Phenomenal Listening: The Art of Jason Moran

Then Creole stepped forward [on the bass] to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. . . . He began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. . . . And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen.

—James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”


The idea that jazz is capable of producing profound metaphysical questions that broach a philosophy of listening does not begin with James Baldwin, but it finds one of its most expressive expositions in his 1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin’s notion of what constitutes listening to jazz music is bound up with those Hebraic theological considerations of the occurrence of suffering in the world, and demonstrates his fundamental concern for a philosophical conception of human existence. By invoking the blues roots of the performances that Sonny and his jazz bandmates are committed to onstage, Baldwin qualifies an ontology of black music and listening that treats black expressive culture as a ritualistic site where the aptitude of the blues or jazz musician carries the experiential burden of preserving and translating the human cost of black survival.

In this passage of remembrance, the history of black suffering metronomically recurs through the execution of black musicianship. For encoded within what Houston A. Baker, Jr., calls the “‘abstractness’ of [black] instrumental music” is the foundational utterances, rhythms, melodies, and harmonics of its germinal circumstance. As Baker asserts in his groundbreaking Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984), “Like translators of written texts, blues and its sundry performers offer interpretations of the experiencing of experience.” These musicians “serve as codifiers, absorbing and transforming discontinuous experience into formal expressive instances that bear only the trace of origins” of their derivation through hardship, cunning, desire, and blind faith.”1 Through such covert transparency, both jazz and blues amount to what Baldwin calls “a music which creates, as what we call History cannot sum up the courage to do, the response to that absolute universal question: Who am I? What am I doing here?”2 Because these concerns were initially raised and performed by those unknown bards whose recourse to self-possession occurred through song, the very premise of black music rests upon a shared logic of vocal and instrumental articulations that only finds meaning through a communal practitioner’s authentic mode of self-expression.

But what exactly is the nature of musical listening if “what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated,” as Baldwin’s narrator claims, “are personal, private, vanishing evocations”? What are the possibilities for encouraging the collective aspects of listening when “the man who creates the music is hearing something else?”3 We might consider Baldwin’s approach to thinking about the nature of jazz music through philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s provocative musings on the matter of sound and its relationship to human intersubjectivity. In Listening (2002), Nancy makes a distinction between hearing (entendre) and musical listening (écouter) that privileges the latter with capabilities that overlap with Baldwin’s ethically informed aural politics. According to Nancy, entendre denotes a natural sense of hearing geared toward an understanding of the world through the signification attached to a particular sound. For instance, the sound of a car horn is imbued with meaning, given its indexical status and attendant contexts. On the other hand, écouter, which Nancy associates with musical listening, is indicative of how we promiscuously sense our way through resonance without rational comprehension. Only when the hearer becomes a listener and gives herself over to the eternal resonance that is music as it reverberates within can this quasi-mystical itinerant experience of sensing through sound occur:

It is not a hearer [auditeur], then, who listens, and it matters little whether or not he is musical. Listening is musical when it is music that listens to itself. It returns to itself, it reminds itself of itself, and it feels itself as resonance itself: a relationship to self deprived, stripped of all egoism and all ipseity. Not “itself,” or the other, or identity, or difference, but alteration and variation. . . . Music is the art of making the outside of time return to every time, making return to every moment the beginning that listens to itself beginning and beginning again. In resonance the inexhaustible return of eternity is played—and listened to.4

By Nancy’s logic, musical listening evacuates our spatial and temporal sensibility of the here and now, before, and after through its imposition of a sonorous “omni-present.”5 As a consequence of sound waves continually saturating our very being, when one listens, “listening opens (itself) up to resonance and that resonance opens (itself) up to the self.”6 This sensing through the sonorous allows musical listening to become an experience wherein our apprehension of sonority rebounds and “resounds” until it transmogrifies into a figurative oblivion.7 Musical listening therefore initiates a process that diminishes the chain of referentiality that enables our self-conscious identification with who we are and what we know through what we hear. Through the sublimating power of resonance, musical listening is the means by which we become collectively engaged from without.

This distinction between hearing and musical listening also has application beyond our understanding of black music’s sacred role in delineating the stakes of black suffering. It is especially helpful when contemplating our engagement with contemporary visualizations of racial violence. When we consider the ongoing circulation of smartphone footage that depicts the murder of unarmed black civilians by local law enforcement, it is important to acknowledge the singularity of this collective form of documentary curation and the representational practices and contexts that dictate our consumption of what we see and feel as viewers. Because these bystander videos recur so often (and with little implication as judicial evidence), they not only emerge as a genre in their own right but they also habituate us into rote responses that are sometimes unbefitting the dignity of the sufferer. Put differently, there is a thin line between moral outrage and self-indulgence.

Repurposing the last words of victims during assemblies and mass protests can certainly produce desirable forms of embodied agency. That the phrase “I can’t breathe” is now synonymous with a global campaign to end police oppression demonstrates the utility of empathic testimony based on visual media. But what happens when our experience of such grief is no longer ours—when righteous indignation is immediately transposed into online acts of collective solidarity that include an over-identification with victims through apparel, conflation, and gesture? What happens to these moments of indelible tragedy when they are reduced to slogans and used to sell branded merchandise that replicates facile corporate marketing techniques? I am not suggesting that bystander videos are akin to black music’s testimonial aesthetic, or that our outrage after viewing them is tantamount to inauthentic expression; but if we are to become more attuned to the serialization of black death, it is worth considering how black musicians innovate through the vicissitudes of black creative ferment, and thus harness the profound communion of musical listening.


