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Tom Moon: From Musician to Critic--And Back Again

By Published: February 8, 2011
His work got him noticed in Philadelphia, and he decided to move to that city and work for the Inquirer. "It was somewhat of a financial decision. It was also this idea that I knew I could communicate in words—that I had some things to say about music that weren't really out there. I would read the critics in daily papers. ... I would read them said say, 'This is totally lame. This review is based on what the cover art looks like.' As a musician and a student of music, I was affronted by that. Part of my thinking was: If I'm going to be true to the idea of music in the abstract, one of the things that maybe it needs right now is people who can talk about it and be effective advocates and explainers, cheerleaders, if necessary. At that point it seemed to me, and it's still true—probably more true now—that there was a place for intelligent—or at least an attempt at—intelligent writing about music that wasn't concerned with image and cover art and all the stuff that we see in what would come under 'celebrity journalism.'"

He went to Philly in 1988 and discovered a strong music scene. Moon had never stopped playing the sax, and in the City of Brotherly Love's vibrant scene, he would get involved in jam sessions. But he didn't do professional gigs, as the newspaper viewed that as a conflict of interest—"especially for someone coming from another town," Moon adds. "They did not think, for example, it would be good for me to be looking for gigs in Philly, seeking work from people I might have to someday write about. At the time I had to think about it, but it made sense. I stopped doing any sort of professional [music performance] work. I would play jam sessions. I never stopped playing my instrument for any length of time."

His journalistic career expanded over time, and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, Blender, Spin, Vibe and other publications. He's interviewed hundreds of recording artists, among them Miles Davis
Miles Davis
Miles Davis
1926 - 1991
, Keith Richards, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
, Madonna, Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
1940 - 1993
guitar, electric
, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits
Tom Waits
Tom Waits
. Then he got into work for his book. It was his sole professional focus, except for occasional "All Things Considered" gigs. But when it was done, the world of journalism was rapidly changing.

"I had spent three years doing nothing else [except working on the book]. I wasn't going to jam sessions. I wasn't playing at all. After this thing came out, I discovered that the whole media landscape had changed." Print media opportunities were dwindling. The world of online writing is not the same animal. So his thoughts turned back to the performing of music.

"I've always played, and I always have written music," Moon says. Moon credits this to Ron Miller, a mentor who taught jazz composition at the University of Miami and also plays piano and writes. "He was one of these people, as a teacher, who wrote for his own groups and himself in a very compelling way, and did that all the time, no matter how busy he was. I always thought that was hip. ... Whenever I would have time to play, I'd want to create something. I ended up writing a lot of music."

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., "I had a period where I was like, 'Whoa. The world is going to end soon.' ... I had an 'Is this all there is?' moment. I thought I ought to see if there is anything I can express through music that I'm not getting through words. I wrote a bunch of music in that year, in a panic, almost," says Moon.

The move back to playing music was a natural progression.

"I think music is a lifelong thing," says Moon. "When you start doing it, you don't ever get to see an end point. Unless you're one of the very few complete instrumentalists—people like Coltrane or Michael Brecker or Joe Lovano. Unless you're at that level of mastery and you've been able to document that over and over again, what you're on is a lifelong journey of trying to get better a little bit at a time.

Moon, now 50, knew what he was getting back into. Even so, there were pleasant surprises. "To enter back into the world of music at this point in life, is, first of all, crazy and foolhardy on one level, somewhat," he says good-naturedly, "and on another level enormously heartening that musicians were patient and willing to welcome me into their world, and open enough to say, 'Hey, these tunes are cool. Let's see what we can make out of this.' That was unbelievable."

Moon adds, "I am living in this place of gratitude that these guys brought what they brought [to the music]. ... I always wanted to be able to communicate through music. I knew the writing had some meat on the bone, the tunes themselves. But never in a million years did I expect to be talking to you about something like this. It was not in my sights."

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