Interview with Jason Moran

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)

“SELMA” the Film and the Actualities by David Henderson

“SELMA” the Film and Actualities.  by David Henderson 20feb15

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who followed in the footsteps of Gandhi in bringing civil rights to a people, and in some ways went even further than Gandhi, is a towering figure in the recent history of the United States. For that matter, he ranks highly throughout the entire Western world, and perhaps everywhere on planet earth. His public denunciation of the Vietnam War contributed to the war’s end, but—coupled with his support for the striking sanitation workers of Memphis and his protestations of the larger issue of widespread poverty—it also resulted in a diminution of his popularity and a certain disfavor promoted by the corporate-controlled press, and it may have contributed to his untimely and mysterious assassination.  

His widow, Coretta Scott King, his children, and the famous entertainer Stevie Wonder combined forces with a broad swath of an approving public and fostered a public holiday in his name that became a reality in the late twentieth century. Now, in 2015, a new film, Selma, is based on one of his most important achievements: his leadership role in attaining the Voting Rights Act. He coordinated a protest that would bring together various civil rights organizations, church and religious groups, entertainers, and professional organizations, along with a public from all over the United States and countries across the world to march in Selma with the ordinary citizens of that small Southern town. These people endured great brutality in the hands of local Alabama police and state troopers in order to complete their march to the state capital in Montgomery to protest before the State House their inability to vote. 

On March 7, 1965, with a few hundred locals, Dr. King formulated a strategy that resulted in thousands of supporters joining the locals and, despite the murder of some, would result in a successful march to Montgomery over a two-week period. The number of marchers swelled from 5,000 to 25,000, and they arrived in triumph to hear the speech by Dr. King that announced the Voting Rights Act that would become law in a few weeks—a verification of democracy that inspired the world.

Selma, a motion picture put together by Pathé UK, along with several other companies including Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo, (those two personalities also became producers ),  was released during the Christmas holiday season, in time to qualify for participation in the Academy Awards of the Motion Picture Association of America. The film continued in theaters through the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 19, 2015. 

 The engineered mass resistance to the police repression of today recalls those civil rights days that are so essential to Dr. King’s legacy. Selma was one of those moments in history monumental to its time. This story, this civil rights triumph, could be told in any number of ways under any circumstances (from person to person or as a Roots-like television miniseries) and be compelling. Regardless of actors or scenery or vintage cars, one simply cannot go wrong with this high point in the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

The greatest actors in Selma are the marchers, the crowds, the representation of that motley crew who marched through Alabama being brutalized and stressed on every level. Toward the end of the film, shots of those marchers dissolve into footage of vintage film of the original marchers, the technique making it possible for the footage of Selma to have the same vintage quality and adding an aura of verisimilitude.

On the other hand, to portray such a central figure in the history of Black America with an actor who is so far outside the culture is not only as close as one can get to cultural criminality, it also points to serious deficiencies of effectiveness within the film industry in Black America. It is also unfair to the careers of all the actors involved, from principals to supporting, because it involves them in distortions of history that extend from casting to a broad set of problems that range from calling it a biopic to a juggling of facts.

An African playing MLK could possibly be a descendant of those Africans who sold their own people centuries ago, now often called African Americans. Now an African plays our present-day Moses, however with no passion or understanding of the Black American spirit or the ways of being with one another. We are mocked in our beliefs of the time—that the system, the vote, would save us. 

Selma begins just after MLK received his Nobel Prize in Oslo, Norway. Cut to the White House USA, where Dr. King is in the presence of President Lyndon Johnson, who congratulates him on that honorable achievement. But King wants the disenfranchised Blacks of the South to be able to vote. This harks back to the moment when Black Americans won their freedom via the Civil War, where they picked up guns and defeated the Confederacy. But after a few years of Reconstruction, where Blacks had been elected to public office all across America and often enjoyed the liberties of freedom that had been only dreams for centuries, a white racist government/corporate gentlemen’s agreement reversed that situation. The resultant Jim Crow system of institutionalized racism continued on unabated until the time in history symbolized by Selma. There, the struggle amid violent repression would culminate in MLK’s speech on the Voting Rights Act. As many believed then and continue to believe, the vote would bring true power to Black Americans. It is sadly ironic that today, with the election of a Black president, it has become clear that a basic lesson of democracy has been learned after so long and at such a great cost. 

Be that as it may, the present times are reminiscent of Selma, but now masses from different backgrounds are marching to protest police brutality and the murder of unarmed Blacks, just as in the Old South the Civil Rights Movement was inspired in large part by the lynching of Black men and boys. 

