For a time, it seemed that trombonist Grachan Moncur III was destined for jazz stardom. In demand both as a soloist and a composer, he was one of the most original voices to emerge in the early 1960s. Moncur’s recordings for Blue Note as leader and sideman in the company of Jackie McLean, Lee Morgan, Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson and others were hailed as touchstones of an era. But for various reasons, some of his own doing and some beyond his control, Moncur never enjoyed the sustained success of his peers, although his talent was never at issue. The recent three-CD collection on the new Mosaic Select label of Moncur’s most significant Blue Note work reaffirms the trombonist’s early triumphs and focuses the spotlight once again on an artist who still has something to say. The set includes Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond (1963), Destination Out! (1963), Hipnosis (1967) and ‘Bout Soul (1967) and Moncur’s Evolution (1963) and Some Other Stuff (1964).
Born in 1937, Moncur, a Newark, N.J., native, was all but predestined to become a musician. His father was the highly respected bassist Grachan “Brother” Moncur, and his uncle was saxophonist Al Cooper, leader of the legendary Savoy Sultans. “People like Dizzy Gillespie, Babs Gonzales and James Moody were always dropping by the house, and they took an interest in me,” Moncur recalls. “Sarah Vaughan and my mother were best friends. Sarah was a great cook and used to cook in our kitchen!”
The youngster was drawn to the trombone at a very early age: “I always remember a valve trombone being in the house. When my father was on the road, I’d sneak it out from under the bed and try to play it even though I was too small to pick it up.” After studying piano and cello, Moncur took up the trombone in earnest at nine: “My father bought a pawn ticket for five dollars and came home with a silver-plated trombone wrapped in newspaper. That was it!”
The budding musician was quickly drawn into Newark’s dynamic jazz scene. “There were quite a few jazz clubs, and every night there was a jam session somewhere,” he recalls. Moncur also learned a lot playing in the Newark YMCA band where he met another up-and-comer, saxophonist Wayne Shorter: “He was kind of weird, always looking up in space at something nobody else could see. Even then he was quite advanced and had a great sound.”
In 1951, Moncur was sent to high school at the renowned Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. “My mother wanted to get me off the scene in Newark because the drug situation was bad in our area,” he explains. Laurinburg had an active music program. Dizzy Gillespie had attended the school, and Moncur recalls that the trumpeter’s spirit still permeated its halls almost two decades later. The students were exposed to a wide variety of music. “We played overtures and marches like ‘E Pluribus Unum’ and ‘Old Comrades,'” Moncur remembers. “That stuff was hip! I’d love to get a marching band today to play that stuff!”
After graduating from Laurinburg in 1955, Moncur returned to Newark, where he joined pianist Nat Phipps’ band. The group was made up of the city’s finest young players, including Wayne Shorter. An encounter with Miles Davis helped Moncur establish his own identity at that early stage of his career. “I used to go to Birdland and sit in on Monday nights,” Moncur recounts. “One night Miles came in. I went up to introduce myself and told him how much I admired him. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you ever say that corny shit to nobody! I know who you are, man. You got something. Dig yourself!’ That made me go inside myself. Not that I didn’t respect other musicians like J. J. [Johnson] anymore, but I didn’t idolize them.”
Moncur continued his formal education at the Manhattan School of Music and later Juilliard but had to drop out for financial reasons. In 1958, he formed his own group during a stay in Miami Beach. His father set up an audition at a local club, but when the owner heard the group, he hired the rhythm section without the leader. “That was a low point,” Moncur recalls. “It was like the world came to an end for me.”
A few days later, however, he got a call inviting him to join Ray Charles’ orchestra. Some of the band had heard the trombonist jamming at the Sir John Lounge in Miami Beach where Charles was appearing and brought him to the leader’s attention. “I went from wanting to die to the top of the world!” says Moncur. He spent about a year and a half with Charles, during which time he was taken under the wing of such veterans as Hank Crawford, Edgar Willis and David “Fathead” Newman. “I was the kid in the band-full of youthful enthusiasm,” says Moncur. “I wanted to play all the time. Ray used to say, ‘Tell that trombone player not to play so much behind me!'”
