Jason Moran

The roster of musicians—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and many others—who played the Three Deuces nightclub on Manhattan’s 52nd Street from the 1940s through the ’50s nearly encompasses the whole of modern jazz history. Yet any trace of that iconic locale, as well as all the other jazz venues that once lined the block, has long been obliterated by office towers. Some redress for this cultural disregard can be found in Jason Moran’s installation STAGED: Three Deuces, which was featured at the 2015 Venice Biennale. A pianist, composer, and visual artist, Moran demonstrates his reverence for his forebears not only through his music—in 2014, he released the album All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller, a resolutely contemporary interpretation of Waller’s compositions—but through his meticulous re-creations of performance sites like the Three Deuces, Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom, and the Lower East Side’s Slugs’ Saloon. Moran’s sculptures are not merely commemorative but activate what Biennale curator Okwui Enwezor calls the “liberatory and the collective” experience of African American music and blackness itself. The low ceiling and padded walls of the Three Deuces—so familiar from photos of Parker or Davis at work—form the backdrop for drums, piano, and bass (above) and suggest the compactness and density of the club’s stage. Alert to the tension between this confined space and the boundless invention once enacted within it, Moran animates his installation with sonic accompaniment: The piano turns out to be self-playing—it’s programmed with one of Moran’s own compositions. The bareness of the walls accentuates the geometric properties of the instruments, making the viewer aware of the curves of the upright bass and the drum kit, the angularity of the piano. The evocative vividness raises a question: Where are the musicians? Their presence is pointedly announced by their absence. In one of the book’s many insightful essays, Glenn Ligon notes that Moran once said he could attribute every note he played to a particular musician. This legacy—one that is aural, kinetic, and spiritual—is borne forward by Moran’s “performance” of communal spaces.

Jason Moran, STAGED: Three Deuces, 2015, mixed media, sound. Installation view, Luhring Augustine, New York, 2016.

Moran preserves such echoes in more personal ways, too. The volume includes a selection of artworks for which he placed paper—sometimes old player-piano scrolls—over his keyboard, coated his hands in charcoal dust, and played, thus leaving visual evidence of the movement of his fingers. Again, he explores the paradox of presence and absence: The resulting images appear abstract, ghostly, even as they confirm the physical act of producing sound. The charcoal on the paper is, Moran says in an interview with his wife, Alicia Hall Moran, “basic and immediate.” “Perspective is flipped,” he continues. “What do the piano keys see when my fingers come down and hit them?” His instrument, like those in STAGED: Three Deuces, is alive, and it testifies to the life of the musician, to the continuance of a vital African American tradition.