something is pitch black is like saying something is green. What kind of green? Green like my bottles? Green like a grasshopper? Green like a cucumber, lettuce or green like the sky is just before it breaks loose to storm? Well, night black is the same way. May as well be a rainbow.”
From there, Moran launched into his song “Black is a Rainbow.”
Next, he launched into “Feed the Fire,” written by the late jazz pianist and composer Geri Allen.
He concluded with “For James,” a tribute piece he wrote for the little-known bandleader and composer James Reese Europe. He was one of the foremost originators of what we now call jazz.
Europe started out as a pianist in New York City. Then he began writing for theater. In 1910, he founded and incorporated The Clef Club — a first-of-its-kind musicians’ union, contracting agency and social organization. The Clef Club Orchestra soon swelled to over 200 members, according to the Library of Congress. In 1912, he brought the orchestra to Carnegie Hall. (According to NPR, “The ‘Concert of Negro Music,’ as it was billed, is often remembered today as the first jazz concert in the prestigious concert hall, though “jazz” wasn’t a word Europe ever used.”) The concert introduced both Black and ragtime composers/musicians to that venue.
During World War I, Europe obtained a commission from the New York National Guard. He fought as a lieutenant in the 369th Infantry Regiment. He managed to balance duties as both a soldier and a military bandleader. The Boston Globe shows he succeeded at both: “As a marching band, the 369th Infantry Regiment is credited with introducing jazz to the continent that shares Europe’s name. As a machine-gun unit, the 369th Regiment fought so fiercely and heroically alongside French forces (American troops were then segregated by race) that the German troops dubbed them “Hollenkampfer” (German for “Hellfighters”).” The band amazed audiences in France, and after the war ended, Europe returned home as a hero. He continued to tour before being fatally stabbed by a band member in 1919.
Europe’s story inspired Moran’s album, From the Dance Hall to the Battlefield. “For James” is the last track on that album, and Moran has used it in his performances for years. Last night, he surprised the audience by breaking into song, singing along with the melody and encouraging them to do so, too. He led the crowd in vocalizing, first singing and then humming – compelling them to pay tribute to one of jazz’s great ancestors.