LifestyleJason Moran's 'Solo Ellington': Reimagining Duke's Legacy

Jason Moran’s ‘Solo Ellington’: Reimagining Duke’s Legacy

An exquisite view of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was presented through “Jason Moran — Solo Ellington,” held at the Kennedy Center on April 10.

Moran’s interpretation went beyond performing Ellington’s compositions in a solo piano concert. The audience felt Ellington against a backdrop of black-and-white photos taken by the legendary Gordon Parks. 

Fourteen Ellington compositions were included in this concert. 

The evening opened with “Reflections in D” (1953) and “I’ve Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good” (1941). 

Creating ‘Solo Ellington‘

Moran shared his thoughts on approaching his performance for the Kennedy Center’s Ellington 125 celebration.

“I’ve been thinking about Ellington for a while and kind of scared of how to play that,” said Moran in an exclusive interview with The Washington Informer. “I had seen images of Ellington online, and I could only imagine that there must be more images I had not seen.”

Jason Moran, artistic director for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, plays Duke Ellington compositions against a backdrop of Gordon Parks photos during “Jason Moran — Solo Ellington” at the Kennedy Center on April 10. (Courtesy of the Kennedy Center)
Moran wears many musical hats. In addition to being a pianist and composer, he is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center. Moran also teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music. 

As a meticulous researcher, Moran visited the Gordon Parks Foundation and selected 35 photo negatives to consider. He pared down that quantity until he figured out what to use. Working with filmmaker David Dempewolf who creates art installation videos, the process took approximately 10 days to complete. The audience saw an inspired mini biography about Ellington and his approach, resulting in a definitive catalog of American music.

Jazz historian, writer, and newly inducted 2024 Jazz Master Willard Jenkins noted the importance of Moran’s“Solo Ellington.”

“He’s an example of a university-trained musician,” Jenkins said. “Jason recognizes the visual element.”

Music and Photos Give a Beautiful Side of Ellington

There were photos of Ellington working with Billy Strayhorn, the pianist, composer, and arranger who collaborated on well-known Ellington classics “Satin Doll” (1957), “Something to Live For” (1939) and many others. “Take the A Train” (1939) is the collaborators’ classic song.

Jason Moran, artistic director for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, plays Duke Ellington compositions against backdrop of Gordon Parks photos during “Jason Moran — Solo Ellington” at the Kennedy Center on April 10. (Courtesy of the Kennedy Center)
Moran described Ellington and Strayhorn’s relationship as a true right and left brain merging. They were intensely serious about their work. 

There is a hilarious photo of Ellington in bed with a tray where he was eating four containers of ice cream. Another expanded view of the same photo also shows Strayhorn in the room. Moran suspected that Strayhorn was there pulling the reins on Ellington so they could get back to composing.

Another photo showed Ellington at a dining table, holding his head in his hands. The room was dimly lit, with a light over the table and a lamp nearby. Moran thought about what Ellington must have gone through when his mother died. “Melancholia” (1955) was the Ellington composition Moran performed when that image was on the screen.

“I think he was about in his early 30s.  I remember hearing about how his writing changed,” said Moran about Ellington. “There’s a transition that the artist goes through. They become a different person.”

“Jason Moran — Solo Ellington” was an inspired look at Ellington. A true genius, Moran made it happen with the cooperation of the Gordon Parks Foundation.

Source: Washington Informer

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