Carved Out of the Hard Dark Ebony of Africa:
Jemeel Moondoc and Muntu

a history
by Ed Hazell

Jemeel Moondoc, Groningen 1980
Anko C. Wierenga©2010

The life span of Muntu almost exactly coincided with the loft period in New York. If one of the goals of loft operators was to provide younger players with exposure and playing opportunities, then Muntu must be counted as one of the artistic success stories of the lofts. Of course, they rarely made a living wage from their gigs, but that is one area where the lofts failed many bands.

If the band was typical of the loft years in some respects, it was different in others. Most loft bands were ad hoc or short-lived, but Muntu is one of the longest-lived bands of the time, rivaling groups like the Revolutionary Ensemble, Air, and only a few others. Moondoc kept the group together for the same reasons that any leader maintains a working band—in order to develop a deeper rapport among the band members and create a distinctive group sound. Most musicians, even the other members of Muntu, work in ephemeral groups, or in regular bands that get only the occasional gig. Moondoc remained tightly focused on Muntu, taking far fewer sideman jobs than others normally did.

His devotion paid off. Muntu was one of the great bands—a disciplined, tight-knit ensemble that was recognizable from its first notes. The long familiarity with one another was liberating. It lent confidence, joyfulness, and intimacy to their music; it inspired fearlessness and exploration. Their story is one of determination and persistence in the face of very long odds indeed, and ultimately of great musical triumph.

Prelude: Flight from the Yellow Dog

Jemeel Moondoc left his native Chicago for Boston when he was 17. There, he bounced around among uninspiring blues and R&B bands while taking courses at New England Conservatory. He also jammed with some of the city’s free-jazz players, including trumpeter Raphe Malik, drummer Sydney Smart, bassist Hayes Burnett, and alto saxophonist Doug Sanderson. In 1969, when he learned that Cecil Taylor was teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Moondoc moved there and audited Taylor’s class for a short time, then returned to Boston. The next year, when Taylor began teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Moondoc and several other Boston players headed west to study with him. Moondoc never enrolled in the college, but he stayed at Antioch the entire time Taylor was on faculty, playing with the student ensemble and auditing Taylor’s classes. Despite the fact that Moondoc was born in Chicago, his most formative learning experiences were with one of the founding fathers of the New York avant-garde. If Moondoc was not a New Yorker by birth, he was by training and temperament.

Moondoc and Jesse Sharps, a saxophonist from Los Angeles who was a member of Horace Tapscott’s UGMAA, co-founded the Ensemble Muntu in the fall of 1971 at Antioch. At that time, Muntu was a 12-piece band, comprised mostly of students of Cecil Taylor who played in his Black Music Ensemble. Muntu members included trumpeter Raphe Malik, cornetist Juan Reyes, bassist Bill Conway, and drummer Sydney Smart, among others. For a short time, Muntu was a quintet co-led by Moondoc and Williams, until Williams returned to New York. The Ensemble Muntu performed in concert at Central State University, Wilberforce University, Earlham College, and Antioch College. Dates are not known.

In the summer of 1972, Moondoc and pianist Mark Hennen, who had also studied with Taylor at Antioch, left Yellow Springs together in a van, headed for New York City. Moondoc wrote “Flight from the Yellow Dog,” a staple of Muntu’s early book that appears on First Feeding, during the trip. Yellow Dog was a nickname for Yellow Springs used by Moondoc and Sharps.

Muntu in New York

New York gave the newly arrived Moondoc its usual cold reception. “I couldn’t get work,” Moondoc recalls. “I was calling everybody asking for gigs. I had an opportunity to play in Roswell Rudd’s band. Roswell had this place, on 7th Ave. South, St. James Infirmary. He said I could come on down and play with him. I was flattered, of course. But I wanted to be a leader, I had had enough of being a sideman.”