For nearly two decades, jazz pianist and conceptualist Jason Moran has been developing a performance repertoire that ultimately corresponds with the bold ruminations of Baldwin and Nancy. Moran endeavors to make use of a wide range of innovative practices from the visual and performing arts, music composition, literature, dance, architecture, and digital media in an effort to keep the notion of listening at the forefront of how we experience and engage with his hybridized approach to jazz music. In his capacity as a multi-disciplinary collaborator and leader of his trio, The Bandwagon (which includes Tarus Mateen on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums), Moran regularly tours those sites that we regard as the locality of jazz (music festivals, jazz clubs, university campuses, and concert halls), but he is also known for his appearances in museums and art galleries, where his creative interventions and collaborations have resulted in him sharing the stage with contemporary visual artists and performance-art luminaries such as Joan Jonas, Adam Pendleton, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Theaster Gates. These cross-disciplinary collaborations tend not to be tethered to any single cultural or institutional context that might limit the nature of jazz praxis to the distinctions of musical genre; instead, they express a free-associative ethos that encourages what Nancy describes as an “edgy meaning of extremity”—that is, “a meaning whose sense is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.”8 Listening circulates as a generative conceit throughout Moran’s creative practice and the cognitive dissonance that results from his manipulation of multimedia radically redraws the disciplinary boundaries of jazz performance culture as we know it.

As a sideman who has worked with the likes of Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd, Moran has provided his legendary associates with a vital range of pianism that is at once classical, avant-garde, and yet unmistakably jazz in its orientation. Whether vamping dutifully on Don Byron’s Latin-tinged Ivey-Divey (2004) or mining the piano’s lower register behind vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly (2008), Moran’s attitude toward jazz is hardly a matter of his being devoted to a particular style of play. “He’s a young man with an old soul,” says Lloyd; “he knows the ancients, but he is also in the now. Though we come from a different chronology, there’s no gap—we just go into the music.”9 Like Baldwin’s wounded characters who must seek triumph and ardor onstage or sink below the fault lines of American history, Moran’s role as a jazz musician requires that he adhere to the impossible but necessary order of his craft: redeem, but never forget.

“As an African-American, I know our history is not really promoted,” says Moran, in an interview discussing his debt to jazz giants Thelonious Monk, Jaki Byard, and Andrew Hill,

so it’s important for me to promote it. Here are people who played their instruments and had an impact on people around the globe. That sounds simple, but it’s really monumental. Every artist has a trial to overcome, but these people did it in a time when things were fucking crazy. That’s part of my history in America. I want to own it in my music and never have to apologize for it. . . . because the lesson I take from these musicians is that you can do whatever you want.10

Baldwin’s belief in black music’s ability to sustain and reshape the sonorous contours of human suffering is shared by Moran if only because he creates music from within and outside the jazz medium in order to renew its innovative vocabulary.

To speak of Moran’s pianism as akin to a particular school of music would be limiting. The dynamic range of his musical influences and covers suggest an artist driven by an incomparable sense of resourcefulness: popular songs by Laurie Anderson, Björk, and Afrika Bambaataa; jazz standards by Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, and Jaki Byard; classical scores by Conlon Nancarrow and Sergei Prokofiev; and an ongoing series of original “Gangsterism” compositions based on the painting Hollywood Africans by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andrew Hill’s “Erato.” If anything, Moran’s unorthodox approach to covering music beyond the jazz canon demonstrates his abiding investment in creating recordings that are “as vast as what [he] listens to” and reflect the reality of his having come of age alongside hip hop and its culture of repurposing.11 As Nate Chinen remarks, Moran’s eclecticism is “a strategy uncommon in jazz performance but standard-issue in DJ culture, where turntablists draw upon an endless catalog of sources.”12 Musical techniques such as quoting and citation are also germane to jazz music, but Moran regards these methods as emanating from his proximity to hip hop’s innovative utilitarian aesthetic: “Since I grew up with samples in hip hop, the idea of splicing someone else’s voice or someone else’s music into a record seems so natural to me. . . . As you get older and get into contemporary art music, they have different terms for it, but it’s the same thing. It just seems natural to chop up someone’s voice and manipulate them any way you want.”13 Likewise, Moran’s covers constitute much more than “jazzy” executions of a popular song’s signature melodic features or the pat fusion of genres. He instead draws out the latent musicality of a composition’s most salient structural elements before extrapolating them into his own paradigmatic interpretation. We especially see this in his stride piano rendition of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (1982), one of hip hop’s early anthems, and arguably one of the most inspired recordings on his first solo album, Modernistic (2002).


Jason Moran’s “Planet Rock”


Situated somewhere between the utopic yearnings of Sun Ra and the inter-galactic race consciousness of Parliament-Funkadelic, “Planet Rock” provides fitting source material for an album that takes its title from Harlem stride progenitor James P. Johnson’s 1923 hit “You’ve Got to Be Modernistic.”14 Moran’s cover of Bambaataa’s recording is noteworthy because in “finding the connections between hip hop and the piano-as-percussion-instrument” Moran not only captures aspects of the original’s lyrical content, a feat customarily absent from jazz covers of hip hop, but he also establishes a remarkably cohesive dialogue out of two unique musical genres.15 His use of prepared piano alongside a sequence of reversed piano loops highlights, rather than caricatures, the original’s electro-funk-influenced rhythms and heavily foregrounded drums. By altering the timbre of the piano, Moran is able to reify the track’s symphonic arrangement without negating its minimalist soundscape. What is more, it is because Moran performs “Planet Rock” in the tradition of stride that the formal discrepancies between Bambaataa’s futurism and an earlier genre of American musical modernity are all but elided. Moran’s atypical pairing of jazz-age piano with 1980s electro-funk stimulates enough creative variance that informed listeners have no choice but to reconcile their comprehension of Bambaataa’s original with Moran’s virtuosic performance. Which is to say that our experience of what we are experiencing while listening to Moran’s cover and recalling Bambaataa’s original unfolds within an interstitial moment of uncanny revelation. As a caretaker of jazz’s cultural legacy, Moran uses his adept sense of black music’s changing sameness to personalize the formal contributions of jazz-age musicians without sacrificing hip hop’s innovative praxis of digitally resuscitating black soundings. While hip hop certainly takes its cue from jazz’s incessant referencing of its early innovators, through Moran, this narrative of influence is decidedly inverted. It is now jazz that seems increasingly indebted to the formal and emotional intelligence of hip hop.

