Interview with Jason Moran
We all know the music that’s supposed to accompany Hollywood depictions of history, let alone the real-life, freedom-fighting icons whose charisma transcends any imagined depiction of them. For whether they’re Michael Collins leading Irish guerillas, William Wallace swinging a sword for Scotland or Mahatma Gandhi traversing India with a walking stick, audiences know they’ll hear the lofty noble strains of a symphonic orchestra – as mixed in with melodic ethnicity if the subject allows. Indeed, there’s nothing like a symphony to stoke the fires of justice, whether lit with cries of violence, or asking for the complete restraint of it in the face of those who’d do grievous harm to the righteous.
In the civilly disobedient musical case of Martin Luther King Jr. the impact of “Selma’s” score comes from its subtlety of meeting racist fury with soft dignity, as the jazz, soul and spiritual rhythms of an oppressed black nation join hands with a measured symphonic approach, especially when detailing the movement’s effect on a troubled marriage through soft strings and piano. Yet this is also a soundtrack that truly knows when to raise its emotional fist to shattering orchestral effect – both in getting across King’s still unmet call for racial equality, as well as announcing an impressive new voice on the major scoring scene.
As heard in an astonishing Hollywood debut by Jason Moran, “Selma” mixes the inspirationally expected with equal innovation, from paranoid electronics to the handclap percussion of police beat-downs. It’s an unstoppable sense of history making that could perhaps only be captured by a musician so steeped in jazz and its cultural heritage. Hailing from Houston with his craft learned in Manhattan’s jazz-infused stomping grounds, Jason Moran gigged with such musicians as Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell, notching several releases with Blue Note records in the process. Also well established in the academic and cultural worlds as a teacher at the New England Conservatory and as the Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center, Moran only had a few documentaries to his credits before his music caught the ear of “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernary (“Scandal,” “Middle of Nowhere”). Now Moran and DuVarnay are marching to the recent tune of Golden Globe nominations for Best Film, Director, Actor and Song for “Glory” (performed by Common, who also appears in the picture), For Moran, there’s nothing more moving than walking in scoring lock-step with picture that re-creates a lightning rod moment in history – one that’s never been more pertinent than now, especially when it comes to marching to the beat of music as quiet, and bold as its leader.
When you hear a score as good as “Selma” from a composer who’s completely unknown, the first question is usually “Who is this guy?” What would you say to someone asking that?
Well, he’s a jazz pianist and composer, who plays around the world giving concerts in creative venues, in world art, and jazz festivals worldwide. And he wants to be like Duke Ellington!
How did you end up getting the gig?
I’m a close friend of Bradford Young, who’s the cinematographer of “Selma.” As they were nearing the end of their shooting, the director Ava DuVernay was asking around about who could do the score. So Bradford just said to “Call Jason.” Ava’s response was “Jason who?” But we started having conversations on the phone in the spring and early summer, and we formed a close relationship through conversations about our intentions as young artists, especially related to history. That ‘s a big part of what I do as a jazz musician. It’s really kind of how to re-conceptualize history and make it somehow resonate in today’s society. I’m dedicated to that craft of looking back, in order to expose something for the future. So we found a common language that way, which made it a real joy to work with Ava on this. What did Martin Luther King Jr. mean to you before you even became a musician?
Jazz and activism are so integral to each other, whether we think about the music of Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, the music of the vaudeville performer Burt Williams in the early 1900′s, or the music of Paul Robeson. That link, that defiance, that comes out of the origins of jazz and blues are what we know of black music in American. It has that kind of tension and history built in to it, a process of exploring sounds from James Brown to today’s artists like John Legend and Common, who perform “Selma’s” end song “Glory.” So when I study jazz, I don’t just study just the music. I study its relationship where it was in the history. “Selma” is set in the 60s, when John Coltrane was about to make his most profound work “A Love Supreme,” which is about the the way he felt about the things that were happening with the civil rights movement, as well as the four girls who were bombed in a church. John made a piece about that, so our relationship to each other has always been extremely close. It’s daunting to think about that, but it’s also how I’ve been working for my entire life as a creative artist. What were the challenges of going from jazz to doing a major orchestral score?
