Jason Moran brings art and jazz history to the Walker galleries

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Jason Moran has always explored other art forms in addition to music.
Jason Moran has always explored other art forms in addition to music. His first-ever museum show that just opened at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis features installations representing historic jazz clubs in New York, as well as Moran's own paintings and photographs. It also features videos and films by other artists which complement the jazz club installations. Moran was photographed at the Walker on April 26, 2018.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

If you believe jazz clubs are sacred spaces, then Jason Moran just created a little place of worship for you at the Walker Art Center.

The internationally acclaimed jazz pianist and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant has his first-ever museum show at the Walker. It includes immersive installations based on three important New York jazz venues.

Visitors enter past a huge wall collage of his photographs, hearing the sound of people talking at a jazz club. Then they plunge into a dark, airy space filled with sound and movement.

Moran said it's designed to be a little disorienting.

Jason Moran, STAGED: Three Deuces, 2015
Jason Moran, STAGED: Three Deuces, 2015
Farzad Owrang | Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

"You walk in and there's no one else in the gallery except these spaces, where you assume people were," he said.

The spaces he's referring to are representations of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem from the 1920s and '30s, the Three Deuces Club from the 1940s and '50s, and then Slug's Saloon, another New York jazz joint from the '60s and '70s. The last two have instruments — a bass, drums and a piano, ready to play.

"So you see band set-ups, and then you have to fill in some gaps," he said. "Why are these places here? What are they set up to do? What do they offer us? What do they offer the country?"

These are questions that Moran has been mulling himself, along with the question of what was lost when these clubs were demolished.

"These are ways to kind of become my own landmarks commission," he said, laughing.

Jason Moran, STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1, 2015
Jason Moran, STAGED: Savoy Ballroom 1, 2015
Farzad Owrang | Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York

The Walker gallery also features three large screens continually playing videos of Moran's performances and films by visual artists that complement the installations. They fill the space with sound.

The Savoy installation is the most ornate, and perhaps the most like a traditional artwork. It's a representation of the ballroom's scalloped walls, curved at the top to help project the big-band sound across the huge dance floor.

"But the other side of that: I always thought that maybe those musicians were also, you know, hearing a thousand dancers on the dance floor," he said. "The feet, the bodies, the conversation ... there's this kind of conversation that happened between the two."

The Three Deuces represents the Bebop era. It's a tiny, cramped stage with padded walls. It was in a basement in midtown Manhattan, and Moran said it represents a change in jazz.

"Big bands are now kind of going out of style," he said. "Small bands are now revolutionizing where the music will go. So: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus."

The Savoy and the Three Deuces were originally shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015. The Slug's Saloon piece is new for the Walker show, and Moran surprised visitors on opening night last Thursday by staging a pop-up concert with 80-year-old sax legend Charles Lloyd.

Lloyd played Slug's in its heyday in the '60s and '70s. Moran is delighted to be able to establish the link with jazz history: "I can't call Chick Webb to bring his big band back to the Savoy Ballroom," he said, "but I can call Charles Lloyd."

Moran says this is a show about jazz, but also about African-American life and work and the way music can be a salve to an oppressive experience.

Charles Lloyd plays a pop-up performance with Jason Moran at the Walker.
Charles Lloyd plays a pop-up performance with Jason Moran at the Walker Art Center on April 26, 2018. The musicians played a set in an installation representing Slug's Saloon, a New York City jazz club where Lloyd himself played in the 1960s and 70s.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Exhibit curator Adrienne Edwards said she's enjoyed watching visitors walk into the show and seeing their jaws drop. She hopes they experience the interconnection of the videos, the spaces, and Moran's paintings and photographs.

"There's this really beautiful, dense relationship I think you get a sense of — this constellation of relations, as I like to think about it," she said.

There will be more live music in the gallery during the exhibition. Moran will perform a piece commissioned by the Walker called "The Last Jazz Fest" on May 18 and 19. He admitted the title is tongue-in-cheek, but he also hopes it helps people appreciate the complicated history and value of the music he loves.

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