Soon after the turn of the millennium, Moran began opening his live performances with a collage of audio media that referenced an idiosyncratic strain of early hip hop’s instrumental remix culture. Pioneered by Kool DJ Red Alert, Double Dee & Steinski, Prince Paul, and eventually Large Professor, this experimental genre transformed conventional mixing and sampling into a complex set of appropriative practices that privileged a cacophony of linguistic non sequiturs and variegated rhythms by interweaving esoteric vocal samples alongside up-tempo breakbeats. These sonic artists not only introduced their two-to-four-hour DJ sets with samples taken from soundtracks, television commercials, and rare groove recordings, but they also cultivated an audio culture defined by archives of sound and turntable dexterity. Such approaches inculcated audiences with a charged sense of anticipation and activated a listener-based experience founded on incongruous musical elements. But Moran’s own appropriations, which could run the gamut of samples taken from a Béla Bartók chorus, blues riffs from Robert Johnson, and a speech delivered by Elijah Muhammad were not calculated to establish any overarching musical effect. As he explicitly states during a 2012 Brown University master class, his decision to preface his sets accordingly arose from his concern for how contemporary audiences had come to regard jazz as a passive cultural pursuit:

To talk about listening is difficult. As a performer, I never get to hear what you hear. . . . I mean you as a collective audience. As a performer, you hear your part in something kind of larger. You talk while someone else is talking, you’re also trying to digest. It’s a very kind of weird game you play, or that I’ll say that I play. But there’s also the point where I think that in any kind of performance . . . it could be the point of the musician or the performer to challenge also the expectation [of the audience] to a degree. . . . Generally, when I start a concert I come in with some prerecorded material because it has to reawaken people’s listening. So if you walk in this room and you see us, and you see a piano, and you see drums and we walk out on stage, you might assume that the first thing that you’ll hear from us is piano and drums. But what if we change that? My idea as a performer is to try to [Moran gestures with a sweeping hand motion]. I know this cutting board is clean, but how clean can I wipe it? So let me play Billie Holiday for you. Have we all listened to Billie Holiday together? Well, I’m going to play it for you right now. Like literally I’m going to play Billie Holiday. . . . Because I think this is phenomenal listening.16

Phenomenal listening amounts to a two-fold process. It begins with Moran de-stabilizing those preconceptions that cohere the expectations of his audience, but it ultimately asks that we embrace the ensuing dissonance as our entrée into a more collective communion. Moran’s physical gesture of wiping the “cutting board” affords us the clearest insight into his treatment of “listening as a conceptual practice,” to borrow artist Jennie C. Jones’s turn of phrase, and reminds us of our obligation to “come in really open” and experience “the larger idea about what . . . music is supposed to be.” Musical listening posited here as “phenomenal” is without presumption or expectation. By extension, my earlier questions regarding the spectacularization of black death are even more apt here. If black music elevates our regard for black suffering, and thus requires listeners to return anew to the experiencing of experience, we owe much more than outrage to those who are suffering if we are not to doubly debase ourselves and the dead.

On his breakthrough album, The Bandwagon: Live at the Village Vanguard (2003), Moran explores this conceit by opening his performance with one of his signature introductions, and providing a piano accompaniment for two sample-based loops: track 4, a cellphone conversation in Turkish, suggestively titled “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul),” and track 9, a business broadcast in Mandarin obliquely referred to as “Infospace.”


Jason Moran’s “Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)”

Jason Moran’s “Infospace” (Live)


For each of these tracks, Moran plays the timbre and cadence of human vocals with such affect and precision that he ultimately yields a prophetic mode of instrumentation. By invalidating language as a medium for imparting informational content, his transcription enables a new form of aural cognition through the implicit melodies and rhythms of speech. These “songs,” coalesced and structured through the bewildering musicality of indecipherable language, produce a dissonance that is particularly acute for English-only speakers. Provided Nancy’s earlier distinction between hearing and listening, what are listeners expected to perceive considering the album’s introductory media concludes with the command “So listen,” and the only other speech acts occur in Turkish and Mandarin?


Jason Moran’s “Introduction” (Live)


Of what value should we regard incomprehension if hearing is to acquire understanding, and listening, as Nancy points out, “is always to be on the edge of meaning”?17