Moondoc already had the nucleus of a band. He and Hennen remained in contact after their arrival. They reconnected with Williams. The loft movement was just getting off the ground and musicians were flocking into the cheap apartments on the lower east side and playing in the lofts. As Moondoc got his bearings in this complicated network of players and performance spaces, he began finding the other musicians he was most compatible with. One night at Studio Rivbea, he heard a young bassist he liked, William Parker. “I must have been there with Charles Tyler or somebody,” Parker recalls, “and Jemeel came up to me and said he had a band and he’d like to me check out the music. So I said yeah. At that time I was ready, willing, and wanting to play as much music as I could. Half the time, I didn’t know what they even sounded like, I would just go by their vibe and I was ready to play.”

Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, Groningen 1978
Anko C. Wierenga©2010

“I can remember playing with William for the first time,” Moondoc says. “It was one of the most amazing things that ever happened to me in New York—because with William Parker I was able to play. I was able to play with him; he was able to play with me. It was this incredible freedom. He had this wonderful great big sound. It was a relief. It was like a relief.”

Arthur Williams introduced Jemeel to Muntu’s first drummer, Rashied Sinan. Sinan was active in the lofts, but after his second child was born, he dropped out of music to work full time in the school system to support his family. He made only a few albums in the short time he was active, including Lowe’s Black Beings for ESP (this was also Parker’s recorded debut), Ahmed Abdullah’s Life Force (About Time) and Kappo Umezu’s Seikatsu Kojyo Iinkai (Sky).

“I remember going over to Arthur Williams’ house and rehearsing melodies with him,” Moondoc says. “Then shortly after meeting William Parker, I said, let’s have rehearsals with everybody. So we started this regimen of rehearsing. No gigs, but we used to rehearse all the time. We rehearsed more than we had gigs. It was fun, it was so much fun. We used to go up to Rashied Sinan’s and rehearse a lot without the piano. It was just a little bitty tenement apartment on East 10th. It was me and Arthur and Rashied Sinan, and a lot of times William Parker. Then Mark Hennen and I got a loft on Canal Street. There was a piano up there and we could rehearse with everybody.”

First Feeding

Jemeel was pleased with the rehearsals, but they needed gigs if the band was going to survive. Everyone was living on the economic edge. Finally, Sam Rivers gave the band Thursday nights at Rivbea for the month of December 1973. “It was Sam Rivers who saved my life,” Moondoc says. “I was thinking about going back to Chicago. The gigs at Rivbea were surprisingly good. They didn’t pay a lot of money, but our name got out there. It was like this little buzz.”

One of the people attracted by the buzz was a young dancer named Patricia Nicholson, who was interested in performing improvised dance together with improvised music. “I guess the third Thursday at Studio Rivbea, Patricia came down to look for musicians to work on this dance project,” Parker remembers. “She came down, heard Ensemble Muntu, and we did one of my compositions, “Late Man of the Planet,” which was a dirge thing. So anyway, I met her and started to branch out and do music and dance projects.” Two years later, they would marry.

Rashid Bakr, Jemeel Moondoc, Groningen 1980
Anko C. Wierenga©2010

After Rashied Sinan moved to Brooklyn to raise his family, Muntu needed a new drummer. Parker recommended Rashid Bakr, a young drummer who was relatively new to the scene. (Bakr has recently returned to using his birth name, Charles Downs, but I will continue to refer to him by the name he was using at the time.) Bakr and saxophonist Bobby Zankel rehearsed together at Zankel’s Brooklyn apartment, but he hadn’t played with many others. Zankel brought Bakr to Manhattan and introduced him to some of the loft players. “Bobby took me to Rickie Schatzberg’s loft at 77 Chambers Street, where I started to play so much that I just left my kit there,” Bakr says. “That’s where I met William. He introduced me to Jemeel. My first real gig was with Jemeel at Studio Rivbea. I was so nervous. Oh my god. To perform in front of people!”

