At first, the only sensible reaction was giddy laughter that it was even happening at all. At the SFJAZZ Center last night, Jason Moran’s jazz quartet led a jam session on stage—while in the audience, with the first five rows of seats removed, eight skateboarders held a different kind of jam session on a specially built miniramp. Pretty funny, right?
But a few songs into this amusing pairing, conceived by Moran himself, the serious corollaries between the two art forms of jazz and skateboarding began to make perfect sense. As the band onstage improvised in real time, so did the skateboarders, trying trick after trick. As the band was beholden to rhythm and tempo, so were the skateboarders, slaves to that next transition in the ramp, always approaching. As the musicians played off each other’s ideas, so did the skaters, by positioning their boards on the platform for the more daring of the bunch to use as extensions of the ramp.
The results were nothing short of thrilling.
Moran, wearing a T-shirt from the East Bay hip-hop group Souls of Mischief, compared modern-day skateboarding to the early days of modern jazz at Minton’s Playhouse, “when Diz and Bird and all them were trading ideas and the language was changing so quick.”
Certainly, new languages were being worked out on the ramp, especially by the fearless Justin “Iceman” Gastelum, who approached each seemingly impossible high-flying trick with the brash confidence of, say, Albert Ayler. Once the game of naming each skateboarder’s jazz counterpart began, it was hard to stop: Ben Gore rode like Ben Webster, smooth as silk, gliding across the full width of the ramp. Alex Wolslagel’s style was inventive with a slight attack, like Booker Ervin’s, doing nose wheelies and 360 ollies. And Adrian Williams kept switching things up, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk—dropping in, for example, and immediately sliding 180-degrees into goofy-foot mode.
The ramp itself was mic’ed, so the thrusting of the wheels came over the P.A. along with the music. But if there were any drawback to the experiment, it was that there wasn’t more interplay between the instruments on stage and the instruments on the ramp. Moran’s excellent Bandwagon trio (Tarus Mateen on bass; Nasheet Waits on drums) was even augmented with special guest Jeff Parker (from the band Tortoise, on guitar), but seemed to prefer a role as background music for the skaters, at an event where more individual soloing by musicians could have interwoven with the action nicely. Such interaction occurred at the end of a Monk tune, when drummer Waits left spaces in his solo for the skater’s tricks, but the two didn’t cross over much otherwise (except literally, when a smiling Wolslagel hopped off the ramp and sat down to play at Moran’s piano).
This could be due to Moran’s obvious desire to present the skaters’ work as high art to a new audience. During an intermission, he passed the microphone around to each of the skaters, allowing them talk about how they got into skateboarding (usually, watching videos of San Francisco street-skating legends like Tommy Guerrero) and what it meant to them personally. He took photos of the skaters while switching from piano to Fender Rhodes. He asked why the crowd wasn’t clapping for them more frequently.
In the lobby afterward, while hordes of teenage skaters swarmed the skateboarders and asked them for autographs, Randall Kline, director of SFJAZZ, said that when Moran pitched the idea of a skateboarding show, “I didn’t think twice about it.” Kline, whose own son is a skateboarder, was only concerned with the logistics. At one point, his staff thought they might have to construct a ramp in the alley behind the SFJAZZ Center and project a live simulcast of the skateboarding outside to a screen behind the stage.
That wouldn’t have nearly had the same effect as the miniramp—built by Kent Uyehara and George Rocha, and still smelling like fresh plywood—being situated inside the theater. The connections between jazz and skating wouldn’t have been as apparent, and the thrill of landing a trick after multiple agonizing falls wouldn’t have affected a jazz-minded audience in the same way.
In addition to being jazz’s brightest pianist right now, Moran, who has hinted that he may record a piano-MC duet album with rappers like Ghostface Killah and MF Doom, is in the continual business of giving respect to oft-misunderstood outsiders.
“A lot of the reason why I thought about this,” Moran said at one point, “is because at this time in America, skating has saved a lot of people. It provides an outlet, a space where you can not be ridiculed.”
Jason Moran’s partnership with the skateboarders continues tonight, for the second of two shows. Tickets are sold out.