Jason Moran Plays Thelonious Monk's Town Hall Concert

Jason Moran leads an expanded version of his band at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (NPR)
Jason Moran leads an expanded version of his band at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (NPR)

"Thelonious Monk is the most important musician, period," Jason Moran says. He laughs out loud. "In all the world. Period!"

Moran is in a dressing room deep within the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where he's the artistic director for jazz. He's not really wearing that hat at the moment, though. He's talking as a musician himself — and very personally, at that.

"OK, in my world, he is the most important musician," Moran says. He clarifies: Thelonious Monk was his chief inspiration as a 13-year-old in Houston; Monk was the musician who made him want to be a pianist. "I heard Thelonious Monk in that time when everything about me was transitioning, and it was the thing I could grab on to and focus on through my teenage years that pulled me through that time of wondering about everything that a teenager wonders about."

He's still obsessed with the pianist and composer, as well he ought to be. Monk left such a strikingly distinct body of work and personal style that one could dig deep yet hardly scratch the surface.

A few years ago, Jason Moran developed a tribute concert to Monk. Moran being who he is, it was more than a simple tribute. First, he started at a particular concert held at New York City's Town Hall in 1959 — notable because it featured Thelonious Monk backed by a large ensemble which had rehearsed intently for the date. Then he kept digging. He found audio tapes and photographs from the rehearsals. ("It's how to learn Monk from Monk," Moran says.) He looked into Monk's personal history. And he assembled a new band to do much more than re-create the music from that evening: He wanted players to perform his original arrangements of those tunes, along with a video projection by David Dempewolf.

Jazz Night In America took in a recent performance of Jason Moran's In My Mind: Monk At Town Hall, 1959 at the Kennedy Center. Watch highlights from the concert in our video feature — and on the radio program, hear more music and learn more about Monk's original presentation.

Featuring Jason Moran (piano) with Ralph Alessi (trumpet), Frank Lacy (trombone), Bob Stewart (tuba), Walter Smith III (tenor saxophone), Logan Richardson (alto saxophone), Tarus Mateen (bass), Nasheet Waits (drums). Recorded March 28, 2015 at Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C.

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