Jason Moran
Jason Moran Credit: Clay Patrick McBride

The blue-collar DIY spirit of Chicagoans’ artistic practice is one of the city’s calling cards. Away from the oppressive glare of the art business on the coasts, artists of all stripes—musicians, playwrights, painters, writers—can take time to develop and solidify their practice. That’s why so much of the greatest work to emerge from Chicago seems to bubble up from the underground fully formed.

On May 30 at Symphony Center, New York-based jazz pianist, composer, and MacArthur fellow Jason Moran will lead his trio the Bandwagon (with drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen) in the premiere of an ambitious new multimedia project called Looks of a Lot. It’s hardly an underground enterprise—it’s been commissioned and facilitated by the same venerable institution that runs the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Moran’s collaborators include internationally established artists such as Chicago sculptor and activist Theaster Gates and reedist and composer Ken Vandermark (also a Mac­Arthur fellow). In its extended gestation, though, Looks of a Lot has something important in common with no-frills Chicago art.

Moran has known Vandermark for years: they met in 2011, playing together in a band led by bassist Eric Revis. He’s known Gates almost as long: he sent the artist an e-mail out of the blue in 2012, after seeing his work at a show in Germany, and Looks of a Lot is the first opportunity they’ve had to work together on this scale. (Moran has a history of working with visual artists and writers—among them Joan Jonas, Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Stan Douglas, and Terrance Hayes—and earlier this year he signed on with Manhattan’s prestigious Luhring Augustine Gallery.) Also very Chicagoan is Moran’s choice to open this project up to relative unknowns: he’s also working with up-and-coming singer and bassist Katie Ernst (he met her two years ago through the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center, where he’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz) and the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band, under the direction of Gerald Powell (which he saw at the Chicago Jazz Festival last year).

The CSO’s website describes Looks of a Lot as “a series of new blues compositions by Moran presented in the context of reimagined stage elements designed by Gates,” and for the time being it’s hard to be more concrete than that. Though high-profile artists rarely use such a hallowed stage as a proving ground, Moran plans on continuing to develop the project right up until its debut. “I work very slow, and I really try to allow things to come into focus as the deadline approaches,” he says. However, the performance will certainly involve jazz and improvisation as well as sound and sculpture—Gates’s custom-­designed set re­invents even things as quotidian as music stands. Nobody’s saying yes or no yet, but Gates may sing too—something he’s had practice doing in his experimental group the Black Monks of Mississippi.

As work on Looks of a Lot ramped up, I spoke in turn to Moran, Gates, and Vandermark, and I’ve edited those interviews together into a conversation. The discussion sometimes gets pretty abstract, as you might expect given the unsettled nature of the project, but it does make it clear how their collaboration came to be.

Left: Theaster Gates and Jason Moran try out minstrel-era noisemakers for the premiere of <i>Looks of a Lot</i>. Right: Gates and Moran sight-read early-20th-century sheet music from Gates's Dorchester Projects archives.
Left: Theaster Gates and Jason Moran try out minstrel-era noisemakers for the premiere of Looks of a Lot. Right: Gates and Moran sight-read early-20th-century sheet music from Gates’s Dorchester Projects archives.Credit: Gregg Conde (left); Joey Alvarado (right)

Jason Moran: I was in New York studying at Manhattan School of Music, and I started looking at a lot of works by contemporary [visual] artists. One of the shows that really stood out to me was Bruce Nauman‘s retrospective at MoMA. I was still in school, maybe 1995, and I remember being like, “What the fuck is all of this?” He has a violin at one point, then he’s got small corridors with video, then he’s got these sculptures, then he’s got these clowns, and it’s. . . . Wow, what a world he’s making.

Once I met my wife and her parents, I started to learn who the artists were, the African-­American artists working at the same time as some of my favorite musicians—1920 to 1960—and learning that entire canon. Bob Thompson, a great painter, knew [reedist] Charles Lloyd, and they hung out at Slug’s, the place where [trumpeter] Lee Morgan was shot [in 1972].

Once I started meeting contemporary artists, I realized that they knew a lot of music, but they wouldn’t necessarily go see a lot of it. And I would say to them, “I’ve seen your show in Switzerland and I saw another show in Miami, then I saw this show. . . . but you haven’t seen any of my work.” So I started inviting people to shows, and we started to develop relationships. I would learn as much from them about music as I would about art because of how they thought about sound. I’ve been very fortunate to meet some of the great minds. Maybe the most important to me is Joan Jonas. In the past nine years, we’ve been working together, and now she represents the U.S. for the Venice Biennale. She’s really kind of broken me open.

You get presented with a project, and you’re like, “Well, I don’t want to do the same shit I usually do.” Glenn Ligon could always churn out another painting—a text painting—but he’s always fidgety, like, “Oh, what could I try to do next?” For the piece we did together, The Death of Tom, he decided to look at Uncle Tom’s Cabin filmed by Thomas Edison [and Edwin S. Porter] and remake the last scene. He starts that and then he’s like, “You know what? I think I need sound to this.” A year before that, we’d had a conversation about Bert Williams, and all of a sudden the Bandwagon started to play Bert Williams’s most famous song, called “Nobody.” So he’s like, “Can you play ‘Nobody’ for this show?” And I started to do all these improvisations for his video piece. These conversations start before the actual project is anything, or before it’s even a proposition.

