A Magnificent Midnight: An Appreciation of Jemeel Moondoc

Ed Hazell

Jemeel Moondoc, William Parker, © 2021 Joel Wanek

Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who died on August 29, 2021, a few weeks after his 76th birthday, haunted the edges of the jazz avant-garde for nearly 50 years. His achievement far outstripped his renown. But let’s not spend too much time lamenting the cruel and whimsical nature of fame and fortune; they are not very reliable judges of musical quality to begin with. Even if the world’s attention was often turned elsewhere, Jemeel was still compelled to make music and he did so with an intensity and determination that few other musicians possessed. He had a vision and he followed it always, without compromise, for his whole life. He was, more than anything, a singular person, totally honest all the time, mordantly intelligent, and without self-pity. It was all there in his music. Never mind that he was, as he titled one of his compositions with the sardonic wit that permeated his music, “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time.”

Moondoc grew up in Chicago, where he learned clarinet and later alto saxophone in the supportive environment of his family and the city’s Black community. Tellingly, the first albums he remembers buying were by Gene Ammons and Cecil Taylor. The blues and Taylor provided the foundations on which he built his singular style. He left Chicago for Boston to study music but soon left for the University of Wisconsin at Madison after learning that Taylor was teaching there. He later followed him to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Taylor’s teaching and music launched Moondoc deep into his own ideas and the development of his own voice in music. Auditing Taylor’s lectures at Antioch (he was never enrolled), he read Janheinz Jahn’s early study of African culture and spirituality, Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. It not only provided him with the name of his first, longest lasting, and most important band, but it also gave him a philosophical framework for his music making.

“Muntu is about the transition and survival of an old world culture connected to me by birth,” he said. “Muntu is about me traveling back centuries into an ancient world known to me only through my ancestors. This connection is spiritual, and embraces the living and the dead. When performing music, the execution of contacting the ancestors requires a religious belief. This process can be an out of body experience causing one to be possessed, but can also bring into the room the spirits of ancestors known and unknown. The intent of the performance is not to merely entertain, but to uplift, and awaken the listener’s spiritual powers.”

After moving in the summer of 1972 from Yellow Springs to New York with pianist Mark Hennen, who would be a founding member of Muntu, Moondoc was astonishingly determined in his pursuit of music, and certain of its importance. He reconnected with trumpeter Arthur Williams, whom he knew from Antioch, and brought in bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Sinan (later replaced by Rashied Bakr) to form Muntu. The quintet remained more or less intact until late 1978, when Moondoc replaced Hennen and Williams with trumpeter Roy Campbell. By my estimate, Muntu played more than 100 gigs at lofts, churches, community arts centers, and on the radio in New York between 1973 and 1980, making them one of the busiest bands of the loft era. And that’s not counting tours of Europe in 1978 and 1980, and a tour of Canada in 1979. He also released two self-produced LPs, First Feeding (1977) with the Muntu quintet, and the triumphant Evening of the Blue Men (1979) by the quartet. That’s hustle.

The dynamic of his career changed in the 1980s, however. Muntu broke up in late 1981, an event Moondoc blamed on Cecil Taylor “stealing” his Muntu rhythm section of Parker and Bakr, and certainly that contributed to the more intermittent pace. Even without a steady working band, he did manage to release two superb Soul Note albums, Judy’s Bounce (1981), with a blue-chip rhythm section of Fred Hopkins and Ed Blackwell, and Konstanze’s Delight (1983), with a sextet. But most of his creative energy was dedicated to the Jus Grew Orchestra, which managed to perform weekly at different Lower East Side venues for the better part of five years from 1981 to 1986, but which waited more than 15 years to be recorded, on the 2000 Eremite album, Spirit House.

As his devotion to Jus Grew and to Muntu indicate, Moondoc favored working ensembles and was at his best with them. He found the long familiarity with regular bandmates was liberating. It lent confidence, joyfulness, and intimacy to his music; it inspired fearlessness and exploration.

He wrote beautiful compositions for both bands. He loved the rapport of small groups and reveled in the scale and drama of the large ensemble. Some of his tunes were joyful and bellicose (“Hi Rise”), others tender (the poignant “For the Love of Cindy” on the 2014 Relative Pitch album, The Zookeeper’s House), and all of them intelligent and clear-eyed. They functioned like wonderfully designed, polished keys: they opened doors, doors to the place where for him the music really lived – in the give and take of improvisation with others, the collective, spontaneous, bruising truth telling of music made in the moment. And there are few who did it better or with more verve and urgency than Jemeel Moondoc.