The imperative in the “Introduction” instructs listeners to engage with the album’s recording in its entirety, but this directive also anticipates “Ringing My Phone” and “Infospace” with an eye toward those cognitive adjustments that English-only speakers must make in order to gain some semblance of “auditory sense.”18 If we agree there is an implicit expectation of dialogue underwriting intelligible speech acts engendered between a speaker and a listener, then we must also accept the possibility that Moran is structuring a conceptual statement out of the auditive incoherence resulting from his English, Turkish, and Mandarin triangulation. And yet, incomprehension is not the goal of Moran’s unorthodox use of musicality; rather, the forestalling of meaning is the very mechanism through which Moran proposes that musical listening might occur. Of course, in order for listeners to embrace this possibility, linguistic translation—the most obvious or accepted means toward effecting some form of comprehension when confronted with the utility of speech—must be rejected and replaced by our more primal perception of sound. That is, Moran presumes that listeners will instinctually grasp, or in this case hear, the symmetrical interplay between his percussive playing and the rhythmic cadence of Turkish and Mandarin. “Every person who speaks with their throat is singing a melody in their intonations,” explains Moran, “and their speech patterns create a rhythm. It’s easier to hear it in a foreign language because you’re not distracted by the content. When you’re in a Chinese restaurant and you hear them shout content back to the kitchen, you hear the music. As a traveling musician, you hear languages you don’t understand all the time.”19 Thus Moran’s insight into the nature of the human voice not only enables him to transcribe spoken speech back into presymbolic sound, but it also enhances a sonority that literally depends upon the refusal of language’s syntactical grammar. If the nature of musical listening, as Nancy asserts, “is a relationship to meaning . . . a tension toward it: but completely ahead of signification,” then Moran’s defamiliarization of Mandarin and Turkish speech places English listeners within earshot of an emerging musical reality that may not always be listened to but will undoubtedly be heard anew.20

One of the major outcomes from Moran’s engagement with multimedia is that he is also honoring his identity as a student and steward of those aesthetic discourses that currently define the cross-disciplinary nature of contemporary art. Splicing and remixing sample-based music shifts his musical practice from that of merely jazz performance into the realm of conceptualism. Before his unprecedented collaboration with performance artist Joan Jonas on The Shape, the Scent, the Feel of Things (2004), he suggests that his “mind was already being piqued by Adrian Piper, Bruce Nauman, and tons of other [art world] figures” as he “wonder[ed] how [his] music could get out of concert halls and clubs and festivals.”21 These concerns explain why Moran’s more recent projects cultivate a range of artistic media. In venues and festivals such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, Tate Modern, Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Center, dOCUMENTA (13), Haus der Kunst, and the Venice Biennale, Moran has manipulated digital recordings from the bandstand; accompanied video projections, objects, and performance artists; repurposed vintage noisemakers; and fabricated three-dimensional performance installations modeled on popular mid-twentieth-century New York jazz clubs.

Moran’s interest in institutional spaces “that use performative structures to provoke reflection on larger systemic assemblages,” as described by Shannon Jackson,is not without precedent within the domains of contemporary art and is likely influenced by the surge in cross-disciplinary methods that have resulted in the art world’s “mutual revision of art genres, objects, and sites” since the early nineties.22 As Jackson makes clear in Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, over the last two decades, there has been

a kind of experimental chiasmus across the arts [wherein] a movement toward painting and sculpture underpins post-dramatic theatre, but a movement toward theatre also underpins post-studio art. In such a chiasmus, breaking the traditions of one medium means welcoming the traditions of another. Experimental art performances use visual, embodied, collective, durational, and spatial systems, but a critical sense of their innovation will differ depending upon what medium they understand themselves to be disrupting, i.e. which medium is on the other end of whose “post.”23

It is this “contingency of perception” that viewers must contend with when considering Moran’s “performative turn” toward the reinvigoration of jazz musicianship.24 His notional understanding of jazz as a social location of cross-disciplinary exchange requires that audiences look and listen beyond the historically informative contexts of nightclubs and concert halls in order that they might experience his multimedia jazz performances through the “perceptual apparatuses” that structure the art practices of visual and theatrical media.25 For, as Jackson concludes, “Our evaluations of work depend not only upon critical histories but also upon disciplinary perceptual habits that can make for drastically different understandings of what we are in fact encountering.”26


Throughout the decade that followed Moran’s collaboration with Joan Jonas, he and his primary collaborator and wife, Alicia Hall Moran, a Broadway performer and classically trained mezzo-soprano, embarked upon a whirlwind of performance pieces that would arc into BLEED. With Hall Moran and Moran at its curatorial helm, this five-day co-residency commissioned for the 2012 Whitney Biennial had the look and feel of a comprehensive mid-career retrospective. It represented the Morans’ artistic collaborations with musicians, artists, and thinkers, and revealed the depth of their own interactive, creative partnership. One of the most transformative elements of BLEED involved the Morans’ use of extra-musical happenings throughout their residency. By extra-musical, I mean those lectures, literary readings, pre-stage rituals, and rehearsals that contrasted significantly with the Morans’ performances and video installations that actually involved music. These aberrant events, which included performances by non-musicians operated on a more visibly conceptual level than the Morans’ “peer” projects, inasmuch as their representational status resided almost entirely in how they corresponded with these non-musicians as a manifestation of the idea of sociality and thus disrupted the more conventional standards as to what constitutes art.

As “a kind of systemic avowal” of the social relations and practices that make up the Morans’ collaborative ethos, the inclusion of these seemingly non-performative transactions demonstrated the Morans’ formal indebtedness to the “radical progressivism of contemporary art’s social turn. ”27 According to Lars Bang Larsen, “No longer something remote, academic, and monumental,” in the 1990s, art “became a situation or a process” as artists rebutted “the demonization of reality and presence of much of the work of the ’80s” and emphasized the contextual “media, infrastructure, and social activity” that made such art possible.28 As Larsen observes, “A work was now a club, a bar, a meal, a cinema, a hang-out, a dance floor, a game of football, or a piece of furniture. . . . . The sole author and the contemplative beholder were atomized in works that called for togetherness, and were often created by collectives or self-organized entities.”29 Instead of governing proceedings through their authorial presence, the Morans routinely sat among their audience and thereby fostered the communal experience of collective listening. By removing themselves from the relational context in which their identities as performing artists and curators obviated their social solidarity with museumgoers, a productive tension emerged between the Morans’ apparent earnestness to achieve “a harmonious space of inter-subjective encounter” and the obvious contrivance of their choice of seating.30 Whether or not these social experiments in collective listening were successful is beyond the point if we agree that one of the primary objectives of social-practice art includes stimulating moments of critical inquiry that also interrogate the premise of the work in question.

