Improv skating

On May 4, jazz pianist Jason Moran and his band preformed at the San Francisco Jazz Center to the sound of skateboarding.

I've been to some interesting skate-oriented events in my day, but this one trumped them all. On May 4, the San Francisco Jazz Center hosted an unprecedented event, fusing together live skateboarding with an improvisational jazz performance.

Thirty-seven-year-old pianist Jason Moran, described as "jazz's wild card," backed up his reputation with his group, The Bandwagon, as they performed an improvisational jazz set while a crew of skaters did their improv lines on a mini ramp set up in front of their stage.

The audience got to watch skaters Jake Johnson, Adrian Williams, Nick Matlin, Brian Downey, Billy Roper, Justin "Iceman" Gastelum, Dave Abair, George Rocha, '80s Joe, Jack Given and Dustin Walls skate to the tunes of Jason Moran on piano, Tarus Mateen on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums and Jeff Parker on guitar.

Great music, ripping skaters, crazy stage lighting, a positive and supportive crowd and the rad folks at the SF Jazz Center made for an amazing time. spoke to Moran via email to get the lowdown on jazz, skateboarding and what brought it all together in one arena. Do you have a history in skateboarding? If so, how did that begin?
Moran: I grew up in Houston. Around [age] 11 or 12, I was skating a lot with my brothers and our buddies. We were a crew of seven and were into all things Vision and Powell-Peralta. We all wanted to be Mark Gonzales or Ray Barbee, Steve Steadham or [Mark] Gator [Rogowski]. I skated for about five years very seriously, but realized as I was transitioning into becoming a serious pianist that I didn't need to be falling on my wrists anymore.

My older brother was into skating, so my younger brother and I followed his lead. My parents took us to San Francisco and somehow we knew that the EMB was the place to be. We went there every day during that vacation. It was transforming, because it was clear: This was the Mecca.

Improv Skating

How did the concept of mixing a jazz performance with skateboarding come about?
I am one of five artistic directors at the SF Jazz Center. So when they asked about what I'd like to do, my immediate thought was to honor the city of San Francisco. I consider skateboarding a form [of art] that has attracted so many people to San Francisco.

I know punk, underground hip-hop, trap music and heavy metal have a place within the sonic framework of skateboarding, but I also know that jazz has an immediate synergy with the unpredictable nature of rhythm -- like street skating. Add to that all of the videos over the years that have used John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, etc. Especially Mark Gonzales in "Video Days."

Is there a correlation between jazz and skateboarding?
For me it's about the use of objects and obstacles. In jazz, there are so many moving parts, and within a composition, there are obstacles in the form. Street skaters navigate a landscape finding ways to approach a rail in the same way a drummer approaches the beginning of a song.

The mode of improvisation is so paramount to how both skaters and jazz musicians approach life. A skater spends many hours into the night practicing a trick. A jazz musician learns a solo by spending time tracing the notes. Then there is the communal aspect: Skaters find their crew and hit the street; jazz musicians call a jam session at their apartment or at a club. That's how I wanted our performance to be like -- a jam session. People showed up, and we worked things out.

What do your contemporaries think of this concept?
The few peers that do echo my sentiment are like, "Hell yeah!" Actually, what I found out was that I knew all of these secret skaters, but no one ever talked about it. Actually the guitarist, Jeff Parker, that performed with my band is in the band Tortoise. He and I talked for a while, and he knew Tommy Guerrero and Ray Barbee. Ray and I talked for a while about concept, and also he's a really serious guitarist. So it allowed a lot of conversations to happen with people both inside and outside of skating.

My biggest companion in this foray was Kent Uyehara from FTC [skate shop]. He and I talked a lot. He hooked me up with the skaters and the ramp designer, Greg Rocha. I was very nervous about this project because it hasn't happened before in jazz, let alone in a concert hall. I had no idea about what would happen. I would practice in my studio by projecting skate videos on the wall, and play along at the piano. The music of pianist, Thelonious Monk, was a perfect fit.

How did the crowd react?
It was great to hear the audience engage the skaters. First off, the age range of the audience was from age 6 to 76. Every generation was represented in the audience. What I loved the most was that the audience gave just as much vocal support to the skaters when they fell as well as when they landed a trick. Also, the audience in San Francisco is accustomed to seeing skateboarding each day, but they may have never actually sat still and watched tricks develop while listening to my band. Kind of a great way to multi-task.

Is this something that you will do again? If so, where and when?
We are making this an annual event at SF Jazz. We have scheduled the followup in June of 2014. I will also try to present this at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. After the first concert, Greg Rocha from Iris Skateboards gave me a small cruiser. When I returned to [New York], I went out skating for the first time in years. I was telling one of the SF skaters, Joe Stalley, that I would love to drop in [on the ramp] at the next concert. But I need to increase my insurance before that happens.

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