I think of it the same way that I see [my] relationship with Ken Vandermark. We’d played together in Eric Revis’s band; we’d done a gig in Chicago together with Jeff Parker and [Bandwagon drummer] Nasheet [Waits]. And we always stayed in contact, talking about films—he knows some deep, dark films. When I think about projects, it’s like, which conversations are really striking me? I think it’s the same way for a lot of these artists—they’re looking for what other element is going to add a layer that’s gonna help the piece come together.

Ken Vandermark does his best to turn a baritone saxophone inside out.
Ken Vandermark does his best to turn a baritone saxophone inside out.Credit: Juan-Carlos Hernandez

Ken Vandermark: With Jason right away we started talking about cinema. He brought up Steve McQueen and Hunger, which I hadn’t seen before. I talked about Chris Marker and Sans Soleil, and it started from there. Every half year or so I’ll get a message from him about something he saw and liked, and I’ll fire something back. Those connections contribute to the other aspects of working together. It reveals more about the person’s attitude toward creativity. Like him, I see interrelationships between all of the arts.

Moran: People always tell you, “Oh, you know, you should meet blah blah blah,” or “You know whose work I saw that you probably might like?” And from the people I know in New York, [Theaster Gates’s] name kept coming up. So I started looking at a lot of his work, and then maybe three years ago we met.

We were always like, “Yeah, we should do something,” but we never did, until the Chicago Symphony Center asked if I would consider a commission. I said, “Oh great, this would be a great way to look at the city of Chicago in a very small way, and then look at people who are doing work in Chicago.”

Moran and Gates discuss the merits of different improvisational approaches.
Moran and Gates discuss the merits of different improvisational approaches.Credit: Gregg Conde

Theaster Gates: When I was in Kassel for Documenta 13 [in 2012], he just sent me an e-mail cold and said, “I’m Jason Moran and I just saw your Documenta work and I thought it was awesome, and I’d like to meet you.” That was the beginning of our friendship. Before we started working on the Symphony Center thing, we’d just hang out.

Moran: The great thing about my commission history is that anyone who knows it understands that when they approach me about a commission, they’re not going to get what they asked for but something bigger. So when [Chicago Symphony Orchestra programming director] James Fahey [asked], I don’t know what he was considering I might do—something for my group or a little bit larger.

I have so much attachment to Chicago, all the musicians who came to New York from Chicago who basically taught an entire couple generations—the AACM or Steve Coleman or Andrew Hill. I’m extremely indebted to their thing, and I feel like it’s a Chicago thing. I’m from the south; I had family that went up from Louisiana to Chicago, and the only musicians in my family are the ones who were children of people who left Louisiana and went to Chicago. They started playing blues with Albert King. They were in his touring band.

So yeah, that’s kind of how I’ve always considered a commission—to see how much it can unfold and how much chain the organization will give me. When I saw [the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band] play, I was like, “What is more truthful or inspiring than to give some kids a shot?” With the cycle of violence that’s happening in Chicago to young kids, why not for a brief moment give them a space on on a big stage and join them?

I was having a very long conversation with [pianist] Willie Pickens backstage during the Chicago Jazz Festival last year, and he said, “You know, you should go hear Kenwood, because my daughter [assistant band director Bethany Pickens] wrote a new piece for them, and they’re going to play it tomorrow.” And I went and watched—it was like one in the afternoon in a tent at the festival, and I sat and listened to their entire performance, and there were great players in there. And not only that—I mean, I was that kid, playin’ in a high school jazz band. And your parents are out there, and your aunts, and your cousins, and there was all this support generated by you getting together to play with your friends, you know? And man, I was moved by that, moved by these kids’ dedication to the music—any music, but especially this kind of music. So I started to look at the elements that I thought should be on the stage together, and I thought those things could allude to truth in a way that was so concrete that it didn’t have to have any more explaining.

Vandermark was [at Kenwood Academy for Looks of a Lot rehearsals] with these kids, and it was unbelievable. They were impressed that he could circular breathe. He improvised with them as they were playing this thing, and then he sat in the section with them as they were playing a piece by Roy Eldridge. For the past five years we’ve been playing together off and on, and I really think a lot about how he continues that sonic tradition of Chicago. So I wanted to make sure that he was a part of this too.

Vandermark: Jason said he was going to give [the Kenwood band] his arrangement of the Schubert piece [“Der Doppelgänger”] and have me play over it. I had never met them before, and I didn’t know the director. They were all super gracious and, I have to say, quite remarkable for students that age—they had way more discipline and ability than I had at that age.

