Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:15 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

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JEMEEL_MOONDOC_one_eye-1Now 63 years old, Chicago-born avant-garde jazz saxophonist JEMEEL MOONDOC - who began his recording career in the 1970s - is still going strong and has just released a new album, 'The Zookeeper's House' for the Relative Pitch label. Moondoc, who was a disciple and student of free jazz piano legend, Cecil Taylor, in Antioch, Ohio, came to prominence when he moved to New York City and formed Ensemble Muntu with kindred spirits William Parker, Roy Campbell Jr, and Rashid Bakr.

In a rare interview, he talks to SJF's US correspondent, John Wisniewski, about his life and music...


JemeelWhen did you begin playing jazz music? Were you playing from an early age?

Maybe it was around '67 - '68, my first attempt at playing jazz. I became acquainted with Michael Cosmic, Phillip Musra and Doug Ewart who were associated with the AACM, these guys were already astute musicians. But I started clarinet around 8, nothing serious just curious, but I stayed with it, learned some scales and few little tunes. Mostly I just played it, with records or just improvised by myself. I started playing flute in my High School concert band. There were too many clarinet players when I went to audition, so the band master handed me a flute. I never played flute before that; later on, I picked up the alto sax. What a wonderful sound. I didn't play the sax that much while in high school, except a few times when I played at parties with friends, but that was not jazz.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

In my house as a kid the jazz records we had was Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nate King Cole. But I remember as a teenager the jazz guys that sort of dominated the scene in Chicago were Ramsey Lewis and Gene Ammons. One of the hit records back then was Dizzy's 'Sweet Low - Sweet Cadillac'. Cannonball Adderley was also popular. Later we started listening to Bird, Miles and Trane, Ornette and Cecil. We also got plenty of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Art Blakey and the Messengers. There are some contemporaries whom I enjoy playing with, Jessie Sharps and Juan Reyes who came to Antioch to play with Cecil from the Horace Tappscott Band. And certainly members of my 'Jus Grew' Orchestra; William Parker, Roy Campbell, Steve Swell and Bern Nix Jazz is filled with so many great musicians throughout its history it is hard to say that a few or my favorites.

What inspired your newest composition 'The Zookeeper's House'?

A mixed media art piece by Ronnie Phillips (ronphillipsart.com) was a visual and intellectual stimulation to me. I was so inspired by this piece I used it for the cover of the CD. My idea is that the Zookeeper is a keeper of history, a keeper of archives, not just animals, but a collector of any and all documentation and records relating to the existence of mankind. Sometimes this type of inspiration adds to the motivation to keep creating and composing music new and different, to be recorded or performed live.

Do you enjoy playing live?

Live performances are the most nourishing just in terms of feedback. The feedback is instantaneous, and in most cases positive, uplifting and encouraging. There are people and fans out there who what to be entertained with something new and different. Recorded sessions can also be very gratifying and encouraging; it also serves as a documentation of your work as a composer and band leader.

Could you tell us about working with Matthew Shipp who joins you on 'Zookeeper'?

I always liked Matt's playing and approach to the piano. Especially his work with David S. Ware. His playing is open avant-garde so to speak, and soulful at the same time. I would say his approach and result is somewhere between a Cecil Taylor and a Don Pullen.

There is a rendition of an Alice Coltrane composition also ('Ptah, The El Daoud') - are you an admirer of her work?

Alice Coltrane is a wonderful composer, everything she has ever recorded and written is new and different and spiritual. I think that 'Ptah, The El Daoad' is an unforgettable piece that just dances in your head. It is one of Alice's defining compositions that caught everyone's ear, a wonderful anthem or march theme, with great solo interpretations by Pharoah and Joe Henderson.

Who in jazz history would you most liked to have recorded or played alongside?

That would be Louis Armstrong. I can remember trying to play the clarinet along with a couple of Louis's records we had at the house. I was 9 or 10. Back then when anyone said the word jazz, the very first image that would pop into my head was that of Louis Armstrong; I know that there would be no jazz without Louis. This also gave me a feeling of pride. Cecil would be another jazz great that I would love to play with. Who wouldn't? A few times, when I was playing in his Black Music Ensemble back at Antioch; I had a few brief moments of playing with him one on one. Incredible minutes in my life. But when the stew started to cook, and the pot started to boil, Cecil would stop, and calmly get up from the piano. One of Cecil's greatest recordings is a record called 'Dark Unto Themselves,' with David S. Ware, Jimmy Lyons, Raphe Malik and Mark Edwards. What a great recording. I got a chance to play and record with the great Ed Blackwell; what a wonderful experience. It was with Ed and Fred Hopkins, we played a concert over at NYU. This came out on a record called 'Judy's Bounce' on Soul Note. It is one of my own favorites.

'The Zookeeper's House' is dedicated to Roy Campbell Jr. Could you tell us about him?

