Grachan Moncur III obituary | Jazz
American jazz trombonist Grachan Moncur III, who died on his 85th birthday, was among the first to show that there was a place for his instrument in the avant-garde of the 1960s. Wayne Shorter and Archie Shepp, he was destined to remain in relative obscurity while they, and others he played with, garnered wider fame.
Recorded evidence, including on several Blue Note label albums, leaves no doubt that he was their creative equal. Where he escaped the public eye, it was in large part because of his refusal to compromise a long-standing resentment over the music industry‘s reluctance to properly reward musicians, especially with music royalties. edition for composers.
Moncur was born in New York. His mother, Ella, was a beautician and his father, Grachan Moncur II, the son of an immigrant from the Bahamas, played double bass with the Savoy Sultans, a popular band with a residency at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a home often visited by top musicians, including singer Sarah Vaughan, his mother’s best friend.
His first instruments were the cello and piano, but at age nine he switched to the trombone, which he studied at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, a historically black preparatory school with a renowned music department whose former students included Dizzy Gillespie. His mother sent him there when he was 14, he told an interviewer, to get him away from the growing drug presence in his hometown.
When he returned home to continue his studies at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard Conservatory, his first professional experience came with pianist Nat Phipps’ Newark big band, in whose ranks he met Shorter. After leaving Juilliard because he could no longer afford tuition, he joined vocalist Ray Charles’ band, where he spent a year and a half, alongside veterans such as famed saxophonists Hank Crawford and David” Fathead” Newman.
He was then recruited into a six-piece band called the Jazztet, led by trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson. It was Farmer who encouraged him to write his first compositions and helped him with notation. Their first effort, titled Sonny’s Back, was written after their appearance at the Jazz Gallery in New York opposite Sonny Rollins, and became the band’s theme music.
After the Jazztet broke up in 1962, Moncur freelanced in New York and was soon involved with McLean in a new quintet that included vibes player Bobby Hutcherson and 17-year-old drumming prodigy Tony Williams. Two albums, titled One Step Beyond and Destination… Out! were issued by Blue Note under the name McLean in 1963 and 1964. Notable for the unusual front-line blend of the saxophonist’s slightly sour intonation and the trombonist’s dark, almost dark sound, they contained compositions in which Moncur sometimes dispensed with a steady beat and often favored the sort of oblique melodic angles associated with Thelonious Monk.
His two own Blue Note albums, Evolution and Some Other Stuff, similarly combined the technical rigor and intellectual demands of bebop with an interest in expanded forms and instrumental vocabularies. With sidemen such as Shorter, trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Herbie Hancock, they are still listened to and admired by young musicians looking for new approaches to the basic materials of jazz.
Moncur also demonstrated his development as a soloist. Although earlier forms of jazz exploited the instrument’s potential for brassy flamboyance, modern jazz’s demand for instrumental agility had made it seem ungainly. Only JJ Johnson and one or two of his followers seemed equipped to meet the new standards. Moncur and his more extroverted contemporary Roswell Rudd represented the next generation, their ease and imagination making the instrument relevant once again.
When James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, based on the story of the murder of Emmett Till, was produced on Broadway in 1964, Moncur appeared in the cast and contributed a songwriting to the show. The following year, he was invited by the poet and activist Amiri Baraka, his friend and neighbor from Newark, to lead a group alongside those of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Shepp at a concert at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village. , recorded and distributed by Label Impulse under the title The New Wave in Jazz.
He appeared on several Shepp albums, including Mama Too Tight and The Way Ahead, and in 1969 he and the saxophonist were part of a guest band at the Pan-African Festival in Algiers, where they played with North African musicians. On the way back, they stop in Paris, where Moncur is one of those who record albums for the BYG label. His was called New Africa and featured saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Andrew Cyrille.
In 1974, his only recorded composition for large ensemble, entitled Echoes of Prayer, was released on the Jazz Composers Orchestra Association label. His individual moves were dedicated to Medgar Evers, Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis and the Rev Dr Martin Luther King. From 1982 to 1991, Moncur was composer-in-residence at the Newark Community School of the Arts.
He is survived by his wife, Tracy (née Sims), whom he married in 1968; two daughters, Ella and Vera; three sons, Grachan IV, Kenya and Adrien; and two brothers, Loften and Lonnie. A son, Toih, and a daughter, Hilda, predeceased him.