On the other hand, the Morans’ pre-performance rituals and rehearsals required that they resume their roles as BLEED’s compères and engage in the interdependent tasks of exchanging ideas and embodying community with their collaborators onstage. These public actions not only demonstrated how Moran has since come to terms with the idea of processual revelation but they also figure his persona outside of jazz’s disciplinary function. As Shannon Jackson reminds us, disrupting the traditions of one medium often involves procuring the representational practices of another. In both F.M. Radio, which featured the Morans undergoing the Alexander Technique at the hands of instructors Gwen Ellison and Jessica Wolf, and I am both a practitioner and a representative of the culture from whence the modality emerged, which staged Hall Moran receiving treatment from her acupuncturist, Jane Page, viewers were made aware of how vital the process of disciplining a performer’s body is to their mastery of the art of stage presence. That these formerly undisclosed preparations were exhibited in conjunction with the Morans’ open rehearsals (Jazz on a high floor in the afternoon: Jason Moran and The Bandwagon converse and rehearse) and the greenroom rituals of participating musicians and artists allowed audiences to observe the broad range of social and technical support that inform the Morans’ craft. As Moran explains, “We’re collaborating with other artists, but we’re also collaborating with the people running the lights and microphones here.”31

Of all the performances curated by Hall Moran, the BLEED collaboration that best encapsulates Moran’s provocation of the contemporary art world is undoubtedly Kara Walker’s Improvisation with Mutually Assured Destruction. As a karaoke performance piece that employs Moran and The Bandwagon (Tarus Mateen, bass; Jamire Williams, drums; and Brandon Ross, guitar) for musical accompaniment and culminates in Walker performing a harrowing multimedia interpretation of The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” Improvisation instigates a host of questions that reflect on the dilemma of positioning Moran’s jazz praxis within the critical domain of performance art. In particular, we might ask, what is the nature of Moran’s collaborative artistic role during his scoring of performance, video, and multimedia? Is the idea of the jazz musician throughout these intermedial exchanges supplemental to the prescribed institutional contexts of his collaborators? Such questions are not necessarily absent from how we should determine those other BLEED collaborations that include video and (documented) performance pieces by Alicia Hall Moran (LIVE:TIME, 2008), Glenn Ligon (The Death of Tom, 2008), Kara Walker (Lucy of Pulaski, 2009), and Joan Jonas (The Bandwagon featuring Joan Jonas, 2012). Much like Improvisation, these innovative commissions also invite critique when considering Moran’s live-action contributions within the disciplinary location of the museum. But what makes Improvisation such a singular intervention among these otherwise exceptional works is the extent to which this piece succeeds in qualifying both Moran’s foray into the contemporary art world and Walker’s unprecedented engagement with the medium of performance. While Walker’s acknowledgement of “mutually assured destruction” speaks volumes to their radical interpretation of “Brown Sugar”—a performance that suggestively clarifies how the Stones allow for the metonymic elision of sexual violence visited upon black women since slavery—Improvisation also uncovers a complex set of performance relations that result from their collaborative interrogation of black suffering onstage.




Improvisation opens in that generative moment that Fred Moten describes as “the convergence of blackness and the irreducible sound of necessarily visual performance at the scene of objection.”32 By compelling viewers to consider the visual representation of slavery in the Americas as a universal site of repression and erasure, Moran and Walker are able to restage the possibilities for adjudicating our experiential claims on what Saidiya Hartman calls the “endless recitations of the ghastly and terrible.”33 This is precisely why Walker not only augmented her karaoke with a kaleidoscopic slideshow of antislavery images and photographs of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, murdered Abu Ghraib detainees, black musicians, Mick Jagger, et al., but also prefaced her performance with a series of verse that made thematic and ideational connections between the war on terror, pornography, and the implicit biases and limitations of the art-historical record. As Moten posits, “the call to subjectivity is understood also as a call to subjection and subjugation and appeals for redress or protection to the state or to the structure or idea of citizenship—as well as modes of radical performativity or subversive impersonation—are always already embedded in the structure they would escape.”34 Baldwin is more emphatic and clarifying of the matter at hand in his description of jazz decades after the publication of “Sonny’s Blues,” in an essay titled “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption”:

This music begins on the auction block. Now, whoever is unable to face this—the auction block; whoever cannot see that that auction block is the demolition by Europe, of all human standards: a demolition, furthermore at the hour of the world’s history, in the name of “civilization”; whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slaughtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father; or whoever pretends that the white father did not, literally, and knowing what he was doing, hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son—whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the “beat” which is the key to music, and the key to life.35

As a performance piece that mines the juncture between an irreconcilable reality of the past that we can only imagine through a bulwark of fantasy and refusal and a perverse counternarrative that is often too painful to endure, what Improvisation attempts to display and sound for viewers is the psychopathology that travesties our imagination when we are confronted with humanity’s incorrigible predilection for cruelty.

