March 7, 2018 – Acclaimed jazz pianist Jason Moran, Georgetown’s Distinguished Artist-in-Residence, and one of his close friends and artistic collaborators, renowned poet Elizabeth Alexander, explored the influence of local radio on their work at a recent event on campus.
Moran, a MacArthur fellowship recipient, is the artistic director of jazz at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
He has produced numerous albums and six film soundtracks, including scores for Ava DuVernay’s films Selma and 13th. Alexander, the author of six books of poems and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, composed and read her “Praise Song for the Day” at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Sounds of Cities
Both artists also explored the influence of place at the Feb. 28 event in Davis Performing Arts Center, citing the impact of local radio in helping define their respective sounds as artists, whether in prose or song.
Growing up in Houston, Moran listened to a local radio station that featured jazz Monday through Thursday, blues on Fridays, hip hop and reggae on Saturday and gospel on Sundays.
“If you listened to the station long enough, you would get a grasp on what you needed to hear … and realize [artists] sound a lot of different ways,” Moran explained. “We don’t all just holler. We don’t all just bend notes. We do all kinds of things. We don’t all just make dance music.”
Alexander, recently appointed president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest U.S. funder in the arts and humanities, was born in Harlem and grew up in D.C.
“Thinking about the sound of the city … when I would hear music with a certain kind of groove, and I would start to get into it,“ said Alexander, who serves as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. “And I feel that there is a part of my practice that is trying to bottle that sound and put it in a poem … Words carry meaning, obviously, but also you’re trying to make music with that poem. You’re trying to structure a thing that inherently has music in it. And if you’re successful, … you have to have a groove in that poem.”
Alexander cited local Washington influences such as longtime jazz radio DJ Felix Grant, known for his work at WMAL and his extensive jazz collection and archives housed at WUDC; WHUR’s Melvin Lindsey; and WPFW DJ Jerry Washington, whose “The ‘Bama Hour” show highlighted what she described as “the talking sound of black folks” through storytelling.
The poet talked about the joys of found sounds, and read aloud “Talk Radio DC,” a small poem she had serendipitously discovered while listening to Washington’s midday Saturday show on WPFW.
Moran and Alexander performed “Blessing the Boats,” featuring a Lucille Clifton poem which Moran’s wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, had set to music. Alexander also read her poem “One Week Later in the Strange” while Moran played.
Light of the World
The evening culminated in an emotional reading from The Light of the World, Alexander’s 2015 memoir that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times called the book “a meditative and elegiac account of meeting and losing her husband and great love.”
“Jason himself and his music appeared in this,” she explained. “This became an occasion for me to remember … being in this space with one loved and lost.”
Georgetown history professor Maurice Jackson introduced Moran and Alexander during the Wednesday evening event.
Moran has contributed a foreword to a new book, DC Jazz: Stories of Jazz Music in Washington, DC, edited by Jackson and Blair A. Ruble, to be published by Georgetown University Press in April.
Following a Q&A session with the artists, Jackson announced Moran’s next campus event as Distinguished Artist-in-Residence will be during an April 4 service and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.