How Jazz Pianist Jason Moran Landed the Score to 'Selma'

The ethos of jazz pianist Jason Moran hit home for Selma director Ava DuVernay. Highlighting his own work, Moran, 39, described an art project titled "The Quilts of Gee's Bend, Alabama" as a piece that "combines the rural and the urban." DuVernay's reaction: "She said, 'That's exactly it,'" he recalls. Selma, about the events leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.'s landmark 1965 march for voting rights (which opened nationally Jan. 9), is Moran's first feature film score.

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What kind of visual references did you use?

Ava sent me photographs they had taken during the shooting and from seeing those and some of the costumes and sets, I started writing things to narrow the possibilities.

How much of that music ended up on the cutting room floor?

Three albums' worth? (Laughs.) What's great about Ava is she's rigorous about what she liked and was quick to send me back to the drawing board.

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The story is so intense that the sparsely used music feels calming. Was that intentional?

Music gets in the way of most films. I was trying to be conscious of how we wanted our audience to exit the theater -- angry, settled or unsettled -- but to give them enough hope so they leave positive.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of Billboard.