Regina de Heer: What do you think is America's number one musical contribution to the world?
Christina: Woodstock. They changed completely the way you do music and it was free and they could perform whatever they wanted.
Ethan: Beastie Boys, hip hop. Yes, Beastie Boys.
Phillipe: I'm from Chile, and I think you have talent all over the world, but America has artists from here, inspire artists from all over the world.
Jon: I would say Louis Armstrong.
Ronaldo: John Coltrane. Jazz saxophone, yes.
Kate: I'd say jazz music. In New York you can hear it on the street, hear the saxophone, or hear the trumpet. Everyone enjoys it.
Andrew: I love American music. It's really disparate music mixed. Complex structures from Europe, then from Africa, you had this incredible embodiment and rhythm and it created this incredibly gorgeous thing, and that's what the world has fallen in love with.
Kai: Happy holidays, everybody. I hope you've been blessed with at least some time off from your grind to spend with the people you love. That's what our team is doing this week. I'll take the chance to reshare one of my favorite episodes from earlier this year. It includes my own response to the question you just heard people answering. What's this country's greatest contribution to music? Jazz. It is a uniquely American art form, music created right here by Black people in America. It carries the sound of the Black experience.
That's an experience that is too often reduced to oppression and degradation or to our resilience in the face of such nastiness. Those things are true as far as they go. What about our ambitions and aspirations, the freedom we have claimed for ourselves over the generations? Those are the things you can hear in our jazz. I talked to composer, Jason Moran about those sounds earlier this year. Jason Moran is the artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. His incredible compositions have won him a MacArthur Genius award among other things, and he and I share a fascination with a remarkable moment in Black American history.
The turn of the 20th century, a generation of Black people with a frankly incomprehensible strain of optimism during what would actually become a terribly dark time in our people's history in this country. This generation, it was determined to do new stuff, including invent new music. Their ambitions even took them off to war over to Europe to fight for a freedom they did not enjoy at home, where they introduced the world to the music they had invented. Moran has studied this music and those musicians closely, and back in May we visited his studio to learn about their music.
Jason: Cool. Cool. I want to check one thing before we-- I just want to check my hand. [laughs]
Jason: I haven't played today.
Kai: Moran is particularly interested in composer, James Reese Europe, who at the height of his career, enlisted in the army and became the bandleader for New York's all-Black national guard unit, the 369th Regiment. That regiment made history as it fought on the front lines of World War I. They became known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Jason Moran, he is so passionate about their band that a few years ago, to mark the centennial of World War I, he toured all over Europe, playing a concert he wrote in their honor. James Reese Europe, you have called him the big bang of jazz.
Jason: Yes. I like him as the big bang of jazz because there's so much that he outputs in his short lifetime, that then become the strands that everybody can pick up. Louis Armstrong picks up the strand of what it means to be a soloist. Duke Ellington picks up the strand of what it means to embody a Black Sonic history, and then impart it to a Black orchestra, like making the big band a thing about Blackness. Also, there's the activism model, which is James Reese Europe trying to take care of African-American musicians offstage and the demands on the equality. Those things are all of the strands that we're still picking up today.
Maybe the most important one is him bringing the music outside of the county. Him, by virtue of World War I, bringing the music to France and then dropping this new idea on a population like, this is the possibility of the music.
Kai: Before he heads off to France, what was his music like pre-war? What was he playing?
Jason: He was called like the king of syncopation and what that means is there's ragtime music that exists before him, that he grows up in. This is mostly, people know Scott Joplin's music, then James Reese Europe comes along and says, "Okay, we can spread it out to further than just the piano. Let's spread it out to 60 people, 100 people, 160 people." He keeps envisioning something larger, [chuckles] but also, knowing that this is going to expire, there's something else that we have to tease out about how complex we are as people, and we have to seek the freedom of what we can't experience in person on this stage.
Kai: Give us a taste of that. What would the ragtime sound like, then where's he taking it?
Jason: I'll try. Because for all the Joplin knights, they'd be like, "Eh, that's not the right notes." [laughs]
Jason: Joplin is writing let's say The Entertainers, it's like.
Jason: I already added some Thelonious Monk and stuff in there.
Kai: [laughs] You just can't help [crosstalk]
Jason: I'm sorry. Yes, it's just my hand is not a robot, but what James Reese Europe does is there's a song called-- It's like.
