This episode of The Way I See It, our radio collaboration with BBC, features artist, musician, and jazz innovator Jason Moran. Moran’s music explores and expands the historical roots of jazz—and in his hands, it becomes a form that breathes contemporary air. His performances often incorporate his own visual art and stage designs. He has collaborated with artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Julie Mehretu, Joan Jonas, and Kara Walker, as well as his wife, opera singer Alicia Hall Moran, in works that merge sound, performance, and image. This winter the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of Moran’s work, including sculpture, drawing, and performance.
In this series, we ask extraordinary creative thinkers to choose a work that they love. Moran’s pick is Piet Mondrian’s 1942–43 painting Broadway Boogie Woogie. After admiring the painting in the galleries, Moran leads us to a piano tucked away in a backstage corner of one of MoMA’s theaters. Positioning an image of Broadway Boogie Woogie on the music stand, he sits down and, to our delight, plays the artwork as if it were a score. “Is this a new Jason Moran piece?” asks MoMA’s Leah Dickerman, as Moran lifts his hands from the keys. “That’s a Mondrian. Mondrian definitely wrote that,” he responds with a chuckle.
In the galleries, before the impromptu performance, Moran explains the basics of boogie-woogie. “The coolest thing about a boogie-woogie is what the left hand does. That’s the boogie part. The woogie part is the right hand and how it solos. The solo that happens in the right hand is like two worlds converging on the piano. And so the flexibility and the mastery of technique that each pianist had to have to develop this style is pretty ridiculous because they were able to manage two worlds on one piano. That’s what makes it cool—because it seems like it is more than two hands playing.” Moran suggests that the breakdown of melody inherent in jazz is closely related to Mondrian’s jettisoning of narrative form or “natural appearance.” The irregular blips of sound, shape, and color—both in Mondrian’s painting and in Moran’s performance—capture the sights and sounds of boogie-woogie in New York City.
This is one of many conversations about art in The Way I See It, a 30-episode radio series from MoMA and BBC offering fresh perspectives on artworks in our new galleries, hosted by art critic and broadcaster Alastair Sooke. Find The Way I See It on BBC Sounds or wherever you get your podcasts.