Tom Moon: From Musician to Critic--And Back Again
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, Keith Richards, Sonny Rollins, Madonna, Frank Zappa, Bruce Springsteen and 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 instrumentalistspeople 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."