Jason: He is moving it. Also, he's writing these songs with people too. That song was written with Chris Smith. He wrote many songs with Noble Sissle. He's also doing this model that Duke Ellington picks up when he writes with Billy Strayhorn, showing a compositional comradery saying, "No, this is a shared language. I don't need just my name on it."
Kai: He becomes the first Black jazz artist to play at Carnegie Hall too, right?
Jason: Yes, and that's before the war. Yes. He's not alone in this. There's many composers of that era who are trying to force this issue of a recognition about what we can demand on the stage that isn't bound into a flatness of Blackface, and he's trying to make sure that there's an understanding of this. His premiere is-- There's this frenzy of a crowd who can't get in to Carnegie Hall.
Kai: Yes, because they don't let Black people in.
Jason: No. It's sold out.
Jason: Black folks was in that audience that night too. In history, we sometimes also flatten the line. Oh, Black folk couldn't do X, meanwhile, Black folks were doing X. He's like, I don't know. What I say is he's so famous. He's like Kendrick Lamar. He's doing what he wants to do, then by the time the war happens, he envisions something much larger than he's experienced in his fame already, and he says, "No, there's something else to test in this music," and he looks for it.
Kai: He signs up for the-- New York's got this elite national Black guard, a unit of the national guard that's all Black, he joins as the war recruitment effort builds and he is given the job of creating a band for the unit.
Kai: Tell us about that. What was this band supposed to be doing? Part of it was recruitment, right?
Jason: Part of it is recruitment. Part of it is-- He initially also wants to sign up to fight. [chuckles] He doesn't necessarily want to go sign up to lead a band. Is that when they see that this famous musician signed up, they say, "Oh, you know what? We should have you lead a band." Then he gives him an astronomical number to say, "Well, if you want that, then it costs this much."
Kai: [laughs] Really?
Kai: I didn't know this. He charged them.
Jason: Yes, he charged them. [laughs]
Kai: You better get it James Reese Europe.
Jason: It's the equivalent of $250,000 today. He said it like, "You'll never pay that," and he went back to Noble Sissle who was his right arm and he told Noble Sissle, "I told them what it cost." Then the next day, Colonel Hayward wrote and was like, "Hey, we got the money from one guy, so let's get this happening." Then there's this thing that happens, which is James Reese Europe, he starts putting this band together and they also go play some of these songs in the neighborhood and say, "Look, we're here. We're going to go, and maybe you all can join us."
Kai: Now, understand this moment in American history. It's maybe a generation since reconstruction fell apart and the white backlash to emancipation set in. There's a heartening pseudoscience of race. This biological fiction of race which says Black people are genetically inferior and Black elites, they see the war as a chance to prove our excellence, to prove our right to full citizenship. There's genuine optimism about that possibility. People like W.E.B. Du Bois are really encouraging Black people to sign up and to fight and James Reese Europe wants to do his part as an artist.
Jason: It's that moment where we see how music and specifically, how black music is used to sew in ideas into a community. Ones of promise, ones of regret, dread, what the blues still means and listening to it across the country. James Reese, one of the songs he plays is one of these WC handy blues. When you go into a neighborhood and there they are, and you hear that music, which is also new revolutionary music. It's not old school music they're playing, they're playing the future music. It's like sunrise saying, [chuckles] come join the war. [laughs]
Kai: Come join the war. Can we hear some of that?
Jason: Let's see.
Kai: At that time, if I'm standing on a corner in Harlem and along comes them trying to get me to come join the army. What am I going to hear?
Jason: [laughs] It's like, [music]. It's like that song is a blues that keeps migrating. Part of what we learn about the blues or of the many things that we feel in the blues is there's always a root there. That's the thing about it. It never tries to hide where home is. That's what also makes blues so confrontational to listen to, is just interrogating the home, but in that song, that blues keeps modulating.
Kai: Say more about that. What do you mean? Help me understand that?
Jason: When I think about being from Texas, hearing the blues all when I'm growing up, hearing Lightnin' Hopkins who's from my neighborhood, what he sets in those songs and every blues musician has set is that it's a reflection about home. When I say home, in the music sense, that's the bottom note that will makes sense, no matter where the song goes. [music] Back home. It's a revolution that happens. That relationship to home is quintessential to also what James Reese Europe is introducing to the community to say, "I know I'm about to take all of you all back across the water, but we're going to play the music that's going to tell us where home is."
Kai: That's powerful.