Walker inaugurated a performance persona, “Karaoke Walkrrr,” to ensure that this confluence of conflicting aesthetic and psychic motives took root in the minds of Improvisation’s viewers. Clad in a gray hooded sweatshirt, black leather bustier, black denim cutoff shorts, near-knee-high black leather boots, and a fitted black cap with bold white lettering spelling out security, her costume both objectified and subverted her alter ego as a sexual commodity intended for voyeuristic consumption. In this two-part performance piece, Walkrrr initially reads from a script of composed verse that navigates a millennium of geopolitical violence with sexual predation at its center. Before discarding her cap and sweatshirt in preparation for her karaoke “tribute,” she uses this pre-performance “performance” to set the parameters for a series of prurient takes on the commingling of power and perversion. This precarious balance between Walkrrr as fetishized object and Walkrrr as self-empowered “dom” is accentuated by the juxtaposition that occurs when an engraving of William Blake’s Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave is periodically projected above her onscreen. Blake’s visual epitomizes the type of imagistic representations that reconstitute the horrors of New World slavery as abolitionist propaganda. In its original context as one of sixteen plates Blake supplied for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), it is as potent an artifact of black trauma as some aspects of Stedman’s own firsthand account of Dutch colonial slavery.

Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave by William Blake circa 1791.

Blake’s engraving conjures up the spectacle of atrocity and abuse for the purpose of initiating antislavery sentiment and simultaneously directs viewers toward the violent pornographic impulse that also configures human desire during those moments when empathic bonding is thought to be operable. In this way, Flagellation of a Female Samboe Slave gives visual form to what Marcus Wood describes as a highly eroticized “sado-masochistic fantasy [that is] based on the exploration of [Stedman’s] own sensibility.”36 It is indeed a blurred dichotomy. By focusing on the stylistic and formal prerogatives of eighteenth-century moral theory (the philosophical system out of which Stedman’s narrative emerges), Wood makes an important case for understanding Stedman’s sexually charged fantasies of black distress as indicative of our own perceptual inability to relate to the pain of others without cannibalizing their suffering for the aesthetic pleasure of our imagination:

We are all imprisoned within “our own perception.” This means that our senses can never realize or communicate precisely what constituted, constitutes, or will constitute another person’s traumatic suffering under torture. Consequently, the only way of drawing near to the sufferer’s experience of pain is to mimic it, to fantasize it, using imagination. This assumption is finally based on the premise that an observer’s (viewer’s, voyeur’s, witness’s) sympathetic response to another person’s pain lies in a gesture of extreme psychic masochism. It is the duty of the sympathetic imagination to try to appropriate the victim’s pain to such a degree that we “enter” that person’s body.37

And this is the point of Walkrrr’s sexual identification with the lynched figure that she typographically labels as exhibit one, or pronominally brands as “I.” Through the competing instances of her self-representation, the contradictory nature of her sartorial references contributes to her scopophilic un-doing. She perhaps even enables our reassessment of slavery’s untranslatable horrors, but only if we confront the reality of how fraught with complication our engagement with depictions of black suffering is. It really all depends upon how we choose to perceive Walkrrr’s embodiment as a performer who interrogates the consumptive value of the black female body onstage, onscreen, and in print.

This subversive association is also borne out in a montage that brings together photographs of Secretary Rice and a lifeless Abu Ghraib detainee and is audibly recognizable in the sparse atmospheric soundtrack provided by Moran and The Bandwagon as Walkrrr matter-of-factly performs her reading. Blake’s engraving and the representational violence of tortured Iraqi prisoners are brought in alignment through Walkrrr’s jarring shifts in verse. Linguistic pornographic indulgences at the expense of black women give way to military colloquialisms reimagined into an expansive historical narrative. From imperial Rome to American foreign policy, misogyny functions as the politically essential fact of western modernity.

And yet Walkrrr chooses to trouble the provenance of these patriarchal manifestations of carnal power by interpolating Secretary Rice (who is routinely referred to online by the sexualized pejorative “CondoSKEEZA”) as both a sexual target and composer/co-conspirator of the war on terror’s sadomasochistic entanglement of voyeurism, violence, and sex.38 If Walkrrr, in the name of black suffering, is inviting viewers to deliberate upon what can and cannot be said about the sexual politics of violence and torture, what should we infer from the aesthetic parallels presented in the triangulation between Blake’s Female Samboe, Secretary Rice, and the unnamed Iraqi prisoner? The logical extension here is to recontextualize the circumstances surrounding U.S. Army Spc. Lynndie England, or any of the other armed forces personnel who circulated images of themselves engaged in lewd acts with detainees, most of which are suggestive of BDSM and necrophilia and are overtly reminiscent of Stedman’s illustrations of mutilated slaves.

Whatever the responses to be had, they are not nearly as important as Improvisation’s inducement that we acknowledge the power relations that encourage our own fantasies of ameliorative justice through the politics of spectatorial sympathy or relational recognition. What matters most here is that viewers straddle “the edge of meaning” and locate themselves “in an edgy meaning of extremity,” as when Walkrrr recites her catalog of black suffering’s absent presence in art history’s political unconscious, a strategy that compels listeners to sit within the tension of her discursive rupture.39 “What is early modernism without the primeval Negro?” Walkerrr asks. “What is futurism without the machine gun? What is art deco without Nubian slaves? What is degenerate art without your Jew, black, or mulatto? What is expressionism without the denial of social inequities?”40 If these questions demand that we reorient our understanding of the structural human costs behind the canonical movements of western art, they also require us to contemplate the sacrifices that subsidize Moran’s and Walkrrr’s unprecedented collaboration. As performers operating beyond the parameters of their formal disciplines, they too are taking “risk,” albeit willingly, for the sake of ensuring that the “tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is . . . always . . . heard.”

