How Jason Moran Met His Musical Match in Ta-Nehisi Coates with 'Between the World and Me'

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Shahar Azran Photography/Courtesy of the Apollo Theater
Joe Morton, Common, Black Thought, Greg Reid, Angela Bassett, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Pauletta Washington and Michelle Wilson at the Apollo Theater. 

The jazz pianist and composer discusses his soundtrack for the staged reading of the author’s award-winning, best-selling book.

Common stumbled when he launched into his freestyle during the first staged reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and that pause made a devastating point.

With Jason Moran at the piano and his jazz ensemble keeping time with an urgent beat behind him, Common went in: “Here we go / Here, here we go again / Trayvon will never get to be an older man / Black children, they childhood stole from them -- let me do this again, check it out.” He stopped. Moran’s fingers dug deeper into the keys; the bass continued to build. If Common indicated that his bars and his mind weren’t aligned, he dispelled that assumption in the next breath. “Here we go / Here, here we go again / Stephon Clark will never get to be an older man / Black children, they childhood stole from them…”

In Between the World and Me, an 154-page letter to his son, Samori, Coates ruminates on Samori’s reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin; later, he explores how he processed the death of Prince Jones, his friend from Howard University who was shot and killed by a Maryland cop in 2000. Stephon was killed days before the cast and crew of Between the World and Me convened at the Apollo for dress rehearsal; NYPD officers would shoot and kill Saheed Vassell, a black man holding a metal shower head, in Brooklyn two days after the performance.

Prince, Trayvon, Stephon -- Common wouldn’t run out of names if he kept going, and the staggering weight of that realization brought the outside world into sharper focus within the Apollo’s walls. The story stays the same, and that’s the crux of an ancient, American problem Coates unpacks in Between the World and Me -- now re-imagined in a stunning theatrical context helmed by Kamilah Forbes, executive producer of the Apollo and a dear friend of Coates’ from their Howard days. Moran, who wrote the music for Ava DuVernay’s Selma and frequently works off prompts of visual art and history, was charged with composing music for the Apollo’s production.

Forbes and Moran kept it simple. A small, rotating cast of performers -- including Angela Bassett, Joe Morton (Scandal) and Susan Kelechi Watson (This Is Us) and Black Thought -- read selections from Between the World and Me on April 2 and 3, with Common and Black Thought’s freestyle breaking from the text to riff on its themes. Moran drew particular inspiration from a chapter Coates would read onstage before the close of the night, a passage spotlighting numerous artists across genres and generations. “When he’s joining Mobb Deep and Billie Holiday in the same breath, that’s the life that I live,” Moran says of Coates and their cultural touchstones. “That’s the music that frames him.”

It frames Moran, too: The score for Between the World and Me is an act of recognition and a foil, where Moran’s movements accompany Coates’ words, and pull from the brilliance on the page, their shared experiences, their lives as black men and black fathers, their embrace of hip-hop, jazz, soul and the wealth of black talent and lived history shaping stories they both tell.

Below, Moran discusses his contribution to Between the World and Me -- which continues its run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on April 7 -- and how it deepened not only his understanding of Coates’ work, but himself.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

When I heard this was happening, I was so curious about what we’d see, exactly, given that Between the World and Me is effectively a monologue. Was it a challenge to interact with that as a composer?

Anytime text is involved, we want to make sure to leave space for the audience to hear the dialogue, especially since Ta-Nehisi writes very dense -- every syllable has so much history in it. The music does two things: It supports the actor for their emotion and the momentum that they’re building, but it also informs the audience that they’re not alone in the process. It serves as a cloak for the audience to seek shelter in, whatever music we try to frame each chapter in.

That was the hard part. Every reader is different, but as we worked with the text more and more, it’s gotten more refined in a way, and I was able to touch the text every once in awhile but never feel like it was too present until the moments when it needed to be.

When did you first encounter Coates’ writing?

He’s been one of those writers for years that’s been doing the hard work. The first time I noticed his name was this piece he did for the New Yorker about MF DOOM. But when Between the World and Me came out, that was kind of immediate, because enough people around were like, “Have you read this yet?!” I read it a couple of months after it was released.

Can you describe your personal connection with Between the World and Me, and how it resonated with you?

There are a lot of parallels. One is, as a parent raising two black boys, twins, there’s a lot that’s part of the common conversations I have with my kids who are still young. But also, these boys went to the same school that Samori went to. Ta-Nehisi was writing that book while his kid was at the school that I’m still taking my kids to now.

This was so personal because this was to his son, and that makes it required reading, I think, for any parent -- whether or not they understand all of these pieces, being African-American in America, and the alienation in the community that parents are wrestling as they try to raise [their children], and what people recognize what their parents did with them to prepare them to navigate this, too… It’s profound to take care of another human and raise them, and that’s the thing I need to do right now. I need people to help me be a parent, and I need to help other people be parents. This piece teaches that.

Coates name-checks a few musicians in Between the World and Me as he recounts his own history and relationships -- Wu-Tang Clan, Aretha Franklin and more. You had a lot of reference points to work with, but there’s no sampling in the show; it’s all you and your players.