Jason: It is. James Reese Europe knows that the blues are an important and an integral part of getting soldiers to sign up, so he takes the blues to the neighborhood and people sign up.
Kai: The armed forces, they were not into this at all. Even those who reluctantly embraced it, they wanted to maintain the segregated post-reconstruction society that was really still taking shape. White leadership took every opportunity to undermine and dehumanize these Black troops. For instance, when the 369th was sent to fight alongside the French, the Americans were so nervous about the deployment that they circulated a trick communique to French light officers written as though it was coming from their own commanders rather than from the Americans.
It warned that Black people were "a constant menace" and that Black troops should not be "spoiled". "We must not commend too highly, the Black American troops," it read, "especially in the presence of Americans." I often wonder about how soldiers like those in James Reese Europe's band processed all this nastiness as they were sent off to fight in somebody else's war.
Jason: There's this one image that I always love seeing is James Reese Europe actually standing in front of the Clef Club, there's his huge orchestra behind him. He's got this crate with the American flag draped on it, on the floor as if it's a coffin, but it's also where he stands when he conducts and I don't know, just in that image, you understand so much about what is at stake for them. This is before the war, but he's like, "Now, there's something about this," that in this image I think encapsulates the uneasiness of what they're now committing to.
Kai: I can never get past when I think about that moment and that era, the deep belief of so many Black people and so many of the individuals who were going to war, the optimism in the act that, "Oh, once we do this, then we'll be able to set America off on the right course. They'll start to understand that we're human beings." What I know from history about how naïve that optimism was, is heartbreaking.
Jason: It is heartbreaking. Then what is the possibility that each one who signs up for this war is looking for. I always think that what we constantly are given throughout history is examples of people that despite how the country is, they're like, "No, but that's not my promise. My promise sometimes live in this song. The promise is not given to me in this country as law. I have to imagine something else." Then what does it mean for soldiers to say, "Despite the country's ambivalence towards me, I'm going to show you actually what my promise is."
I'm also thinking mostly about them on the journey back across the ocean. That's what I'm thinking about. There's one account-- There's a couple of accounts, but one, Noble Sissle, James Reese Europe's right hand and he talks about that ride, and he talks about them having to be at the bottom of the ship with no lights on, playing these slow soft songs for each other back across this ocean. That sends me in chills.
This is what they're-- They're back in the tomb again. I also wind that up in this history, a possibility for people who are trying to make sure that they live up to what they have in their own minds despite what the country says is their limitation.
Kai: What's nice about this particular story is it's an example of the maxim, that the truth will always come out because James Reese Europe and the 369th blew the minds of the French. You know how throughout the 20th century, there was this odd cultural romance between the French and Black Americans, how Black intellectuals and artists would leave here and go live there, the French were obsessed with their work and jazz in particular, all that started when the 369th showed up to fight.
They arrive and amongst the things that happens is that James Reese Europe's band is sent to tour the front, as I understand it. That's the moment that the French are like, whoa, who is this? I don't care what them Americans said about these people, this is some other stuff. That tour, what music were they playing then? What is it? What would the French have heard that became so overwhelming to them?
Jason: The piece of music that blows their minds is the Marseillaise. James Reese Europe does a remix of their National Anthem, that when the audience is hearing it for the first time, they're like, "Well-- What is-- Okay, this is nice." Then they realize, "Oh, this band has done a remix of our own Anthem in a way that is like, how are they doing this?" So much so that they're overwhelmed that people are walking up to the instruments saying, "The trumpet doesn't really do that."
Jason: The saxophone, this must be a trick instrument that you all are making these kinds of sounds with these instruments. It's that imagination that it's different when you have a soloist like a Louis Armstrong, but now you have like 60, 70 people all at this extreme technique that is on display with also, this true understanding of like, no, this is what this music means.
Kai: It's worth noting by the way, that this tour also marks the beginning of a tradition that persists today. The average jazz band does way more touring in Europe than it does here in the US. The sound of that first tour, with that remix of the French National Anthem, it's lost to history.
Jason: No one can hear what he did with that song. There's just accounts-
Jason: -of what he did with the Anthem. It's like, let's say, when we heard Jimmy Hendricks play the Anthem. You're like, okay, that's quite an imagination on the song, but also, tells us what time it is. Also, part of what James Reese Europe had been doing for decades was teaching musicians how to get effects out of their instrument. Even the concert at Carnegie Hall, many of the musicians didn't read those charts he had. He taught them note by note. What we hear is-- We're seeing an invisible technique, a thing that's not written on the page.