The challenge is just not knowing. So I always want to work with someone who knows how deep the water is, to show where it is I need to be heading. Ava and I had lots of discussions about where we wanted to go with the score. She really wanted to have an orchestral score, as this is her biggest film, so we moved in that direction of her big films. As we developed it more, the orchestrator Matthias Gohl (“The Red Violin”) came in to calm me down, and helped me through the process, especially because he has more experience in these situations. It was helpful to have someone like that help discuss the terror that I had as to where we were heading. I was both excited and nervous about the prospect, because I had no idea of what the finished product would sound like. I had the feeling of it, but I didn’t have the full idea in my head.
What I really liked about the score is just how subtle it is. Was it difficult taking that route with such a towering figure as Martin Luther King Jr., who isn’t exactly painted as a saint here.
When I scored documentaries, my first response would be to tell the director that their movies didn’t need a score! I was always very nervous about adding music. A score can be of help, but it can also really strong-arm a theme. I didn’t want to necessarily do that here. I spent the last ten years working with a great performance artist Joan Jonas, who has worked with video, painting, drawing, movement and costumes. We’d do these performances together (and still do it now), and she’s been very helpful in teaching me the process of how to expose a narrative through sound and text. So entering this kind of phase with Ava was similar. On “Selma,” I was trying to give a just a little, because my habit as a jazz player is to actually give you a lot (laughs)! But I had to resist the temptation, because the score needs to be “felt” more than “heard.” I was thinking of how the music would get us from place to place, and how it would help the audience breathe? And sometimes it needed to be big, to put us on a boat and take us across this bridge to arrive at Martin Luther King’s final speech. This is the first film to deal with the tension of his marriage to Coretta. How did you want to play their relationship, especially when it came to the rumors of his womanizing?
As a married man and father of two children, I can say that anybody who marries understands that any marriage is complicated. It has highs and lows. At most times it’s unresolved until the people pass away. Martin and Coretta ‘s marriage functions in “Selma” to address that state of complexity. There are a couple of scenes where they are together, and the music there is extremely “simple.” I think the way their actors David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo portrayed the relationship in a way that was so full of emotion that their scenes didn’t need much music. For years I’ve done these pieces where I played around pre-recorded voices, whether the language was Turkish, Mandarin or English. It taught me how I could “map” the directions of speech patterns, or how music could function with them. It also encompassed their breaths, and the tone of the room they were in. It was almost like playing the room they were in, rather than what they were saying. Ava and I worked hard to figure out the interplay between music and dialogue in “Selma” so we could get the sound just right. Another thing that impressed me about “Selma’s” score was how you subtly incorporated a traditional scoring approach with African-American music, whether it was jazz, the blues or spiritual anthems.
One of the first things Ava and I talked about was where would that rural music comes into conflict with the urban tunes. That let the tambourine become one of the instruments in the score. There are so many cultures around the world, and the tambourine is something that anybody can beat their hand to, and have this rattle attached to it. The blues is a major part of southern culture, as is spiritual music. Both use that kind of percussion. I wanted to kind of have that relation between blues and Gospel music to get the idea across of the “sacred” versus the “secular,” which also represents Martin Luther King Jr. As that kind of combination has also been a big part of my music, I was happy to find places in the score where both styles could work together.