As for his own improvising, Moondoc probably characterized it best himself in a poem that appeared on the back cover of Evening of the Blue Men. He captured the essence of the pride, mercurial play of dark and light, confidence and vulnerability, earthiness and spirituality that marked his music:

We are the Blue Men
We have been carved out of the dark, hard ebony of Africa
Our shapes are awesome as well as beautiful
Our lines are jagged and sharp as well as soft and smooth
We are symmetrical and asymmetrical in the same instant
We span a vertical line from the abyss to the astral
For we are dark unto ourselves
And in the bright and glistening noon-time sunlight
We reflect a magnificent midnight
We are the Blue Men

But the situation in the 1980s was despairingly familiar: extraordinary amounts of creative energy expended with little or no recognition to show for it. Moondoc admitted he grew weary of the constant soul-crushing grind of hustling gigs for short money and little acclaim. Who can blame him? Looking back at his career during an interview made in the early 2000s, he said that for long periods, “I didn’t realize that I was mad, I was not thinking. The thing about music is that it’s so addictive, you can’t do without it, you always have to be doing it. So I was glad after a while, in the early ‘80s I could get Jus Grew together, it gave me immense pleasure in the midst of such agony. And we managed to scrape together a string of gigs with different people. By the ‘90s, the same kind of shit started bugging me about money and recognition, and stagnation. All I wanted was for somebody to call me and I can say, alright, give me this much money. Not for them to be upset. And not squabble with people over this that and the other.”

And then there was close to a decade of silence, until 1996 when Eremite Records released Tri-P-Let with bassist John Voigt and drummer Laurence Cook. It was the first of seven remarkable discs for the label. Eremite was to Jemeel Moondoc what Impulse was to Coltrane: Moondoc made many fine albums prior to his tenure with Eremite, but he made his best ones for it. All released between 1996 and 2003, they amount to the fullest accounting of Moondoc’s genius on record. Among them is his recorded masterpiece, New World Pygmies, a duet with bassist Parker (full disclosure, I wrote the liner notes for that album). In addition to the previously mentioned Jus Grew CD, there’s also a boisterous quintet album, Revolt of the Negro Lawn Jockeys (also with a liner note by yours truly), a second volume of New World Pygmies with Moondoc and Parker joined by Hamid Drake, and a lively, fully engaged duet with drummer Denis Charles originally recorded in 1981.

The tenure with Eremite undoubtedly raised Moondoc’s profile and afterwards he was able to document his music on other independent jazz labels. In the last 20 or so years of his life, there were periods of musical activity as well as time off the scene. In the aughts, Live at the Glenn Miller Café, a brash second release by the New World Pygmies trio appeared on Ayler records, as well as another obstreperous recording of Jus Grew, Live at the Vision Festival. Then another long recording drought before Relative Pitch issued Two, a deep give-and-take duet with pianist Connie Crothers, in 2012, and The Zookeeper’s House, a collection of new compositions for different ensembles, in 2014. During his prolonged musical exile in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moondoc had earned a degree in architectural draftsmanship, and at last, exhausted by the constant struggle for survival in New York, he moved to Atlanta, where he worked a steady job and made periodic trips back to his former home base to play with old compatriots. His recorded swan song came in 2018 with The Astral Revelations on RogueArt, by a quartet including Matthew Shipp, Hillard Green, and Newman Taylor Baker. It ranks with his best efforts, an example of the unquenchable creative fire that lasted into his final years.

It should be added that Moondoc suffered from sickle cell disease his whole life, although he never talked about it publicly. On more than one occasion in the ‘70s, members of Muntu had to take Moondoc to the hospital after a gig, fatigued and in pain from the disease. It was probably what killed him in the end, as he sat on the front porch of his home in Atlanta and quietly passed away. The fact that he performed and recorded as much as he did, for as long as he did, and at such a high level, while he suffered from a disease that regularly kills people before they reach the age of 50, is nothing short of heroic. He was a warrior on and off the bandstand.


© 2021 Ed Hazell

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