When you listen to the one recording that we have from his celebration tour afterwards, you hear an embrasure in the brass musicians that is so impeccable that when I play it for musicians who are playing the charts today, they're like, "Oh yes, I can't really do that." I'm like, "No, but they were doing that back in 1918."
Kai: How come you can't do it now?
Kai: Say like, did we move forward?
Maybe what you're touching on is we're talking about a technique of our heritage and that technique does not always exist in a conservatory. That technique is passed down in the neighborhood. The sounds of the neighborhood, then are the things that impact the sound of how I phrase these four eighth notes. It's a certain rhythm that I feel on it because that's what my neighborhood sounds like.
Kai: It gets back to that home thing. We talk to cultural historian Saidiya Hartman, and she talked about Duke Ellington hearing the sounds and the shafts of the apartment buildings in Harlem, and that informed the cacophony that he would bring to his compositions. That's just such a beautiful idea that this bringing the actual lived Black experience into this music that became so definitive to the Black experience.
Jason: There's something about hurdling that idea that it's worth sharing with someone else. It's worth sharing the sounds from the air shaft with an audience. It's not just this thing that just lives behind my house. Or for Howlin' Wolf when he plays a song about the backyard dog. Like no, it's worth you hearing what a third war Houston dog sounds like that's on the street at twelve o'clock midnight. I should share that with you. What these soldiers are also saying is that you understand how our humanity actually is. With all of your lies [chuckles] that you've given us, this is where our humanity lies.
This is what we want to try to put on front street for you.
Kai: This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm talking with jazz pianist and composer, Jason Moran, about the legacy of James Reese Europe, and how Harlem's 369th Regiment changed everything about American music when they shipped out to fight in World War I. Stay with us.
Hey, everybody. I just want to take a second to say, thank you. You listening right now and all of you who listen to us every single week. Just thank you for spending time with us when, let's be real, there is so much out there to deal with, so much out there to listen to in the world right now, and you choose to spend time with us. Thank you for that and thanks not only for hanging out with us, but also talking to us. It's such a joy to hear from you, whether it's a voice memo, email, tweet, call on the live show, whatever it is, this is honestly, and truly what makes the work worth it.
Not just that I get to go meet smart people and bring them back to you, but also, that you, that you then get to feedback to me and tell us what's going on in your lives and from your corners of the world. Looking ahead, we're excited to start even more ways to be in conversation with you. Keep an eye out for that. Please, please, please, do just keep sending us those messages. Until then, on behalf of everyone at the United States of Anxiety, thank you and Happy New Year.
Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. This is the United States of Anxiety. We're off this week. Spending some time with family and friends. I hope you're doing the same. I'm taking the opportunity to reshare with you, a conversation I had earlier this year with jazz composer, Jason Moran. I'm often asked about my favorite interviews. This one, it's definitely one of them. He tells me the story of the band leader, James Reese Europe, and how during World War I, his band introduced the world to the sounds of Black American ambition and aspiration, and of the freedom we had claimed for ourselves. They revolutionized music and Moran says they even revolutionized the sound of a military memorial service.
Jason: One of the things that we hear from Noble Sissle is that when soldiers would not return from the battlefield, they would play the song Flee Like a Bird. It's this very somber--
Right. Like he's laying soldiers to rest, but also, he's playing songs for soldiers who are unsure if they're going to return from the battlefield. He's got something for their souls if they don't. You know what I mean? Earlier today, I was listening to someone talk about the need for the ceremony around the dead and in the current situation right now has been very difficult to have a ceremony for all that have passed away. When I think about James Reese Europe playing this song, he's also acknowledging that they won't get that ceremony. That body won't get that ceremony, the family won't get it back home. In this moment, let's alter the program to make sure that we give the ceremony to our brother.
Then the bridge of that song, when it migrates just for a second, to something brighter. I always think that that's really there, trying to let the soul go in that moment.
I wish we could hear a concert, like, how does he place it in order? You know what I mean? What song goes by the next song, right by the next song. Then where does he want to take us? When is the feature for the two drummers?
Kai: Because these would be concerts for troops, for soldiers and they would be listening. Where would he put the mournful March and where would he put the thing that would say, "We've got this?" What's an example of that. Did he do work that was like, you know what? This is also freedom. We are here about freedom.
