Grachan Moncur III, a trombonist and composer who forged a unique identity in the “new thing” of 1960s jazz, died in his longtime home city of Newark, New Jersey, on June 3. It was his 85th birthday.
His death was first reported Friday on social media, and confirmed later that day by WBGO radio in Newark. Moncur’s son Adrien told the radio station that the cause of death was cardiac arrest. According to Adrien, Moncur had been hospitalized for much of the spring, and one of his legs had recently been amputated due to a vascular issue.
The torchbearer of a musical dynasty—his father and uncle were a swing-era bassist and saxophonist, respectively—Moncur was schooled in swing and began his career in the throes of hard bop and R&B. However, after his earliest work with Ray Charles and the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet, Moncur reached his artistic maturity in the envelope-pushing band of alto saxophonist Jackie McLean. From there, he proceeded to work with avant-gardists Archie Shepp, Marion Brown, and Dave Burrell. However, he also worked with Lee Morgan, Big John Patton, and Cassandra Wilson.
Moncur was thus a member of a ’60s-era cohort—generally associated with Blue Note Records (where he recorded with McLean and made his own first two albums, 1963’s Evolution and 1964’s Some Other Stuff)—of artists with one foot in the bebop tradition and another on the progressive frontier. This was particularly reflected in his compositions, which were full of simple melodic lines but also unusual meters and structures, abrupt transitions, and clattering harmonic dissonances. His independent streak extended beyond the creative realm and into business; Moncur insisted on owning the publishing rights to his music, which caused friction with Blue Note and perhaps hampered his recording career overall. Undeterred, he kept composing and performing, though the latter became rarer as he immersed himself in a career as an educator.
Following Moncur’s passing, tributes poured in from fellow musicians, many of them his protégés. “ALL of my compositions in some way or another also exemplify the enormous influence of the pioneer musician-composer Grachan Moncur III,” wrote drummer/trombonist/composer Tyshawn Sorey on Facebook. “One of my earliest heroes in this music around whom I’ve had the honor to ‘come of age’ in Newark.”
“What Grachan gave me is beyond what I think is even discussed these days,” trombonist Steve Swell wrote. “For an improvising trombonist he got all of us in touch and connected with a full body sense of yourself when you played. … A truly brilliant musician and composer. Rest in Peace Sir.”
Grachan C. Moncur III was born June 3, 1937 at Sydenham Hospital in New York City. His father, Grachan “Brother” Moncur, was a bassist who worked with Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, and—along with his half-brother saxophonist Al Cooper, Grachan III’s uncle—was a founding member of the Savoy Sultans, a jump band that was resident at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom for nearly a decade. His mother, the former Ella Wright, owned a beauty parlor in Newark.
When Grachan III was six years old, his father bought him a cello; at nine, the boy having shown little interest in the cello, his father came home with a trombone instead. This instrument appealed to Moncur, and with his parents’ encouragement he studied at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina through high school. He attended both Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, but dropped out of both, instead becoming a professional musician and quickly getting a job with the Ray Charles Orchestra.
After about a year with Charles, Golson and Farmer recruited Moncur into their successful Jazztet. The trombonist remained with the band from 1959 until its dissolution in 1962 and began composing in earnest; his tune “Sonny’s Back” became the band’s theme. He then began a long stretch of freelancing, working with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, and, most notably, Jackie McLean. McLean boosted Moncur’s profile, using the trombonist on his edgy 1963 albums One Step Beyond and Destination…Out!, on both of which the trombonist’s compositions dominated. Moncur, in turn, used McLean’s band on his Blue Note debut album, Evolution, later that year. His second album, Some Other Stuff, was recorded for Blue Note the following year.
Though Moncur would appear on other crucial Blue Note albums (McLean’s Hipnosis, Wayne Shorter’s The All Seeing Eye), the label ultimately declined to sign him to a long-term contract after learning that he already controlled his own publishing. Instead, he moved on to a lengthy tenure with free-jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, with whom he toured Europe—where he subsequently recorded with drummer Sunny Murray and pianist Dave Burrell. Back in New York, he appeared on Lee Morgan’s final recording, released as The Last Session in 1971. In 1974, he led the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in a recording of his ambitious long-form composition Echoes of Prayer. It would be his last album to receive wide release for 30 years (1977’s Shadows was released only in Japan).
Instead, Moncur gravitated toward teaching. He spent virtually all of the 1980s at the Newark Community School of the Arts and holding workshops with his piano-playing wife, Tamam Tracy Sims Moncur. (They married in 1968.) He did perform during this time, notably with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, but he was frequently sidelined by a series of health issues, especially dental problems that affected his embouchure. By the turn of the century, bookings were scarce.
In 2004, Moncur re-emerged with a new album, Exploration, which achieved universally positive reviews. He followed it with 2007’s Inner Cry Blues, though he still found few opportunities to play his music and little recognition as an important jazz figure.
Moncur made his peace with the relative obscurity, however. “I feel great,” he told Sean Singer in a 2011 interview. “I’d love to see dealing with Herbie and Wayne and them cats, and I’d like to get that kind of recognition. Then again, I like being able to do what I want to do. … I’ve seen what’s happening with them…. Something didn’t make me envy that.”
Moncur was predeceased by two of his children, son Toih and daughter Hilda. In addition to his wife Tamam and son Adrien, Moncur is survived by two other sons, Kenya and Grachan Moncur IV; two daughters, Ella and Vera Moncur; two brothers, Loften and Lonnie Moncur; and several grandchildren.