Pianist and composer Jason Moran was the first of four Presidential Scholars to visit Amherst College during the 2021-2022 academic year. During his Sept. 19–23, 2022 residency, he visited a variety of classes and conducted craft classes in the music department. As part of the President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism, he participated in a pre-concert conversation, “James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin,” and then presented the concert itself, James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin.

Jazz Theory and Improvisation

Intro by Dan Langa ’18, Graduate Assistant for Jazz Theory and Improvisation

World-renowned pianist, composer and educator Jason Moran joined the students of “Jazz Theory and Improvisation” for a powerful session focused on improvisation, the blues and the music within our conversations. Moran began with an original composition based on the pitches and rhythms found in a field recording of a Turkish friend during a phone call. As was true with much of the craft class, Moran was able to blur the lines between life and art, highlighting the compositions we hear through everyday life. This mind-bending performance launched into a conversation about jazz improvisation with students who are just beginning that journey. Using “Blues O Mighty,” a tune written by saxophonist Johnny Hodges and recorded on the Oliver Nelson album More Blues and the Abstract Truth, students found common ground with Moran to improvise by using the melody as an initial guide. The enthusiasm brought by Moran and the students was evident in the final jam on “Blues O Mighty” and in Moran’s message of confidence in the younger generation to be the next stewards of this musical tradition.


Jason Moran speaking during a jazz improv class.

Left to right: David Brown ’25 (at the piano), Jason Moran and Caleb Savoie ’26 (holding the saxophone)

A group of students in taking instruction during a music class.

Jason Moran instructs students in the course “Jazz Theory and Improvisation.” Observing the class are instructor Bruce Diehl (top right), senior lecturer in music and director of jazz performance, and Dan Langa ’18, graduate assistant for the class.

Four photos showing Jason Moran instructing saxophone players.

Jason Moran (top left, bottom right) joined students in “Jazz Theory and Improvisation”: pianist David Brown ’25 and saxophone players Caleb Savoie ’26 (top and bottom right) and Ryan Hughes ’26 (bottom left).

Two students playing piano and one playing a guitar.

Kai Lockton ’26 (hands playing piano in foreground), Victoria Henry ’25 (guitar) and David Brown ’25 (piano, at rear)

Jason Moran listens as three student play piano, guitar and saxophone.

As Jason Moran encourages with hand gestures and movement, students improvise “Blues O Mighty,” using the melody as an initial guide.

Two students listening intently to visiting musician Jason Moran.

Left to right: vocalists Petra Brusiloff ’24, and Andres Pena Tauber '23, in Jazz Theory and Improvisation.

Jason Moran holding both arms in the air to emphasize a point as he speaks to students in a jazz improv class.

Moran encouraged the students to “interrupt the form” and get into “unsafe territory.”

The Pre-Concert Conversation & The Concert

James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin

Program Notes by Jason Moran

Jason Moran wrote the program notes for his sold-out concert at Buckley Recital Hall, a tribute to James Reese Europe (1881–1919), a seminal African American jazz musician and composer.

There is a great beauty in the life of Lieutenant James Reese Europe. Within the scholarship of who he was and what his music is, it becomes clear that the history surrounding him is a complex and tightly woven knot. Each strand of the cord holds a uniquely American history, a history that also births another complex knot, JAZZ.

Europe becomes a freedom fighter. He learns aspects of this at an early age as his violin teacher is the son of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. An early lesson he understands is that sound and freedom aid one another. With his violin, he arrives in New York on a mission. Much of his mission revolves around music, but his greater mission will be that of demanding equality of African-American performers, PEOPLE. He finds fame by producing music for many societies: dances, parties, ceremonies, concerts. In 1910 he formed the groundbreaking Clef Club, a union for African-American musicians. His 1911 standing-room-only Carnegie Hall premiere of the Clef Club Orchestra was a sensation. His work developing dance music with the famous dancing duo, Vernon and Irene Castle, innovated the fox trot tempos and other dance steps. With each of these developments, Europe always found a larger stage. The “stage” will always be a portal for a place to test what is real and surreal.

In WWI he found his largest and most dangerous stage. When he joined New York’s 15th Regiment, later becoming the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters, he knew African-American soldiers could not fight alongside white soldiers. His writing partner Noble Sissle was shocked Europe signed up. Sissle asked Europe if he could get out of the war, would he? Europe replied, “If I could, I would not. My country called me and I must answer. And if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music.”

He indeed startled the world. 100 years later, we celebrate a brave individual among a company of soldiers. The Harlem Hellfighters, who predict a thought Martin Luther King Jr. would write some 47 years later in his letter from a Birmingham jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Here We Are.


Jason Robinson, Jason Moran and Khary Polk sit on stage in conversation.

“President’s Colloquium on Race and Racism: James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruin”—a pre-concert conversation with Jason Moran (center), moderated by Jason Robinson, associate professor of music (left), and Khary Polk, associate professor of Black studies and sexuality, women’s and gender studies (right)

10 musicians playing piano, drums, wind and string instruments on stage.

James Reese Europe and the Harlem Hellfighters: The Absence of Ruin, featuring Jason Moran (piano); Darryl Harper ’90, the John William Ward Professor of Music (clarinet); Brian Settles (tenor saxophone); Logan Richardson (alto saxophone); David Adewumi (trumpet); Chris Bates (trombone); Reginald Cyntje (trombone); Jose Davila (tuba); Tarus Mateen (bass); and Nasheet Waits (drums)