Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, the college’s inaugural Presidential Scholar of the 2022-2023 academic year, hosted a series of events at the college from Sept. 19 to 23. Moran’s packed schedule included piano masterclasses and class visits, all leading up to a Friday night concert in Buckley Hall, a powerful tribute to early jazz and ragtime legend James Reese Europe.
A MacArthur Fellowship recipient, Moran has worked on the scores of various films, including “Selma” (2014) and “13th” (2016). He is also the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, and his music is featured in collections at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
Friday’s concert, titled “James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin,” was preceded by a discussion panel. In addition to Moran, the panel included Associate Professor of Black Studies and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies Khary Polk and Associate Professor of Music Jason Robinson. The conversation was thoughtful and poetic, as the trio examined the contributions of James Reese Europe in the context of Black music history, as well as Moran’s personal relationship to Europe’s work.
The discussion gave the audience an understanding of James Reese Europe’s character, as well as his impact on jazz. A prominent figure during the early days of jazz in the 1910s, Europe left a footprint on both the music of the time and the Black communities he belonged to. Moran explained that Europe’s insistence on pushing the envelope laid the groundwork for the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.
Europe’s service to his community was influenced by his teachers. During the panel and the concert, Moran alluded to the fact that Europe learned to play the violin from the grandson of Frederick Douglass. He explained that, partly as a result of this relationship, “[Europe was] not thinking about himself, because the people who taught him thought about the community all the time.”
At the height of his popularity, Europe joined the American military during World War I. He was a part of the 369th Infantry Regiment, one of the first predominantly African American regiments in the American Expeditionary Forces. The regiment would come to be known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Moran attributed Europe’s decision to join the military to his “willingness to search for the edge” and “to always be ready to sharpen [it].” Moran named his concert after this part of Europe’s life, perhaps because it exemplified his strong-willed character and tenacity.
Of course, Moran made sure to highlight Europe’s incredible musical talent in addition to his dedicated community work. In one memorable moment during the panel, Moran spontaneously turned around to sit at the piano behind him and played an astonishing rendition of Europe’s music. He felt that the piece demonstrated “the way harmony and friction need to live together before they resolve.”
Moran places an immense value on music history, the work of preceding generations, and creating musical institutions in the Black community: These tenets of his work are what spurred him to create a tribute to Europe. “Anytime I’m approaching anything, it’s not without an acknowledgement of past and future generations,” he noted. “It’s just impossible to not ever walk around and not see some sort of reflection of who I am or who I want to be.”
The panel also explored the idea of contextual performance and the notion that music does not exist in a vacuum, as Moran pondered the relationship of the musician to the audience. “Am I being mistreated to make this music?” he asked. “Or am I making music that mistreats people? All those things come up at once. And then when I step off the stage, how am I treated when I’m not in the light?”
During Europe’s era, Black musicians were invited to perform at nightclubs, but Black people were not allowed to enter the clubs as guests, a prime example of the tension Moran described. All of these dynamics, pushing and pulling against each other, come together to create music. Or, as Moran put it, “This is the sound of a society.”
As entertaining and informative as Moran was during this panel discussion, his performance, alongside a talented ensemble of other musicians, was even more impressive.
A mixed media delight for the senses, the concert began with the musicians playing outside of the hall, then slowly filing inside and walking onto the stage. A projector screen displayed a montage of grayscale images and footage. Among these were pictures of storm clouds over a dry field, an empty city street, portraits of members of the 369th infantry regiment, and, most notably, footage of Europe conducting the infantry band aboard a ship as it entered New York Harbor after the end of the war. The stage was minimally lit, with the exception of the piano, allowing the viewer to focus on the combined effect of the music and the footage. The top of the piano was removed, and the inside had lights that gave off a warm, orange glow. It was a perfect symbiosis between the music and the footage: both served as a backdrop for the other, without ever truly slipping into the background. It was a testament to Moran’s idea that music extends beyond the written notes, into the culture from which it was born.
The music itself also spoke to Europe’s experiences: at times celebratory, boastful, and jubilant, and at other times mournful, dignified, and poignant. The emotion on the stage was tangible. Through impassioned movements, Moran played the piano with his entire body. The booming tuba, the triumphant saxophone, the sharp trumpets, and the fervent drums that accompanied him multiplied this effect.
The last song of the concert was a piece that Moran wrote in honor of Europe. It was an emotional yet joyful, bereaved yet hopeful homage to Europe’s legacy. He asked the audience to hum the melody along, in a powerful testimonial to the community-oriented values that he shares with Europe. As the piece came to a close, the other musicians slowly stopped playing and surrounded the piano, Moran still playing. When Moran stopped playing, he stood, and the musicians joined hands as the humming stopped, a gesture of unity and respect for Europe’s legacy — the power he held as an individual who single-handedly transformed the music of his time, the courage he displayed as a Harlem Hellfighter, and the burden he bore as a Black musician in the early 20th century.