Although Jason Moran is perhaps best known as a MacArthur-winning jazz pianist and artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, he has for some time worked adjacent to the visual arts, composing music for projects by the likes of Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Stan Douglas, and Adam Pendleton. Perhaps most notably, he has collaborated for over ten years with the groundbreaking multimedia artist Joan Jonas, a symbiotic creative partnership that broke open new spaces around his work. “I had been wondering how my music could get out of concert halls and clubs and festivals,” he said in a 2015 interview with Jonas for Art in America, “and then Joan offered this portal into another world.” Over the years, Moran became interested in creating his own artworks and installations — exploring new forms and outlets for his ideas about sound and music — but it wasn’t until the 2015 Venice Biennale that he debuted sculptures and a series of works on paper as part of an ongoing project titled STAGED, now at Luhring Augustine Bushwick.
For STAGED, Moran mines the history of jazz, materializing certain traces that the art form leaves behind. Anchoring the tender and plaintive exhibit are two installations: semi-architectures Moran designed and built based on long-gone legendary New York jazz venues the Savoy Ballroom and the Three Deuces. Moran’s aren’t exact reproductions; they’re re-creations of the clubs’ stages, imagined from photographs taken at the time these joints were jumping. Moran doesn’t give viewers a clear history of either place, preferring to preserve their mythical status — and honoring their exile to the realm of memory. He maneuvers the spaces into dialogue with each other, filling them with music and sounds from both the past and the present. Sometimes, he brings the stages to life through live performances; at other times, he allows them to sit in silence, quiet as tombs.
The Savoy opened in Harlem in 1926 and soon became synonymous with the swing era. Until its demolition in 1958, all the greats played there: Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Buddy Johnson. Unlike some of its competitors (like the Cotton Club), the Savoy didn’t favor its white clientele. Manager Charles Buchanan boasted that at his place, African Americans could dance seven nights a week in a decadent setting. Moran’s Savoy captures a certain sadness beneath all the splendor: The ceiling of the stage arcs over ornately wallpapered walls, and an undulating gold metal decorative element gleams in the footlights. From speakers stowed inside the structure, he projects an eerie mix of clanking sounds layered with recordings made by folk music collector Alan Lomax, including a melody sung by a chain gang outside Louisiana’s Angola prison. “The music was used against us,” Moran said in a short documentary about STAGED, explaining that slaves with good voices were once hired to sing in the fields to keep the others motivated. He added, “So how was jazz used against us?” His question, left unanswered, finds resonance in the chain gang rhythms that echo through the installation — an inescapable presence.
By contrast, Moran’s homage to the Three Deuces is a claustrophobic, walled-off corner of a room covered in dull beige acoustic padding. (The padded walls also add a certain “nuthouse” vibe to the space.) Three Deuces was a comparatively modest venue once located along New York’s famed “Swing Street,” a stretch of West 52nd between Fifth and Sixth avenues that was lined with music destinations between the 1930s and the early 1950s, when real estate interests took hold of that section of midtown and music had to make way for skyscrapers. It was considered the home of bebop, playing host to luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and Miles Davis.
Inside this re-created room, Moran positions a drum kit, an upright bass, and a glossy black Steinway Spirio that self-plays a twelve-minute song cycle composed by the pianist. These songs too fill the gallery, playing alongside the Savoy tracks, the sound waves rising and crashing over one another. The player-less piano is more than a neat trick; it echoes other performance pieces, like John Cage’s masterwork 4’33”. But whereas Cage’s piece staged the not-playing of music so that audiences would attend to the ambient sounds of the room, Moran’s capsizes the dynamic between presence and absence. This instrument needs no musician at the keyboard to produce music. It’s also a record — a magical object — with a memory all its own.
Moran plays with the ideas of memory in other, more personal, ways. He creates drawings by taping pieces of paper to the keyboard (including torn old piano rolls that once played “Basin Street Blues”) and then, with charcoal-covered fingers, plays over the paper, leaving a smudgy record of a performance that can’t ever be perfectly duplicated. He also installs a “Minimal Jazz Store” in the entryway to the gallery, a glass vitrine that displays an assortment of collectibles: hat blocks; a handwritten note from Sonny Rollins; film reels of Fats Waller playing “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “; an issue of Tan magazine featuring a photo of Holiday holding two white Chihuahuas with the headline “Can a Dope Addict Come Back?” Although this ephemera is all for sale (and it’s certainly far more affordable than the artwork must be), there’s something about the presence of this stuff that takes a swipe at ownership too. In the end, there’s no way to really own jazz, an art propelled by certain freedoms of form, of expression, of the artist. Take it all in as a lesson in how to be a more present audience for music, and for the inevitable passing of time: Just watch, and listen.
Jason Moran: ‘STAGED’
Luhring Augustine Bushwick
25 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn
Through July 30