From the first two verses of “Brown Sugar,” with its reference to the transatlantic slave trade, “cotton fields,” and sadistic gratification of a “Scarred old slaver,” it is apparent why Walkrrr chose to introduce her karaoke performance with a critical poetics that deals squarely with plantation pornography’s exploitative aesthetics.41 Although “Brown Sugar” traffics in legitimate blues-rock motifs, its lyrical content does little to ratify the aural ethics of Baldwin’s (auction block) thesis on black music’s essential role in honoring the degradation of the slave mother, father, and son. With no irony to speak of, no reprobation, and no sympathetic response to black female suffering, Jagger’s straightforward narrative of sadomasochism defuses the idea of white complicity in slave torture by rendering it unremarkable. While the violence recounted by Jagger is both performed and overheard it is also dismissed without judgment or censure. The only qualitative regard for slavery that occurs in the song’s lyrics ensues from the epistemic violence of metonymy, which pre-figures the black female slave (as “Brown Sugar”) in advance of Jagger’s objectification.

If we allow that the stereotypical discourse construing black female slave subjectivity is the condition that presupposes Jagger’s libidinal inclinations, the rhetorical inquiries put forward in the song’s refrain (“Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good / Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should”) can only be answered in the affirmative sense of always already.42 There can be no other form of relation to black female slave subjectivity that is incompatible with the laws of property or the unbounded vanity of white patriarchal desire. Jagger’s fantasy of “Black Pussy”—his original working title and controversial homage to his then-private affair with African American actress and model Marsha Hunt—exists within its own veritable feedback loop. To be precise, the metonymic politics of repression and erasure in “Brown Sugar” sanctions the commodification of black female slaves and this process is in turn replicated and extolled in verse.43

Improvisation’s karaoke segment also remonstrates listeners who may have uncritically indulged in the song’s infectious honky-tonk groove.44 Although some museumgoers attempt to sing along at Walkrrr’s behest, her slideshow of lyrics, scatological references (“slit,” “blood,” “scraped scum,” etc.), and fluctuating images of Jagger, slavery, and black expressive culture make for a thoroughly compromising if not antagonistic experience.45 If this all sounds a bit much for the Whitney, Moran and The Bandwagon eventually interpret “Brown Sugar” in free time, with their only regard for meter being Walkrrr’s full-throated non-singerly vocals and her embodied physicality as both a “Scarred old slaver” and tortured female subject. As if on cue, Moran’s ensemble delivers an atonal soundscape that crashes and lopes in unison with Walkrrr as she intermittently mimes the gestures of a whip-wielding sadist lashing an imagined victim across the stage.

With the entire melodic structure abandoned during the remaining two minutes of her performance, a curtain of sonic distortion envelopes listeners in a palpable state of dis-ease. Walkrrr’s profane reenactment (as both slaver and slave) phenomenally expresses the radical negation of black female subjectivity as an approximable experience that looks, feels, and sounds like the ethical dilemma proposed by the lyrics of “Brown Sugar.”  By injecting their aural/visual dissonance into the Stones’ unapologetic anthem, Moran and Walkrrr rile the Whitney’s audience into a profound sense of collective ignominy that challenges listeners to reflect on their passive regard for Jagger’s lyrics. Since any participation in Walkrrr’s karaoke means sharing culpability in Jagger’s acclamation of rape and torture, her goading (“You all know the words . . . so we’re going to try and sing along as best we can” or “I can’t hear you”)46 reduces the majority of Improvisation’s attendees to a liminal state of “unraveled becoming.”47 Faced with the historical realities undergirding “Brown Sugar,” Walkrrr’s audience retreats into the silence of listening as she wipes the “cutting board” “clean.” Without the context of presumption and expectation framing their hearing, authentic possibilities emerge. At this political moment, when American Descendants of Slaves (#ADOS) are routinely murdered on camera, the response to Baldwin’s existential qualification of human suffering, Who am I? What am I doing here?, demands something greater from us than easy listening. As eyewitnesses to murder, we are obligated to immerse ourselves in a spectrum of feeling that exists outside the boundaries of forethought and the comfort of meaning.

Although the phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) has its origins in the military doctrine of reciprocal nuclear annihilation, it also signals the visceral nature of collaborating on stage to achieve something beyond performance for the sake of performance. Walkrrr’s deliberative use of three suggestive images at the conclusion of Improvisation provokes commentary on the psychical-transactions that black performers must ritualistically undergo before their audience. Her randomized strobing of archival photographs depicting black women engaged in what appears to be a Santería ceremony, Jagger’s contorted body in mid-performance, and the charred remains of a lynched victim obliterated beyond sex and race, associatively acknowledges the long history of coercion that haunts black expressive culture and obliges our reflection on the actual stakes involved in black musicians “keeping it new, at the risk of [their own] ruin, destruction, madness, and death.”48 Improvisation makes the most of this history by enfolding the personal into the collective, the particular (racial or otherwise) into the universal, and by collapsing the medium of performance into itself. These strategies are not the result of Moran and Walkrrr self-consciously over-theorizing the inconceivable sounds of black (slave) suffering. As Moran explains, “As a black performer, you’re already stepping [into that history]; already dealing with it; just that fact when [you] walk out onto the stage. . . . All that tension is really able to bubble up. . . . So at some point you have to take power and you have to take control over the thing. You take control over the instrument. You take control over the sound of the group. Like, you say what you need to say.”49 This collective reckoning with the self of which Moran speaks is, as Walkrrr’s title aptly characterizes it, an improvisation with mutually assured destruction.

