Yesterday the news came through that the great Jemeel Moondoc has left town forever. Everyday on Facebook we see people responding to someone’s life ending on Earth. For me it feels like the eye of Sauron looking for you, and I hope I don’t get seen. That’s a flip as everyone on social media is trying to be seen. I certainly didn’t want to see that about Moon.
I first met him when Roy Campbell Jr asked me to sub for him with Jemeel’s Jus Grew Orchestra for 2 nights at the Jazz Gallery in the early 2000’s. This was the first time I met, heard, and played with Bern Nix. It was mad fun, but I didn’t really know or connect with folks on the personal. Afterwards I recall saying to Roy that some of the music above the staff was hard to play and he said “So what? Those notes are the same as any other notes.”
Next up was Steve Swell hired me to record a record with him called This Now! and Jemeel was on it playing alto saxophone. Here was another baptism of fire as all the guys were veterans, and Cooper Moore made it a point to see if I knew who I was, and the truth was I had no idea. This was the only time I was able to play with Wilbur Morris, the great bassist. The rehearsals were intense, but I started to connect with Jemeel. Afterwards I talked to Roy and he said “There’s somebody who’s feeling what you’re playing now. Moondoc, and the reason is you play the blues.” It was on Steve’s record that during a solo I just started dropping and feeling some free blues. After that Jemeel started calling me for a few things.
I remember sitting in with him at Vision once with William Parker and Syd Smart. I went to his house for rehearsals. I booked him at my Tower Records Jazz Brunch series where I was the jazz buyer. He turned around and hired both me and Roy for the gig, which I have on mini-disc! After that it was an on again off again vibe when I would get the call from Jemeel, and I really loved it when the universe got us together.
Jemeel put together a group for a hit at the Stone with me, Newman Taylor Baker, and Henry Grimes! This was also the only time I got to play with Henry. Sidebar: I asked Henry once if he ever played with Miles or Trane, and he said, “oh yeah, that time Paul Chambers was sick and we went on the road.” I remember loving every minute of this gig, including watching how Jemeel ran rehearsal. There’s 2 clips of this group on YouTube, thank God.
Another time, Jemeel wanted me to play 5C on the Lower East Side. What I didn’t know was that there was some kind of noise violation conflict going on at the spot. I think 5C is still standing, I hope they are.
The Paterson Free Library in New Jersey was doing free jazz concerts for a minute, and Jemeel had a quartet there with Hilliard Greene, myself, and Newman Taylor Baker. This one stands out as Jemeel was recovering from a hip replacement, and I myself was headed for a knee replacement. I have some phone videos of these 2 sets where you can hear us, but can’t see us.
Another time Moon was asked to conduct the NuBlu Orchestra after Butch Morris had passed on. He called me for one of these and Graham Haynes and I lit up NuBlu Classic.
The one that will always stand out was I asked Jemeel to conduct my 12 Houses Orchestra and that we would play his music. We did it at ShapeShifter in Brooklyn. I still have some of the charts. Bern Nix played with the 12 Houses for this event, and Francois Grillot arranged Bern’s tune Lost in the Catacombs. Jemeel’s conduction is so unique, so him. In truth the 12 Houses actually are a descendant of Jemeel’s Jus Grew Orchestra. Composition, conduction, free blues, free swing, free bop, Jemeel did all of that in a large ensemble before us, extensively.
Finally, I recall playing with Jemeel and Giuseppi Logan on the Lower East Side and afterwards I gave G the money for the gig, maybe forty dollars or something. He started off for Tompkins Square Park to spend the money. I asked Jemeel to help me try and stop him. We blocked him and Jemeel said “Come on man, you don’t need to do this”, but then G said “I know what I’m doing”. He brushed past us and disappeared into the night.
Bern talked about Jemeel one time as one of the blues guys, and it was the blues, that type of expression that seemed to be where Jemeel and I were lined up. There’s a blues vibe, but with Jemeel, he also had a deep, extensive compositional practice and deeply personal language and way of sound expression. His Jus Grew Orchestra book was huge. Here was a human being who was also an architect, and was writing a jazz history book! I saw the book in progress as he said he was writing the true history.
I keep coming back to this video of his group at the Stone. Sometimes horn players can just vibe and at the end of the piece Jemeel and I are trading and finishing each other’s phrases, that real music conversation vibe. With the horns, we just seemed to get one another. The unique thing about Jemeel for me is that though he was a deep veteran and warrior of the music since the 70’s, he never told me what to do and never drew any attention to a generational or cultural divide. He just wanted me to be me. That was an incredible gift, and remains so.
Now that sound, one of the most personal alto expressions in jazz history, is no longer on Earth.
We are all greater for having been able to hear that sound and his music while he was here.
Going to miss you Moon, thank you for everything.
May your soul know eternal peace
For Jemeel Moondoc