Jason: [laughs] The song that was my first hook was a song that he was adapting called Russian Rag. It was called Russian Rag. It's big. It's like--
[music] Right? [laughs]
Jason: It's massive. That's the one thing. It's hard to understand now the scale of the sound. I just can't imagine you. Actually, the times I can actually imagine it is when we hear HBCU marching bands. When you hear that trombone section blasting, what they're capable of doing, that's the mass of sound that we should understand that this band is playing with a bravery that you hear, because you have to convince someone like we all--
Jason: You know what I mean? Yes. I'm going to convince you that this is a good idea.
Kai: Come out here and maybe get killed.
Jason: Yes. [laughs]
Kai: The regiment turns out to be, we should point out, it's the most decorated battle regiment in the whole of the war, and stood on the front 191 days, longer than any other regimen in all of the American or French army.
Jason: Yes, receiving the medal, the Croix de Guerre from France. [chuckles]
Kai: From France, none from the United States.
Jason: None from the United States.
Kai: France gave 170 members of the regiment, its version of a distinguished service medal. The Germans are actually the ones who dubbed them the Hellfighters, because of one particularly remarkable battle, but in the United States, their service went unrecognized.
Jason: Of the many burns, this is one of them. I think even to this day, people are rallying for an understanding of what the 369th really meant to the country. It's not what they meant to the war, it's what they meant to the country. The ideas that they are proposing about a kind of bravery and a kind of citizenship to a country that still is like, eh. It's that robbery which we still see on display day in the country that still worries me, about how we might minimize the valor of these soldiers.
Kai: You mentioned syncopation, that that's one of the things that he brought into the world for the French, the syncopation. I've heard you talk a lot about just it as a metaphor for the United States. First off, can you demonstrate what we mean by syncopation? Then tell us what that means to you, what it's a metaphor for.
Jason: I demonstrate playing something straight. I'm going to try to, at least.
I'm going to try to demonstrate playing something straight, then playing something syncopated. I'm going to try to keep the same phrase as I do it. This might be maybe something like this. [music] That's the straight version, but the syncopated version might be.
Everything [mimics piano sound] is getting there before the downbeat. What I say about syncopation is it's the anticipation. America moved too slow, so the rhythm is I'm going to have to get there sooner. It's just Black folks saying, [laughs] "I have to give you the idea that no, we need to move this along a little bit faster." Then by the time Louis Armstrong arrives 10 years later, then we hear it in full display. He's like, yes, no, I got what you mean, James Reece Europe. This is how this goes. We hear in the 19 teens, we hear syncopation really becoming the idea of the future, which then becomes the seed of what the Harlem Renaissance becomes too. The arts will always give us that first clue as to something that's about to happen.
Kai: Yes. I've also heard you talk about the solo in jazz, and what it means, and how we misunderstand it.
Jason: The power in the solo is the moment that you could say what you feel about this song right now. You like it? All right, let me hear that. You hate it? Let me hear that. You think it could sound better? All right, let me hear what you think. The thing is also, this is a moment where I say Black Americans are not like-- You can't just walk on the street and tell us what you think about everything. You can, but there are repercussions for it. From a white danger that is persistent, and in those solos, though we think they're obvious parts of jazz culture, politically, it's saying, no, I have a lot to say and you might not understand it either, and it's okay.
John Coltrane probably, for me, becomes maybe one of the best models of it in the 60s when he's playing a 28-minute saxophone solo. Coltrane is saying in that moment, I'm not finished. [laughs] h
Kai: You just have to listen. I'm not done.
Jason: I'm not done.
Kai: I'm not done.
Jason: I'm not done.
Kai: I think of James Reese Europe, and the idea of we're going to have a big band, we're going to be big. We're going to be overwhelming. This is ambition personified at a moment in Black history and Americans who are where Black people are saying, "No, look, we're going to prove to you how great we can be." Then by the time you get to Coltrane, you get to the '60s, it's shut up and listen, it's an individual saying, "You know what? I need to talk to you about something."
Jason: "I need to talk to you and my ideas, they might sound abrasive but look outside, it's abrasive to everyone in my community." You know what I mean. I remember hearing some students really listen to Interstellar Space by John Coltrane and say, "Oh, he sounds angry." I was like, "Do you know what year it is?"
Kai: [chuckles] Right.