Musical listening is a threshold experience in which the cultivation of its excessive liminality requires the surrendering of a listener, who, like music, also fundamentally exists within an infinite field of varying signification. Music and its listeners are bound up in a paradoxical state of interdependence, an inexpressible communion that the musician and his or her music must attempt to conjure if we make it our point to allow ourselves to truly listen. When black musicians innovate through the “experiencing of experience,” they are inviting audiences into an emotional landscape predicated on much more than musicianship, though their craft remains essential. These artists prefigure “new” structural possibilities for performance through unprecedented collaborations that cross over and redefine their disciplines, which in turn, challenges our own perception of how art makes its subject. But Moran’s innovation is also attributable to a far simpler explanation given jazz’s core aesthetic of unbounded utility, or “say[ing] what you need to say.” As J. A. Rogers posited nearly a century ago, “Jazz isn’t music merely, it is a spirit that can express itself in almost anything. The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air.”50


1. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 7-8.

2. James Baldwin, “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” in James Baldwin, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, ed. Randall Kenan (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 150–51.

3. James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” in Going to Meet the Man (New York: Dial, 1965), 133.

4. Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 67.

5. Nancy, 6, 15.

6. Nancy, 25.

7. Nancy, 19.

8. Nancy, 7.

9. Charles Lloyd, qtd. in Geoffrey Himes, “Jason Moran: In All Languages,” Jazz Times, October 2010,

10.  Himes, “Jason Moran: In All Languages.”

11. Alex Abramovich, “Face to Face with Jason Moran,” Stop Smiling, 11 March 2007,

12. Nate Chinen, “Jason Moran: Out Front,” Jazz Times, September 2003,

13. Himes, “Jason Moran: In All Languages.”

14. Bambaataa’s breakbeat appropriations from “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers,” two underground hits by the German electro-pop group Kraftwerk, suggest an otherworldly amalgam of experimental sample-based music. With the aid of Arthur Baker’s historic adaptation of the Roland TR808 drum machine (a first in hip hop) and keyboardist John Robie’s signature manipulation of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer’s “ORCH5” sample—the latter of which was based on an early recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite—the Afro-futurist aesthetic of “Planet Rock” is an improbable mélange of funk, hip hop, classical, and electronic music. See Robert Fink, “The Story of ORCH5, or the Classical Ghost in the Hip-Hop Machine,” Popular Music 24:3 (Oct., 2005), 339–56.

15. Abramovich, “Face to Face.”

16. Jason Moran, Close Encounters: Jazz at the Intersection of Performing and Visual Arts – Jason Moran Master Class, Brown University Creative Arts Council, 27 November 2012,

17. Nancy, Listening, 7.

18. Nancy, 27.

19. Himes, “Jason Moran: In All Languages.”

20. Nancy, Listening, 7

21. Jason Moran, qtd. in Joan Simon, “In the Studio: Joan Jonas and Jason Moran,” Art in America, 28 April 2015,

22. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011), 6, 5.

23. Jackson, 2.

24. Jackson, 2, 4.

25. Jackson, 19.

26. Jackson, 4.

27. Jackson, 41, 14.

28. Lars Bang Larsen, “The Long Nineties,” Frieze, 1 January 2012,

29. Larsen, “The Long Nineties.”

30. Jackson, Social Works, 47.

31. Jason Moran, qtd. in Ben Ratliff, “Art, Ancestry, Africa: Letting It All Bleed,” New York Times, 14 May 2012,

32. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2003), 1.

33. Saidiya Hartman, qtd. in Moten, In the Break, 3.

34. Moten, 2.

35. Baldwin, “Of the Sorrow Songs,” 152–53.

36. Marcus Wood, Slavery, Empathy, Pornography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 97.

37. Wood, 102.

38. The sexualization of Condoleezza Rice is a rather complicated matter to diagnose with certainty. Critics might conclude that Annie Leibovitz’s October 2001 Vogue portrait of Rice in a strapless black ball gown, seated at a grand piano, plays into the perverse history of configuring accomplished women through their ability to comport to conventional standards of beauty and glamour. But there also appears to be a direct correlation between Rice’s unflattering moniker and her Freudian slip of the tongue during a 2005 dinner party, when she reportedly remarked, “As I was telling my husb—,” before saying, “As I was telling President Bush . . .” This episode spurred a significant amount of speculation regarding her “relationship” with the then-seated president. Online forums especially focused on establishing a connection between her alleged slip of the tongue and the “irresponsible” cross-racial promiscuity of black women since the era of chattel slavery. Consider the following forum-thread title: “Condoskeeza Rice skeezin’ with George Bush; Playing the role of Sally Hemings” ( For coverage of Rice’s Freudian slip, see Laura Kipnis’s “Condi’s Inner Life: What Freudian slips do—or don’t—tell us about politicians” (Slate, 26 April 2004,

39. Nancy, Listening, 7.

40. Kara Walker, Improvisation with Mutually Assured Destruction Featuring Jason Moran & The Bandwagon, The Whitney Museum of American Art, 11 May 2012.

41. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “Brown Sugar,” Sticky Fingers, Track 1, Rolling Stones Records, 1971.

42. Jagger and Richards, “Brown Sugar.”

43. See Christopher Sandford, Keith Richards: Satisfaction (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 331.

44. For an example of how listeners ambivalently reconcile themselves with the lyrics to “Brown Sugar,” see Lauretta Charlton, “‘Brown Sugar’ Is a Dirty Song about Slavery and Sex, and I Love It” (Vulture, 3 April 2015,

45. Walker, Improvisation.

46. Walker, Improvisation.

47. Jackson, Social Works, 38.

48. Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” 139.

49. Jason Moran, in Jason Moran: Looks of a Lot, dir. Radiclani Clytus, RoundO Films LLC., 2014.

50. J. A. Rogers, “Jazz at Home,” The Survey, 1 March 1925, 665.

Radiclani Clytus works at the intersection of new media and nineteenth-century American literature and visual culture.