Muntu reunited Bakr with trumpeter Williams, whom he had known at Queens College. Williams, a brilliant and original player, is a little-recognized and tragic figure in free jazz. His few recordings beside First Feeding, include William Parker’s Through Acceptance of the Mystery Peace (Centering Music/Eremite) and clarinetist Peter Kuhn’s Livin’ Right (Big City). “He was a great musician, a strong, beautiful voice on his instrument,” Bakr says. “He had stuff going in a way that nobody else did. He, Ahmed Abdullah, and I used to hang out at Queens College. We were in the Afro-American Cultural Society together. Arthur was a leader, a poet, a LeRoi Jones type of person, a strong voice. Then I graduated, got drafted, and didn’t see him for several years. The next time I see Arthur, he’s into drugs—heroin. He was having problems dealing with his homosexuality. And it screwed him up. He was totally insecure. He was still playing beautifully, but having a hard time. Here he is in Muntu, and Jemeel is having a hard time dealing with him because he’s so insecure and crazy. One time we did a gig at St. Marks Church, Arthur pulled out a knife and kept in on the stage with him because he was so paranoid.”

Jemeel Moondoc, Arthur Williams, Studio Rivbea, 1976                                                Tom Marcello©2010

Despite Williams’ bouts of instability, Moondoc was loyal to him for many years. The quintet’s personnel remained essentially unchanged from the summer of 1974 until the spring of 1978. The only changes were occasional substitutes in the drum chair, and Williams’s absence from the band for a six-month period between October 1976 and March 1977. Sometimes Hennen was absent if the venue didn’t have a piano. During this period, the band worked with remarkable frequency. Moondoc secured gigs at lofts such as Studio Rivbea, Ali’s Alley, Sunrise Studios, the Ladies’ Fort, and elsewhere. It was an environment perfectly suited for Moondoc and the band. Moondoc’s willingness to hustle for gigs and his concepts about cultural continuity within the avant-garde were well suited to the do-it-yourself, countercultural milieu of the lofts. And everyone was hungry to play.

Shortly after Williams’s return to the band, on May 17, 1977, Muntu recorded its debut album, First Feeding. Reviews appeared only in the jazz specialist magazines. Grackle noted similarities to Cecil Taylor’s music, but also said, “Moondoc’s writing and the interpretations by trumpeter Art Williams, bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr (sleeping giants all) is thematically varied and impeccably delivered…. Very encouraging music.”

British critic Barry McRae, their most sympathetic listener in the press, wrote in Jazz Journal:

Each [composition] is introduced with a well controlled unison, before the group take to freer areas, either contrapuntally or in solo sequence. Both Moondoc and Williams are animated players…Williams has a fiery attack and fine rhythmic sense, while Moondoc adds the depth of his playing with a unique and poignant sound.

Hennen is another good player and he, more than any of his colleagues, seems to allow each statement to mature. Parker is a supple bassist and Bakr a dynamic drummer who keeps up the tension at all tempos. … the entire record must to rated as a fine first outing for a young group with potential.

“That record got all of us a long way—from the unknown to the semi-known,” Moondoc says. “And that’s a long way. From the unknown to the semi-known, that’s a long distance. I’m telling you.”

A Turning Point

William Parker , Anthony Brown, Jemeel Moondoc, Billy Bang, Groningen 1978          Anko C. Wierenga©2010

The album helped Moondoc secure the band’s first European tour in October 1978. Moondoc and Parker were the only Muntu regulars on the trip. Violinist Billy Bang joined them from New York, and two different American drummers living in Europe—Anthony Brown and Saddik Abdul Sahib—subbed for Bakr. Bakr was not on the tour because, according to Moondoc, “the people who hooked it up said there are already some drummers over here, a guy named Anthony Brown, who was stationed in Europe in the Army. We did a couple gigs with him. [Brown was later active in the San Francisco Asian American jazz movement and led the Asian American Orchestra.] The rest of the gigs we did with Saddik. He was there with Keshavan Maslak, his tour had just ended and he turned out to be pretty good.”