Roy Campbell and I were long time friends; we have been playing together since the mid '70s. Roy added a very strong sound and spirit to MUNTU. Roy and I continued to work and record together after MUNTU had dissolved. Over the years Roy and I recorded about nine records together including the MUNTU box set. He was a permanent member of the 'Jus Grew' Orchestra. Roy Campbell Jr. was well versed in the bebop and post-bop jazz traditions. His trademark was the way he blended his traditional roots with the new avant-garde. He could display a big brassy sound comparable to Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw but also could deliver a soft, sweet, well-articulated tone reminiscent of Kenny Dorham or Don Cherry. Roy was an excellent composer and his approach was harmolodic, but he also had a firm knowledge of traditional chord structure and harmonic movement. More than any other musician that I have worked with, Roy was the one that I learned the most from. Roy Campbell Jr. was a powerful and elite musician way ahead of his time.


jemeelmoondoc-judysbounceIs jazz still important as it was during the 1950s and 1960s?

The history of jazz becomes more and more important as time goes on. In the beginning, jazz and Black American music was synonymous. Jazz is a music created by the African-American, expressing freedom, liberation, redemption, pain and misery. From jazz came ragtime, Dixieland, gospel, R&B, rock & roll, soul music and rap music; all of these styles and the artist that created them have contributed to the mainstream of American popular music. Louis Armstrong topped the pop charts three times in his career. A lot of factors contributed to the dilution of jazz, but if you take a quick look at the demographics of the jazz audience of today; you will find a small group of people who are over 35 years old; most of whom have been jazz fans from an early age. I remember when Louis Armstrong passed away; people were saying that the death of 'Pop's' was the end of  jazz. Jazz is still important today, but today we have to focus on the historical contribution that jazz has given to America and to the world.

Jemeel_liveWhen was your most inspired moment in your career?

There isn't just one, there are a few that I remember well, I'll just briefly talk about them one at a time. The first time was at the Studio Rivbea, December,1973. It was the first New York performance for my Ensemble Muntu with Arthur Williams, Mark Hennen, William Parker and Rashid Sinan. Six months earlier I came to New York from Antioch, Ohio where I had spent the previous two years playing and studying with the Cecil Taylor Black Music Ensemble at Antioch College. The intent was to come to New York, assemble the Enemble Muntu, rehearse and start performing. But the reality was that we couldn't get gigs, no one knew us, and for the first six months all we did was rehearse. Sam Rivers gave us our fist gig playing at Studio Rivbea every Thursday night that December. By the group not being known, the first night was sparsely attended. We continued to play and put up flyers around the Lower East Side and each week the audience grew, by the last Thursday, we had a very good audience that was responsive and very supportive. That last Thursday night was the first of many inspiring moments for Ensemble Muntu.

Most live performances are satisfying, but some are very inspired. My first trip to Europe I toured in Holland with William Parker, Billy Bang and Sadik Abdul Sahib. It was at the end of the Loft Era and also the end the Ensemble Muntu, but I had this opportunity to play in Holland. I had played with Bang only a few times, and I had never played with Sadik. This group came together the very first time we played and everywhere we played people were either up and dancing, or glued to their seats listening. My first tour in Europe was very inspiring.

The live performance at the 2000 Vision Festival was also an inspired concert. This performance was recorded live (on Eremite Records MTE-28 CD) as 'Revolt Of The Negro Lawn Jockeys' with Jemeel Moondoc, Khan Jamal, Nathan Breedlove, John Voigt and Cody Moffett. This performance was especially inspiring; the interaction between the audience and the band was electric, at the end of the performance the uplifted crowd urged the band to play an encore.

Two live performances by the Jus Grew Orchestra were also inspired moments that I remember well; it was the feedback from a live crowd that motivated the band to a higher level of performance. One performance was in 2000 at UMASS, the Magic Triangle Jazz Series. This was the first time that the orchestra had performed in a large concert auditorium. The audience and the orchestra fed each other with excitement. This performance was recorded by Eremite Records (MTE-29 CD) 'Spirit House' by Jemeel Moondoc and the Jus Grew Orchestra,  The second live performance was recorded at the Vision Festival (2001) and was released as 'Live At The Vision Festival' on Ayler Records (aylCD-047) by Jemeel Moondoc Tentet and the Jus Grew Orchestra . This was another performance where the audience and the orchestra fed one another with a heightened sense of performance and excitement.

What projects are planned for you over the next year, Jemeel?

I am hoping to record a new CD by the end of the year. I hope to use the same musicians as on 'The Zookeeper's House.' Nathan Breedlove will play trumpet. I have wanted to record a blues record, so this will be a new blues concept, using avant-garde and traditional music concepts and techniques. I will start with one of my favorite blues pieces by John Coltrane, 'Mr. Sims,' in a duo with sax and bass. I have written some blues pieces for this project; however I am hoping to give the blues a whole new and modern perspective in a piece I have written called 'The Nu Blues.' I am also planning and US tour for the late spring of 2015 and a European Tour for the fall.


Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 11:41