While Moncur was touring with the Ray Charles Show, Art Farmer and Benny Golson liked what they heard of the young trombonist and soon afterward invited him to join their Jazztet. When Moncur gave Ray Charles his notice, he explained that, although he loved working in the band, he felt it was time to spread his wings, and the Jazztet was a prime showcase for his instrument. “I really admire your spunk,” the singer replied, “but do you realize it’s 1959, and I’m booked till 1980?” Nevertheless, Moncur took the plunge with Charles’ blessing.
It was during his tenure with the Jazztet that Moncur began to write in earnest. “Art Farmer told me that he noticed from the way I played that I might make a good composer,” Moncur recalls. “That same night, I heard this little song in my head. I called it ‘Sonny’s Back’ for Sonny Rollins, who was my favorite musician. The next day I sang it for Benny Golson, who took his horn out and played it right there on the street.” The group eventually recorded the piece and adopted it as a theme.
Art Farmer helped teach the young composer to notate his work: “I’d never tried to write anything that complicated before. Art took me into a practice room, sat me down at the piano and showed me how to subdivide the bar. I learned more in that half hour with him than I had in any of my formal schooling!”
Moncur took his first recorded solos with the Jazztet. His early influences on trombone had been Bennie Green, Frank Rosolino, Bill Harris and Trummy Young, but after hearing J.J. Johnson, Moncur’s playing crystallized. Although impressed with Johnson’s speed and execution, the young trombonist was more taken with the structure of his solos. “His solos seemed to be an extension of the music,” Moncur explains. “His playing was very closely aligned with his compositions. That helped me shape some of my ideas and taught me to think in terms of keeping form.”
Hearing the playback at his first Jazztet recording session prompted Moncur to make some adjustments in his style. “I was playing too many eighth-notes in succession,” he says. “I wasn’t breaking up my phrases, and it sounded monotonous. I found that when I played shorter phrases using different inflections and articulations it could be more effective.” Moncur eventually arrived at his own highly personal style, combining a trenchant but thoughtful improvisational approach with the pleasingly robust sound and effortless swing of some of his early influences.
Moncur remained with the Jazztet until it disbanded in 1962. Living in Brooklyn, he entered into an extremely creative period of freelancing with like-minded musicians such as Jackie McLean, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Bobby Hutcherson. These associations led to the Blue Note recordings that were to become classics in the evolution of modern jazz. Between 1963 and 1967, Moncur appeared on some eight Blue Note albums, including two as a leader, four as a sideman with McLean and one each with Hancock and Wayne Shorter. “A Blue Note date was more than just a record date-it was an event,” the trombonist says. “There was a certain Blue Note style of playing. I helped to break that mold because they let me do my own thing.” In addition to featuring his always-absorbing solo style, the albums showcased his evolving sensibility as a writer.
Whereas Moncur’s earliest pieces were tailored to the straightahead style of the Jazztet, his Blue Note work was far more exploratory both in form and mood. Michael Cuscuna, who produced the Mosaic Select compilation, notes that the trombonist’s pieces “are unique like Monk’s, and each one, coupled with its title, creates a vivid mental picture.” The reference to Monk is apt, for several of Moncur’s pieces from this period do have distinctly Monkish touches, particularly the ingenious “Frankenstein” and, of course, “Monk in Wonderland.” “His compositions,” Cuscuna adds, “while friendly to musical conventions, are also open and lyrical and exist within their own logic.”
Other pieces in the Mosaic box, such as “The Coaster,” are extensions of his writing for the Jazztet, while “Evolution” and “Gnostic” reflect the growing spirituality that would suffuse much of his post-Blue Note writing. Finally, there are evocative mood pieces, such as the exquisitely melodramatic “Ghost Town.” Much of Moncur’s writing is deceptively simple and sounds so natural that one is unaware of its underlying rhythmic or harmonic complexity. As Jackie McLean observed in 1968 to Nat Hentoff: “He often comes up with fantastic things that are right there in front of you, things you see every day but step over.”