In many ways the tour was a turning point for the band, proving to Moondoc that it had the ability to play on an international level. They received their first live reviews in newspapers in Tilburg and Groningen. Both were quite positive. “With his brilliant performance in Vera this young alto player proved that he will be one of the real heavies in years to come,” the Nieuwsblad van het Noorden enthused about their Groningen performance.

Moondoc had been thinking about a new direction for the band for some time and after the tour, he decided to make permanent changes in Muntu. Bakr and Parker would remain part of the band, but Williams and Hennen would not. Williams’s personal problems finally became too much for Moondoc to tolerate. His unwillingness to travel would be a hindrance to the band’s growth. “Arthur was scared that basically as a business man I didn’t know what I was doing,” Moondoc says. “He was scared to get over there and get stranded. Arthur didn’t want to go on the tour, so that was it for him.”

Hennen and Moondoc had been drifting apart musically for several months. Moondoc had liked the sound of the band on tour without a piano and began to realize that he liked the more open sound of the gigs they had played in New York without Hennen. Moondoc felt that for the band to grow in the direction that he wanted it to, he needed a pianoless quartet. Hennen felt betrayed and hard feelings lingered for many years.

The quartet on the Dutch tour wasn’t exactly what Moondoc wanted, however. “I wanted to keep working with a trumpet player instead of tenor or trombone, I don’t know why that was, it’s just something that I heard,” Moondoc says “So I’m going to William, do you know any trumpet players and he said yeah, I know a really good one.”

Evening of the Blue Men

Roy Campbell, Groningen 1980                     Anko C. Wierenga©2010

“In 1978, I did a concert with a saxophone player, Clyde Cotton,” Roy Campbell remembers. “We played at the African Poetry Theater on a Sunday. Right away there was this rapport established between me and William. Sinan [not Rashied Sinan, but a drummer from Turkey who played for a short period during the loft era] was driving us back to our apartments after the gig and William said to me, I’ll be calling you. I was cynical back then, and I thought, aw, that’s what everybody says.

“I think it was about two days later, Jemeel called me, it was on a Tuesday. ‘Yeah, man, I got this gig at Rashied Ali’s place, Ali’s Alley, and William Parker told me about you, told me you were a trumpet player. Would you like to do the gig?’

“Our first rehearsal was that Saturday at William’s house. I hadn’t played in any bands for like a year and some change because I was in school, at City College. When I played with Clyde, that was the first time I’d played in public in like 18 months. For six months. I was vibing on getting into a band like Muntu. I was tired of playing regular music and I wanted to do stuff that was more adventurous. So when I played with Jemeel, it was like instant chemistry, right away.”

“When I first started playing with Roy you could tell he had a really traditional bebop training, but you could also tell that he had a free mind,” Moondoc says. “It was pretty good, we hooked up. He’s got these huge ears, he can hear shit, easily. He not only hears it right away, he can interpret it right away. He can put it right back at you. That was easy, so wonderful.”

Moondoc had acted quickly in making the changes. He returned in early November from Holland and by mid-December 1978, the revamped Muntu played its first gig at Ali’s Alley. It was an auspicious start. Robert Palmer wrote the first (and only) full-length review the band received in the New York Times. “The group does not sit comfortably into any avant-garde niche,” Palmer wrote in the December 16, 1979, article. “Rather than drawing inspiration from the stylistic breakthroughs of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and related groups as so many younger players are doing, the musicians in Ensemble Muntu are at work perfecting the kind of group interplay one heard in Ornette Coleman’s quartets of the early 1960s…. the quartet’s performances are like good conversations, with each participant contributing his share, listening and responding. Mr. Moondoc’s compositions are good subjects for these conversations. ”

Rashid Bakr, Roy Campbell, William Parker, Jemeel Moondoc, Groningen 1980
Anko C. Wierenga©2010

Just three months later, on March 31, 1979, they recorded their first album, Evening of the Blue Men, in concert at St. Mark’s Church. Billy Bang sat in on the second set. In an article about Muntu in Downtown Review that included a review of the performance, filmmaker Henry Hills wrote, “I’m not going to say that Muntu is here full-blown, the most important thing to hit the avant-garde since [filmmaker Michael Snow’s] Wavelength, but they’ve given me several of the most exciting evenings of music I’ve experienced this season … if they continue to grow together at such as rate we may soon have a major force.”