Jason: Do you know what's happening to the Black folks? [chuckles] Come on. Do you know the kind of white terror that is just on display? Then what? We're supposed to just walk into a studio and make something sensitive that then disregards that this is happening out on the streets? No, we're incapable of doing that.
I'd say that one thing that gets pulled away from the music and conservatories is the activism model that existed in say a Max Roach, an Abbey Lincoln, a Nina Simone. It's not really firmly attached to the songs that we've learned to play. That part now, we must for the future of the music, understand the sacrifice these musicians really put out publicly. James Reese Europe becomes an emblem of that thinking, but also, he only made one record.
Kai: He died was is it three months after he got back from the war? He returns a hero and an international celebrity and died.
Jason: Yes. He's murdered during a concert in Boston at Mechanics Hall during the intermission. He was backstage greeting other musicians, the great singer, Roland Hayes comes to visit him during the intermission because it's James Reese Europe. People come see that. He's also there to do a dedication to Black soldiers the next morning in Boston for a statue, but he's stabbed by his drummer in an altercation during the intermission and stabbed in a way that he thinks, "I'll survive this neck wound." I think because he's seen the worst of wounds in the war. He's like, "Just continue the concert and we'll meet up tomorrow," and he doesn't live through the night.
There's one image of Duke Ellington standing at the grave of James Reese Europe, giving flowers. I think what Ellington sees in James Reese Europe is this expansive model. It's why Duke Ellington is known. He's a great pianist. He's one of my favorite pianists, but we really know him for having an orchestra. One of James Reese Europe's thing was like, "No, we should have orchestras. We should have Black American orchestras playing Black music the Black way." He says that.
Kai: Ellington brings that to life.
Jason: Ellington makes it like, I got you. There's just something about what that music means and what that story means, and that has also been quite absent in a jazz history that I'm really trying to also be a mouthpiece for.
Kai: I asked Jason where he thinks the music's at today, more than 100 years after James Reese Europe's big bang, and at another moment in which there's a new Black politic emerging.
Jason: I'd say one part is within jazz canon, there is an interrogation of the system itself. There is an interrogation of the misogyny in it, the deletion of the female in it, like these systems that are also controlled by a white patriarchy. Now, we're not only just looking at it out in that world, but let's look at it in our jazz cannon too. I think we're on the cusp of another Renaissance, just because history tells us this, that we've been locked up a year and a half. There's lots of minds who have now digested this without any fauna of, "It's all glorious." No, it's just isn't. I don't know.
I put out a record earlier this year called The Sound Will Tell You, and it was made in the past year and it was mostly slower music. I actually liked it because it actually acknowledged a darker sense of myself that I probably admitted it in doses on records before-
-but this one, I gave over to it because I think a lot of us were in that space. Also, for me, I love working with young musicians, trying to help empower them through a really dark time in history. That music, though it seems inconsequential, [chuckles] that it actually is a vitamin that people desperately need.
Kai: When we initially aired this conversation earlier this year, we didn't have enough time in the episode for all the incredible little gems that Jason Moran dropped for us in his studio that day. Now, as a year in holiday treat for everybody, we can offer a little bit from the cutting room floor. That's next.
Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. This week, we're revisiting one of my favorite interviews from the year, a conversation with jazz composer, Jason Moran, who is artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy center. As I said before the break, when we first aired this interview, we had to leave out some of the incredible tunes he played for us. I'm going to correct that omission right now. As we were finishing up the interview, Jason said he just could not let us leave his studio without illustrating a couple more examples of the brilliant music James Reese Europe invented.
Jason: I want to play two themes for you, just so you have them.
Kai: Yes, please.
Jason: One of them is based on a small section of this very weird song he played called Plantation Echoes, very strange odd medley of racist songs that he put into a song called Plantation Echoes. In the middle, there's just this gym of two bars of music that I couldn't help but obsess over. It sounds like this.
I feel like-
Jason: -he just plants it. He just slides just two bars. For me, it was like 2:00 in the morning listening to that, and it just jumped out like a bud in springtime. Like you're looking at this like stump, then all of a sudden, out comes this indigo. You know what I mean? It felt like [gasps]. It felt like that.
Kai: Try to describe for me the indigo that you're hearing. What is it in it that made you--
Jason: When you listen to this song, it's clipping along as if you're watching Birth of a Nation. Like, "Why are y'all playing this? Why are you showing this?" The song is just happening. It's fancy, but it's a fancy idealized racism, like perpetual plantation models all over the country. You hear it. It sounds like that. Then all of a sudden, it comes bursting through, [mimics trumpet sound] and it's like, "Wait, what is that?" Then he goes right to another song, like Dixie, some weird song like that. For me, it's like, wait, what did you just plant there?
