In 1965 I had just finished Berklee and come to New York, and I was renting a duplex loft on the Lower East Side. Grachan Moncur III was one of the first people that came to see this new musician who’d just gotten out of school. I had followed him from Boston after he released his Blue Note LP Some Other Stuff, but I never thought I was going to meet him as soon as I got to New York!
Right away, he hired me to play at Slugs’, which was pretty much the headquarters of the music in the second half of the ‘60s. I worked with him from then on for about an entire decade. He was also in Archie Shepp’s various ensembles—including some that were never recorded—and some of Marion Brown’s groups. They were part of a group of like-minded, free-thinking avant-gardists, but they already had some prestige because they’d played on John Coltrane’s Ascension. We, Grachan and I and other young players, came to New York with the intention of being the new wave that was completely in the realm of Ascension, which was more a testament than a piece of music. We were immersed in Coltrane’s move away from Miles Davis.
I found out later that Grachan had also made a similar move. He’d gone to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, the same place Dizzy Gillespie had gone to, and had been recruited right out of there by Ray Charles. That was his stepping-stone. When I met him, he had all kinds of music, but the direction he was going in was to bring that solid foundation to all the guys like Jackie McLean, who played some avant-garde but wanted to keep their credibility as hard boppers.
He was my teacher. Grachan taught me how to survive on the road. What to do when I got hungry at a hotel in Europe. Just little pointers and tidbits like that, rules of thumb for being on the road. But he also made me into a teacher. In the ‘70s, Grachan was a board member of a nonprofit called The Community Thing that his mother-in-law operated in Harlem. I was the director of the music department, and I invited people from all kinds of different backgrounds to come if they were interested. Grachan was my boss. A partner, a teacher, and a boss all in one.
On top of all that, he was a cheerleader. When we went to see Sarah Vaughan, he told her I was a great pianist. I was also just finding my way into being a composer, and Grachan would sometimes bring Eddie Jefferson—who was his neighbor in Newark—to dinners and events we were hosting at The Community Thing, and Grachan was always pushing and encouraging me. “Play Eddie what you played for me the last time that we hit.”
We were always just a phone call away from each other. And that communication never did stop. The overall diminuendo of musical opportunities really came as Grachan had children, but whenever the opportunity arose to perform together, we did. We had connections through Beaver Harris’s 360 Degree Music Experience, and through William Parker; plus, whenever there was a Grachan Moncur III band, even though it wasn’t often, I’d be in it.
In 2019, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, there was a 50th anniversary event for the Pan African Festival that we did in 1969. I was there, Archie was there, Andrew Cyrille was there, and Grachan was there. I could see that he was not feeling well, but we still had fun. That was the last time I saw him.
When Grachan passed, I thought there would be an event right away in celebration of him, like the celebrations of Max Roach or Ornette Coleman. But I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be done right, especially after COVID. I think about all he did with trombone players who knew him, loved him, and were influenced by him, and I want everyone to know what he meant to people like that as well as to people like Jackie McLean and Ray Charles. I am anxious to make sure that he has the respect and the kind of love and appreciation that he deserved. [As told to Michael J. West]Originally Published