The principal actors, David Oyelowo as MLK, and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, however, pall next to the character actors who played the various SCLC and SNCC personages. Those Africans who play the central characters were trained in London. They are surrounded by Black Americans who know the public code of comradery that is an important aspect of Black American culture. Oyelowo’s King comes off as absolutely cold. He does not have an aura of greatness, nor that playful modesty and majesty MLK was known for. Seeming more like a clerk or a small-town businessman, Oyelowo says his lines, but the rigor of Southern speech, not only in intonation but in emphasis and dialect, is beyond him. And the paraphrased speeches—as the King estate forbade verbatim quotations—lacked even further emphasis that was intrinsic to the soaring rhetoric and phrasemaking King was famous for. The writer could perhaps have spent more time on those speeches, as they were in essence the hallmark of King’s connection with the public and the essential inspiration to his close followers. This aloof impersonation of MLK was contrasted by his screen wife, whose characterization was far from the staid and true Coretta. Nowhere near a mother figure, she was more like a high-priced model or perhaps an au pair, and the children had no lines at all, no screen time with either parent

Oyelowo is also outdone by fellow British subjects who are Caucasian: Tom Wilkinson, who plays President Johnson, and, although not in a scene together with MLK, Tim Roth, who plays Alabama Governor George Wallace. He is electric, totally believable, and an excellent foil for Wilkinson. 

Dylan Baker, the actor portraying FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, was a bit of a paradox and may as well have been portrayed by another actor representing the Crown, such as someone resembling the late Bob Hoskins. Baker had fairly brief screen time, but appeared to be a tall, and rather fair-skinned WASP, far from the real-life diminutive, dark, and somewhat rotund Hoover. The collaboration with President Johnson is played in a straightforward manner. There should be no doubt about their complicityThe publicity-inspired outcry over the imagined unfair characterization of President Johnson would have us believe that a former cabinet official would know all the doings of the chief executive, and that all that President Johnson said was the absolute truth – as if a Robert Caro did not go to the trouble to write several volumes on his vagaries and victories.                                          

There is a scene where King and Coretta sit listening to a threatening telephone message that ends with a purported recording of the sound effects of King having sex with another woman. That the tape could be a fake or an audio production based on or not based on a real happenstance is not considered. The act of bugging the King telephone was obviously one of the psychological techniques that would increase the anxiety, blood pressure, and stress of the entire family.

White typed letters across the screen throughout the film contain brief messages indicating close surveillance by the FBI and/or other intelligence agencies. Unlike subtitles, these are placed midscreen, superimposed over continuing footage.

The costars of this film are the many character actors whose ensemble performances create an essential supportive emotional landscape. It is too bad that none of the actors representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee have enough screen time to qualify for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. 

The continuous presence of Oprah Winfrey, the workaday, middle-aged woman who marches and gets beaten up several time—so it seems--- is problematic. That character seems to be straight out of The Color Purple, a role she played  in the early days of her film life. She is much too well known to be a bit player with a few lines but plenty of screen time. And since she is an executive producer and her production company has its logo displayed in the closing credits, one wonders whether her financial support was connected to her “face” time.

For real fact-checking concerning Selma and the legacy of Dr. King, one could start with the Pacifica Foundation radio documentary recorded in Selma during the days of the marches. The license the makers of Selma believe they have gives rise to interpretations that can range from casting gaffs to historical distortion. One thing that saves the day is that the manipulation necessary in order to squeeze reality into two hours of screen time cannot change the actuality, the power of what happened. It might have been best for the director, Ava DuVernay, to insist on historical accuracy and thus build the drama accordingly. Whatever— Selma is in the can and will be available as is, for (probably) ever. 


Pacifica Foundation’s  90 minute documentary The Second Battle of Selma  Pacifica foundation      1-800-735-7230   

The first battle of Selma took place on March 7, 1965, with the bloody conclusion. The second battle went from March 9 to 24, culminating in the march from Selma to Montgomery. This documentary features recordings from those marches and recordings of MLK, James Forman, James Bevel, etc., including a plainspoken woman near the end of the documentary who was quite articulate. 

One of the important points of this radio documentary is that the second march, on March 9, was halted by King as a result of an agreement between him and city, state, and federal officials. This was not known to SNCC’s James Forman or the others in SNCC. Forman made a speech that made it obvious that he did not know. The film gives the impression that the halt and then retreat was  owing to some seemingly mystical intuition on Dr. King’s part.  Perhaps that halt avoided injuries, saved lives, and built dramatic tension that made the concessions necessary to ensure the Voting Rights Act. That happens to be the way it turned out, thank goodness.                                   

P. S.  Despite my complaints seemingly to the contrary, I believe that Ava DuVernay did an admirable job as a rookie major motion picture director. I strongly disagree with her belief that she has the right to slightly alter history for dramatic purposes, but she does not hedge her point of view. The soundtrack, of Selma is nothing short of wonderful, led by the Common and John Legend’s collaboration on the goose-bumpy ”Glory” – with a rap from Common that says it’s all good—with Legend’s soaring vocal somehow paralleling MLK’s oratory magic. The late, great Curtis Mayfield holds down the center with his long-underrated “Keep On Pushin’” that came out as a top-40 R&B hit of the time, inspiring many youths in the Movement across the country. And the brilliant jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran holds down the bottom with a viable semi-symphonic soundtrack that perfectly and often beautifully conveys the high points of dramatic intensity without intruding on the emotion. I believe Selma should win both categories of the Academy Awards for which it is nominated – best film and best song. Although Selma may not be a great film, the power of the history it portrays dominates the category, and the truth it does convey, fused with its wonderful music, makes it a film that despite its contradictions, will grow in acceptance. 

Copyright David Henderson 2015