There are also cool, far more modern sampling effects in the score that create a surreal feeling at points. I worked with a great guitarist named Marvin Sewell, whom I’ve been collaboration with for many years. As I was getting some of the themes together, we sat down and it just worked out beautifully. We weren’t worrying about the score sounding too “modern,” as Ava also wasn’t trying to perfectly recreate history. She just wanted to tell the history. Your score finally gets bigger in a more traditionally epic way when King’s marchers confront the cops at the bridge. How did you judge when to let loose your own big orchestral guns? When Ava said we were going to use source music for the bridge sequence, my reaction was, “Oh, good, because that was going to be a doozy!” But then she said, “Nah, we need a score here.” I was like, “Ah… ok.” A lot of my process kind of falls out of my relationship to the piano. As an improviser especially, I’m also recording myself, which is how I learned to write – to think about musical mood and how to develop it. So as we were working on that long sequence, Ava saw how the music needed to be broken down into three parts. There was the initial piece on the bridge, the conversation that happens on the bridge between the marchers, and then the confrontation with the police. Up to that moment where the police charge the marchers, it was how to look at that tension and how to represent the feeling of the police. Then there’s the tension within the marchers, who are aiming to march confidently across the bridge for what could be a long journey. But first they’ve got to see what’s on the other side. And it turns out to be pure terror. So it took us a long time to figure out what was the right mood for the sequence. We would get one part right, and then the other two would be wrong. It just took a while to figure out how to make it all work. I’m thrilled when people experience that theme there, and how the music tells you the whole story. The percussion of the marchers’ feet is also a wonderful thing to imagine, even though you don’t necessarily hear them entering the bridge.
The other big score moment of course is Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech. How did you want to accompany such meaningful, and moving words?
This was the first cue that I wrote. And I would cry every time as I was watching it and listening to my music. I called Ava to tell her that I was crying for an hour watching this speech. She said, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Look, I’m going to send you my music, because sometimes you can cry for the wrong reasons! (laughs) But I was actually crying for the right reasons. Ave called me back with “I don’t know how you did it. But THAT’S IT!” It was a really good thing that had happened, because I hadn’t really thought about the rest of the film yet. I just knew how I felt about the end of it, because we know how his life ends after that speech. And we know where we are today. So the speech just seemed to be the most current part of the film for me. It was a really heavy moment each time I saw that cue come up. It’s shocking how relevant “Selma” is right to this minute. You realize how far black people have come since those days. But yet they really haven’t come that far at all.
“Selma” is a real comment on the relationships that rule the country, and how we relate to each other. There’s an indictment it imposes on all of us, the moment where King is giving a eulogy for the child that was murdered. He kind of indicts everybody, the people who aren’t a part of the marches. He indicts the clergy when he says, “Come on y’all. You see this is a problem for people.” This film will hopefully serve as a template to show how the community that was around Martin Luther King Jr., and what we have to do now to move forward and progress. Not to just change laws, but to change peoples’ attitudes. If a viewer decides to join the marches against injustice after hearing your music with the incredibly powerful music and images of “Selma,” will you think you’ve done your job?
Yeah. I think even people who are out there now are becoming aware of the film. Ava and Common took the film out to Ferguson and screened it down there last week. So “Selma” is becoming part of the community. They showed it last night in Boston to the mayor and the governor, and it’s now already part of their conversation. Cities are starting to find a way to discuss this film. Unfortunately, it seems that one of the biggest racist institutions is Hollywood itself, especially when so many black composers now get pigeonholed into only doing “black” films. How do you hope to avoid that, especially as you’re just starting out in the big leagues?
I’ve always been a functioning musician who has tried to defy pigeonholes. I’m very interested in stories, and narrative, which has always been in my strategy, with or without Hollywood. I’m an artistic director at the Kennedy Center for Jazz. With this film I was just trying to be subtle, if not splashy at all – which is the way I go about all of my music. I don’t have any particular goals, just to make it all work. I try to enable those around me to have a bold vision, to make them hear what it takes to really make an effective change, There’s a scoring world you know, a directing world, a gender world, so many spaces to have a discussion about. The hole is always big but I feel like I have the option to lower the ladder into that hole, and to help myself climbing out of it as well.
“Selma” opens on Christmas Day (A special thanks to Alexander Portillo for his interview transcription)