That was a question that Kamilah [Forbes] and I talked about: Do we want to do that? Do we want to bring in Public Enemy at some point, or any of these other references? I just never brought it up again because it was just a talking point.

I still think that we have to rely on the audience’s imagination at that point, too. Not everything is didactic. To allow for that distance, for a person to hear the word “Billie Holiday” and search their mind in half a second for her voice as the piece continues to unfold, that’s where I think it lives. Music lives in memory. Even though our brain is in our cranium, that distance it has to travel to find sound -- that’s a thing that I love to have an audience try to do, even while I’m painting around it. Sometimes the music is just a frame for them searching their memory.

Common’s freestyle hit that note, too. What was it like to work through that moment with Common and Black Thought?

It was a dream come true, you know. Common, I met him years ago; Black Thought, of course, is a heavyweight MC. [It was] this rare moment where we’re making a document onstage about the very time we live in, and how perplexing it is and the layers of all of it. Using a freestyle session to help us and the audience think through it, despite it being a piece of music, it’s really a thought, a process, conceptual art in that moment. We’re showing you the process of making it. The things you’ve been hearing earlier in the piece, by the time it gets to Black Thought and Common, there, those seeds are ready, and the flower was them coming out and sharing that. It’s a powerful moment in the piece.

It’s a release, too.

It also makes us aware of how how rare it is to be dealt something so potent. Even when you’re reading a book, you’re picking it up and putting it down. You’re taking your own breaks. But in live performance, we try to ride a ways. It seems to build up a current and a certain choppiness in the water, but then as you’re in the boat, you understand that this just the way this boat rocks. It doesn’t reach no calm seas. I think the audience recognized that. Every once in awhile, we need to look up at the sky and exhale for a moment.

Were there any parts of Between the World and Me that struck you as places where you shouldn’t come in, where the audience is only listening to his words?

It depends on the readers. Each one of them read different passages during the rehearsal process and timed it differently. Whether it was humor or anger or rage, they performed in a way that would require us to follow what a reader’s intention was in their rhythm. The way Joe Morton says “Son,” that lets us know how the rest of the piece is going to go for me. This is an intimate space. This is not a public space. This is an intimate letter to Samori. That makes it feel like it never has to grow too large, because it’s quiet, and a person’s inner dialogue is what’s on display in the book. I like silence probably a little bit more than any film or stage director, because I love hearing a person breathe, and letting them use silence as sound, too.

Was there a part of the performance that made you think of Between the World and Me differently?

There’s a moment where he says, “These are the preferences of the universe.” That’s what a friend of mine termed as neo-pessimism, but this is deeper than that, because the logic is so intact. It made me look at my children, who were sitting in the audience watching it come together in rehearsal. I would lose myself in their shape, looking from the audience to the stage. it made me really understand that I had such a long way to go with them. I think I’d taken that part for granted before diving back into this text, and also now sharing it with an audience who’s experiencing someone saying these things.

That’s the daunting part of making work like this: There’s a lot of stress involved and a lot of resolution we’re trying to seek, but the piece offers no resolution. I don’t resolve anything in my music at all. Everything is left in the air. All the intervals I use are open intervals. This is specifically because the country hasn’t found a way to resolve centuries of terror.

Did you feel any pressure with mounting this work in this particular place, given how hallowed the hall of the Apollo is?

It’s a lot. Working with Ava on Selma was a different set of baggage to a degree, because it was a historic piece. Meeting John Lewis and Andrew Young and people who were a part of the march, that was another kind of, “How do you make sure you don’t mess up this story?” It’s a pressure younger African-American artists feel from their elders, because we understand how important these stories are, and that sometimes these stories get messed up when they’re left in the wrong hands.

But knowing that Kamilah has such a close relationship with Ta-Nehisi, that eased my worry about it. Of course, when he came to rehearsal it was a little nerve-wracking, because he was watching this work unfold in front of him, probably unlike how he anticipated, but also, this is why we make work, why we’re artists -- we’re willing to put our work on the line to try to generate a feeling in the audience.

The fact that this was a traditional performance, in the sense that we all put down our phones and sat down in a theater, away from our screens and away from the page. Why is it important for audiences to participate in a performance like Between the World and Me, especially right now?

There’s always a feeling that comes up for an audience when the lights go down, and a thousand people are sitting in a room together in the dark watching one thing occur. Whether it’s a film or a stage production or a concert, there’s something that is part of civilization itself that happens at a gathering. It doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s necessary to come out and sit down and experience something together, to be pissed off together rather than alone, to work through problems together, to listen to ideas together and go have drinks afterwards together -- to try to cope with it, because we’re all coping with it, even the ones who have nothing to do with it.

I live my life in these theaters, so I think it’s important for everyone and myself to go sit down and experience something. We’re never quite sure what we’re going to come away with, even if we hate it. There’s so much we can learn by letting our minds move into an abstract space. When the lights go down on the stage, now we’re in another world.