Shortly after the release of Evening of the Blue Men, Muntu did a short tour of Canada in October 1979. On two of the dates, they were joined by the Bill Smith Trio, a Canadian group that included saxophonist (and Coda editor) Bill Smith, violinist David Prentice, and bassist David Lee. Lee remembers, “We shared the bill with Muntu in Ottawa and Kingston. We had rented a big sedan for the tour, and gave a ride from Ottawa to Kingston not to William Parker, but to his bass! Once we loaded up the trunk there was just enough room to get Bill, David Prentice, me, and two double basses in the car, but not another human. I was impressed because to make the bass fit, William took out its bridge and sound post, then re-installed them in Kingston. I had only been playing bass for three years and that seemed so risky to me! (Actually, it’s not hard and right after that tour I made sure I learned how.) Then we picked up William at the bus station in Kingston. That night, we each played a set, same as in Ottawa, but at the end we all played together.” 

Back in New York, the band continued making the rounds in the lofts, but also played a concert in the prestigious Public Theater series on a double bill with pianist Dave Burrell. In November, there was another tour of the Netherlands. The band seemed to be moving from strength to strength. Then in December, Cecil Taylor asked Parker and Bakr to join his group. It was a blow from which Muntu never really recovered.

The End

The scene that had sustained Muntu for most of a decade was already changing. The focus for performances in New York shifted to jazz clubs and concert halls, while European festivals grew in number and importance. Moondoc was moving with the times himself. He had been able to secure gigs for Muntu at Verna Gillis’s Soundscape and at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater. In April, Muntu again went to Europe, this time to play at the 18th Jazz on the Odra River Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, where they recorded their second album as a quartet, The Intrepid (Poljazz). (A later Cadence Jazz Records release, New York Live!, included music from the Public Theater date and from the band’s bon voyage party at Studio Henry before they left for Poland.) But Taylor, the veteran free jazz icon, was better known and better positioned to take advantage of the new situation. Parker and Bakr became busier with Taylor and tensions over perceived divided loyalties drove the long-standing quartet apart. “I could have been in a better position to contend,” Moondoc maintains, “but Muntu basically disintegrated when William and Rashid went with Cecil. I couldn’t compete against Cecil. I couldn’t compete. So I had to do something else. I had to abandon my Muntu dream.”

Muntu continued for a while with Campbell and Moondoc working with different bassists (Parker played when he was available) and drummers. In the summer of 1982, a version of Muntu with Campbell, bassist Jay Oliver, and drummer Steve McCraven toured Europe and recorded Live in Athens for the Praxis label. Moondoc began leading new ensembles and there are no other documented Muntu gigs, until February 1985, when a group with Campbell, Parker, and drummer Gerard Faroux performed at the Tufts University Jazz Festival near Boston, Mass., and at Charlie’s Tap in nearby Cambridge. But by then, it was clear the band had run its course.

Although the dissolution of Muntu was a bitter disappointment to Moondoc, it must be counted as one of the great success stories of the time. Woefully neglected for the roughly nine years they played together, Muntu, nevertheless made some of the fiercest and most honest music ever heard in the jazz. We can only hope that this reissue brings them, even in retrospect, a measure of the respect they deserved.

Thanks to Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, Charles Downs (nee Rashid Bakr), Roy Campbell, Jr., Anthony Brown, Michael Heller (for his invaluable research on the New York Musicians Festival), photographer Anko C. Wierenga, videographer Peter Katz, Bill Lowe, Ben Young, and Michael Ehlers.

First published as part of Muntu Recordings, a CD box set newly issued on No Business Records:

Ed Hazell©2010

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