Although he recorded extensively for the label, Blue Note never signed Moncur to a contract. “They got kind of pissed off at me because I had my music in my own company,” he explains. “In those days, the record companies used to publish tunes of their artists-even the biggest names gave up their early stuff like that.” Moncur has since made his peace with Blue Note: “It took 35 years, but I’m glad I lived to see it! I could have handled things differently, but I was young then and didn’t have any guidance. I don’t regret what I did because I own all my own stuff now, and these reissues pay a thousand times more than I would have gotten when these recordings were made.”
Moncur feels that his dispute with Blue Note may have alienated other companies and even some of his fellow musicians. “It forced me into another direction-toward the younger musicians in the avant-garde,” he says. “They respected what I was doing and pulled me into their thing. That saved me because I had nowhere else to go.” In the late 1960s, the trombonist found himself in a number of challenging settings, collaborating with such experimenters as Frank Lowe, Marion Brown, Sunny Murray, Beaver Harris and Archie Shepp. Moncur became one of only a handful of trombonists to move the instrument beyond the conventions of bebop. “‘Avant-garde’ or ‘free’ playing is a concept just like swing or bebop,” he observes. “You can’t just jump in and start playing it. You’ve got to respect it and learn how to fit in.”
In 1964 Moncur’s career took another odd turn. He auditioned for a role in the original Broadway production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mr. Charlie. When director Burgess Meredith asked Moncur to play for him, the trombonist thought to himself, “He’s not going to hire me anyway, so I’m gonna play some weird shit!” Moncur played several of his own pieces and when he got to “Riff Raff,” Meredith turned to him and said, “I like that! We can use it in the third scene!” Then he asked the trombonist to play along with a Muddy Waters record. After two bars he stopped him, saying, “That’s all I need to hear. Give him a contract!” In addition to playing solo trombone, Moncur also had a speaking role in the play, which ran for four months.
While increasingly drawn into the “new music” of the turbulent 1960s, Moncur also worked with tenor saxophonists Joe Henderson and Sonny Rollins. “I used to sit in with Sonny on opening night, and then he’d tell me to make the rest of the week with him,” Moncur recalls. A tour of Europe in 1967 led to several recording projects with Archie Shepp. In Paris two years later, Moncur recorded his own New Africa suite (BYG). The album also contains the aptly titled “Exploration,” which shows just how seamlessly the trombonist had assimilated aspects of free jazz into his music. Five years later, he recorded perhaps his most ambitious work, Echoes of Prayer (JCOA), with the star-studded Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. An orchestral work of great rhythmic variety and emotional depth, it features some of Moncur’s most powerful trombone statements on record.
In the 1970s and 1980s, while continuing to perform, Moncur moved increasingly into education. From 1982 until 1991, he was composer-in-residence at the Newark Community School of the Arts. “We had students from eight to 80,” he recalls. “I did most of my teaching from the keyboard and grew with the kids! Teaching helped me develop my own musicianship.” He also conducted his own “Moncurainian” workshops with his wife, Tamam, a classically trained pianist and gifted arranger.
In recent years, work has been sporadic for Moncur. Aside from occasional reunion performances with old colleagues like Archie Shepp, Moncur has not had many opportunities to have his music performed. “A lot of musicians of my generation don’t seem to get the opportunities like the ‘new breed,'” he says. In addition, he has had extensive dental work, which required him to practically relearn his instrument. Moncur remains positive, however, saying, “In many ways, it’s been a blessing in disguise.”
A.B. Spellman wrote in the original liner notes to Evolution: “Moncur seemed constantly to talk more about what he intended to do than about what he had done.” That remains true today. “Some people have approached me about putting some of my new ideas into practice,” the trombonist says. “I don’t have an attitude anymore like the world’s against me. I know that everything’s on me this time, and I intend to be ready.”