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Monk lives in Moran's Mind

Duke Performances' Following Monk series doesn't wrap up until Barry Harris' solo piano concert Sunday, but it's fair to say that the world premiere of Jason Moran's In My Mind Saturday is the climax of the series.

Moran, artist-in-residence for the festival, has composed an original work that draws on Thelonious Monk's legendary 1959 concert at New York City's Town Hall, sampled music and original materials from the Jazz Loft Project-a Center for Documentary Studies project drawing on audio recordings and photographs from the loft of photographer W. Eugene Smith, which was a major hangout for jazzmen including Monk.

After the show, which will be played by a eight-piece band, premieres this weekend, it moves on to some of the more prestigious venues in the nation-the Washington Performing Arts Society, Symphony Hall in Chicago and SFJAZZ in San Francisco. The piece was commissioned by the University along with the presenters of those concerts.

For Moran, it's a personal project-although no jazz pianist can escape Monk's shadow, the 31-year-old Moran says Monk is the reason he's a jazz musician. No mere imitator, he has gained acclaim as one of the best young artists in jazz, and he stole the show at a September appearance with three former Monk sidemen. Moran spoke with recess' David Graham prior to that concert about In My Mind, why he loves Monk, how he came to love Monk and what he's doing to make sure other young musicians hear Monk prior to that concert.

How did you first discover Monk?

My father has a pretty extensive record collection and when I was 13, there was a friend of the family who passed away and my parents were in their room listening to music. This person was a public figure in Texas, this person was Mickey Leland. While they were watching the news, the music they were playing was Thelonious Monk playing "'Round Midnight," solo piano. I just remember hearing it and being struck by it. It changed my life. It made me want to play piano.

For a lot of people, Monk is hard to understand or get into. Was it not like that for you?

I think it's only challenging if you try to compare it to something else, and I didn't have anything to compare it to. Monk is the standard by which I measure all other pianists, so Oscar Peterson is "too outside" for me. Monk is inside for me.

It was also right before the time that Clint Eastwood's Straight No Chaser came out. There's very little footage of Monk being Monk. For me as a young pianist it was [great] being able to see him being himself. Jazz musicians aren't really covered that way.

It's very easy [to follow] because the only reason I'm playing jazz piano is because of him. Just last week I was playing at the Blue Note someone said, "Thelonious who?" It's always there with me. It's part of "In My Mind" because this person shifted my focus. If there is a person who has changed my life besides my parents, it just might be Thelonious Monk. What I might take the most is that through his music you get a vision of what his lifestyle is, and for me as a young musician that's what I'm trying to do-not in the Kanye West way, but in an artistic way.

Can you talk about the In My Mind project you're premiering here?

That kind of gives you a clue as to where we're coming from. We're really looking at this 1959 Town Hall concert kind of as an investigation, so that's the way I feel about the music. The great way of thinking about this is that at Duke in your [Center for Documentary Studies] is the W. Eugene Smith archives. It's to share those really specific visions. I think Monk is often given a thing where he's almost like off-the-cuff all the time, but he's very specific about what his hands do. That's shocking, and that's where you see how he's such a genius, that he's not just making it up. Social context creates changes in sound. I'm trying to really make a long loop.

Duke University isn't known as a hotbed of jazz, nor is North Carolina. What does it mean that you're doing this premier at Duke?

Apparently Monk only came back to North Carolina one time to perform. The history of jazz in the South-many great musicians came from the south, but they left the South. I think it's scary in the South still. I love the South, but it's shocking what happened.

This is unfair, but I was asking [pianist] Billy Taylor about inequality in America and whether he was aware of this when he moved to New York City in the 1940s, and he was saying, "We knew that was there and we knew not to really act the fool. Black musicians from the North thought they could be walking around free." That's something that says something about Monk's decision not to play in the South, very consciously. The music almost needs to go to the South not only to heal itself but-how dare I say it-to heal the residents.

So how did In My Mind come about?

The original idea came from SFJAZZ [the organization that presents the San Francisco Jazz Festival]. They wanted me to play the Town Hall concert as is. As flattered as I was by the invitation, I wrote back and said, well that's a boring idea. For a person like Monk and as much as this means to me, I'd like to do something much larger, a multimedia piece that really looks at what Monk's legacy is. They said, oh, that sounds good. Then there was a long collaboration with CDS. That was where it started.

The thing I'm worried about is most of this material has never been actually opened to the public to listen to. This might be one of the first times we are hearing this tape, and so it's how to use it tastefully and not to overuse it. I don't think people will really get bored listening to Monk. I've chosen certain segments that I'm going to use; there's a lot of dialogue between him and the arranger Hall Overton.

Do you think Monk can remain vital, even 90 years after his birth and 25 years after this death?

I hope so. Most of all I think his music stands for himself and for itself. He's an unbelievable pianist. I do think he might be becoming forgotten. I'm teaching at Manahattan School of Music, and many of my students seem to have forgotten who Monk is.

I'm always reminding people who Monk is. It's rare to find musicians who say, "This is my reason for living," so I'm hoping that with this show I can get out my demons. This was almost like therapy for me to feel like I'm working with him. In June we played the original concert with T.S. Monk [Thelonious' son]. It was the first night that I had played straight-up Monk music all night, one show. It was like a religious experience, like a revival, like something had reawakened in me. It was something I'd never really experienced before.

Jason Moran's In My Mind will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday night in Page Auditorium. Tickets are $5 for Duke students, $11-19 for others.


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