Kai: What did you just plant?
Jason: He just plants it as any great composer. They don't even obsess about their brilliance. They're like, "Yes, whatever." [laughs]
Kai: What do you think he was trying to say?
Jason: I don't know.
Kai: Or is that the wrong thing to ask? [crosstalk]
Jason: I don't know what he was trying to say, but when I heard it, I was like, "That is the gold." It's almost that he places it in the transition, which even makes it more powerful. It's like the break beat. You get producers obsessing over record, finding some weird Ahmad Jamal record and listening to it and then they just hear just that sliver. then Premier or Pete Rock says, "I'm going to sample that for NAS." You know what I mean? [laughs]
When that moment happens, that's what James Reese Europe also plants in that music too, is like, no, these can have all kinds of flavors, but then I can introduce just for a second, something unbelievable, but just keep it moving.
Kai: I felt my chest opened. The emotion of it for me is-- Maybe it's because you gave that description of what it was surrounded by, but it felt like a swagger, like, you know what? You know what? I'm free of that. I'm free of that is what it felt like.
Jason: Yes. That's it. That's it. Maybe that's-- You help pull out the fact that maybe him slipping that in in the transition is like, no, that's the freedom model. Even in that little moment to get from section to section, in that transition is actually the freedom of it. It's actually what we hear.
When we hear Billie holiday 20 years later pulling at the rhythm of those songs, showing the flexibility of the model in a way that nobody had done before. It happened for the rest. In all great Black music, we hear the beauty and the transition. [laughs] Anyway, I wanted to make sure I played that for you all because that's my latest great treasure. I'm so happy about that. [laughs]
Kai: Thank you. You said you had two treasures.
Jason: Oh, yes.
Kai: Let me hear the other one. I'll do this again. We are your time. I'd pay a whole lot of money to sit with you.
Jason: This is a song-- I'm just going to play the intro to it. This is a song called All of No Man's Land is Ours. He writes this song when he is in the hospital. It was a song he had begin writing-- He had written songs on the battlefield. He also has the soldiers sometimes make the sounds of the battlefield. You hear rockets, you hear charging, what the war actually sounded like, they put into the songs, but he writes this melody at the beginning and it's like--
All Of No Man's Land is Ours. He's like, "Yes, All No Man's Land is Ours. We're about to come. We are coming to push the front line."
Kai: He writes it from the hospital, where he has been--
Jason: He writes it from the hospital. There's something about where composers right from. Are they in a nice cabin by the lake? Are they in a hospital recovering from mustard gas wounds? Are they in Compton? You know what I mean? Looking outside, hearing the helicopter? Where are the composers writing from? James Reese Europe always has something nearby to document the moment in the sound. Just hearing him play, that's the sound he was hearing. Oh yes. This is the phrase he hears first.
That's how a song starts. I don't know, like just for a composer to just be that delicate in that moment, but then move it to like, All No Man's Land is Ours. I don't know. He's unafraid to document the moment and I think for all artistes, the thing we battle with most is when is the appropriate moment to share or to put it down on paper and then have to stare at it?
Kai: What do you means?
Jason: Any composer, when you write the song down, it's also staring back at you. When you put the pencil to the paper or you write your first lines, it's a mirror those compositions become.
Kai: He's got to be ready to see that.
Jason: He's got to be ready to see it, whether he is actually psychologically ready or not. Okay. I'm done, y'all. [chuckles]
Kai: Oh man. I'll treasure.
Jason: Thank you all.
Kai: Thank you so much.
Kai: Those are outtakes from my conversation earlier this year with the wonderful jazz composer, Jason Moran. Don't say I never did nothing for you. United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC studios. Special thanks this week to Joe Young, who helped produce the initial version of this episode and who introduced us to Jason Moran in the first place.
Our theme music was written by Hannah's Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Mixing and sound designed this week, also by Hannah's Brown and by Jared Paul. Our team also includes Emily Boutine, Regina [unintelligible 00:50:22], Karen Froman and Kusha Navarda. I am Kai Wright.
You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright? Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live show next week. Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it or wnyc.org, or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening, take care of yourselves and happy holidays.
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