Jason’s rapport with the students was fantastic. He had met with them before, and they obviously respect him. He was very quick to make suggestions and adjustments to the pieces that we worked on. I was really unsure of how it was going to work, and it turned out to be positive and successful.

I sat in the sax section and played on his charts—and sight-read the second tenor parts, which was fun. I heard them work on the Eldridge piece, and he made some changes to the rhythmic feel. He put more of a hip-hop thing to it, which obviously transformed it completely, and they adapted to it really fast. They’re not just talented and disciplined, but they’re also super open-minded kids. His awareness of their ability to adapt is probably why he picked the group.

Gates and Moran talk about vocals for <i>Looks of a Lot</i>.
Gates and Moran talk about vocals for Looks of a Lot.Credit: Joey Alvarado

Moran: My goal is to look at the people who I come into contact with and the common stories of the city and of their relationship to the city through their artwork, whether it’s through their music or it’s through their sculptures or Theaster’s Dorchester Projects—how sound and the arts revitalize communities or give people inspiration.

Katie Ernst I met because she was in the Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center for the past two years, and after the first year, I thought, “Oh my goodness, she’s a really great composer, she’s a really great bassist, she’s a really great singer.” I said, “I’m doing this thing next year, and I want you to be a part of it. I don’t know what you’re going to do yet, but I need you to be up there with us.” She’s in her mid-20s, maybe 24.

It’s just kind of pulling people together. There’s no grand theory to any of this, but I wanted to make a big gesture and a very deep vow to the city of Chicago and to the people who keep the arts going in Chicago—because their impact is so, so large.

I gave [Gates] some things to make, and he’s made them. He works very quick. But also, he’s a performer too. So just recently the Bandwagon was in New York, and we played at the Guggenheim, and he was in the audience. He heard us play one of the pieces—a piece we’ve been playing for a while—and he said he wanted to jump on the stage so badly. I was like, “Yeah man, just save it for Chicago,” because he’s a really great performer. He has these sculptural elements that he’s made that will be on the stage, and then we have a central structure that comes apart in various ways and sets up different metaphors, so they’ll all be activated throughout the evening.

Gates: In many ways I feel like I’ve just been a sounding board for some of the great ideas that Jason has. I think he wanted somebody who had a sense of the visual world and how that might play out onstage. It’s been a real honor to listen to Jason—he’s not just a musician. I think he has a strong sense of space. It’s also been a real treat for me and my team at the studio to think about how we might materialize some of the ideas that Jason has.

I was definitely taking cues from things that Jason was talking about. So if he mentioned being interested in hanging out on a stoop or a way that black people communicate their ideas, whether through music or dance or performance, I tried to create a visual experience that was responding to how we shout. So there’s a set of objects that are about the architecture of speaking. It’s pretty exciting.

My being from Chicago isn’t something that I have to wear or treat as a symbol. It just becomes really clear that the way that I think and the way that I make is from a particular place. What I try to do more is home in on the music and the performers and their needs, and then respond to those things with the skills that I have and design in a way that is sensitive to the blues joint, or the Velvet Lounge, or the storefront church, or the preacher on the corner of State Street and Madison. Those things for me are distinctly Chicago, but they’re also a part of the complicated export that Chicago musicians and visual artists have been a part of for the last six or seven decades.

Moran: We’ve already had a couple of offers on it to move somewhere else, so I’m happy about that—that people have any kind of faith in something that hasn’t happened yet. Because the thing is, we don’t think of the conductor’s stand as a piece of sculpture, when it actually is a piece of sculpture. Or we don’t think of music stands as actual sculpture; you think of them as devices for a purpose. And so I wanted to shift some of those notions. When Theaster started to fabricate his objects, the things that are useful on the stage—like, let’s look at those again.

Gates: This work with Jason is a poetic use of the stage as a framing mechanism for sculptural objects, and also an opportunity for me to prompt Jason to think about music differently. I could say, “Well, Jason, what would happen if we use this pulpit signature onstage?” Instead of imagining what I’ve made as a set or a prop, it’s really an aid for a musician. My hope is that the objects I’ve made in some ways disappear, so that Jason and the musicians can do what they do.

Moran: Once I return to Chicago, we’ll stay for 11 days with everybody, and that’s going to be a whole new leaf that will fold open. So by the time we hit the concert, it should be in full bloom.

Gates: In a way my job is to simply be ready, and if [Moran] gives the nod, anything might happen. It’s very different from another kind of performance at Symphony Center, where something’s been done a thousand times; we’re doing it this first time, and we won’t truly know what it is until it’s over.

Vandermark: I have a lot respect for Jason. He’s had a lot of accolades, but my impression is that he does the work he wants to do—and that’s really fantastic because he has a lot of impact and influence.

There’s a big difference between being unprepared and seeing what happens and having a bunch of ideas and a plan and seeing what happens. I think what Jason is doing is the second of those two.

Moran: I want to give people that same freedom that I foster. For me, it’s been so enjoyable to be at a place in my career where people are not looking for the piano player when they call Jason Moran. They’re calling me to bring the thing, whatever that thing is.