A Fireside Chat With Grachan Moncur III
“ I would say that the studying of Monk probably led to everything. I think it probably led to my whole compositional outgrowth because that's when everything started happening. ”
There are paths we take in life that are forever. Life is unforgiving and no one in jazz personifies that better than Grachan Moncur III. It took me over a year just to track down Grachan. And because of health issues, another year for him to sit down with the Roadshow. Allow me to be kind and rewind. I had heard Grachan on Blue Note recordings of Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and most notably Jackie McLean. Grachan was a monster on the trombone and it puzzled me to no end why Alfred Lion, the Clive Davis of jazz, only recorded the bonist (having only done J. J.) on a couple of sessions of his own ( Evolution, Some Other Stuff ). Then I discovered some blowing sessions in the old BYG (since sold off too many times to remember) catalog, some Archie Shepp, Cliff Thornton, and his own. So my obvious first impression was Grachan was outcast from the Blue Note fold because he went free jazz or avant or whatever damn term they coined then. But aside from occasionally, and I mean occasionally, appearing on a smatter of records here and there, Grachan's bone remained silent on record for the better part of three decades. Long time. Fast forward to handful of years ago and I was doing my first interview with Sonny Rollins and I asked him whom he would have liked or like to record with and he mentioned Grachan. Ask Jackie McLean, he said the same. So where was Grachan? And why wasn't he working more? When we sat down, I asked and the following is a gut-wrenching conversation with a man that life should have been better to, but alas, such is the trial of life. I am honored to present Grachan Moncur III, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
Grachan Moncur III: Well, I got started basically because I was coming from a musical family. I guess you know my father being a bassist and my uncle was a leader of the Savoy Sultans. I know you've heard of that group. I was kind of born into a musical family. That didn't mean that I had to become a musician, but there was always people from the music business all around, in and out of my house all the time. My father being a bassist back in the day when he was playing with the early bands, it was normal for a good bassist to also play tuba and play valve trombone also. So he always had a tuba and valve trombone always around the house. So later on, during the early days, they had to play the tuba because of acoustic reasons, playing dances and big halls. The tuba carried much stronger than the bass. So anyway, as a kid, as a very youngster, I started doodling around with the trombone, long before I was even big enough to actually stand up and play the valve trombone, which was what was around the house. I used to take it form underneath the bed and sit on the floor and try to mess with it. So I guess I must have been about four or five years old, doing that type of thing, which didn't really amount to very much to becoming a trombone player at that age because it wasn't until I was about nine years old, first my father bought me a cello. I didn't show too much interest on that, so he eventually came in with this slide trombone. For some reason, I just kind of took to it and got kind of serious with trying to play it and was messing around with it for about a year and eventually, I decided to start taking lessons. And there was a very active music store here in Newark and a lot of the musicians that came a little ahead of me like Charlie Persip and a few others, studied there. It was the most popular community school that was available for musicians at that time. So I started taking lessons and I had a very fantastic trombonist. I don't even remember his name. I was only about ten at this time, ten or eleven. I think he kind of recognized the fact that I had a pretty good tone and a pretty good sound and he wanted to perfect that. I remember him teaching me on the fundamental B-flat until I perfected it before he even allowed me to really play the B-flat scale, which is the first scale you learn on the B-flat instrument. He would have me do things with that sound, with that note, like being able to sustain the tone and swelling the tone and doing different things with controlling that particular note, which is the fundamental B-flat on the trombone. So I think that probably had a lot to do with me developing a sound that I did have beside the fact that I would hear my father practice on the valve trombone. His sound was very interesting. I have never, up until today, heard anybody with a sound like my father. He had a timbre that was very dark and clear. That sound, it just kind of stayed with me and I always wanted to produce that same type of, project that same type of sound that my father had. So between that and the trombone teacher that I had for several months, I don't even think I studied with this teacher, it couldn't have been no more than a year.
Shortly after that, I went to the Laurinburg Institute down in North Carolina. It's a private black school, the same school that Dizzy Gillespie had went to. That was pretty close to Dizzy's hometown in South Carolina. Dizzy's from Cheraw, South Carolina. This school was in Laurinburg, North Carolina, which is very close to the South Carolina borderline and it was only seventeen miles away from Cheraw. This being an all black school during the time that Dizzy went there, it was the only black school within a twenty-two mile radius. I guess that is how Dizzy got there. So I was pretty inspired by the kids in school. It was the kind of school where you kind of had to be something. Everybody down there was down there for some kind of reason. Either they were good athletes and they were good in sports or they were good musicians or they were very good academically or they had it all. I often tell the story of when I first came to the campus. When I got to the school, it was around lunchtime and all the kids were out on the campus and when they saw the car coming up, they knew it was somebody new coming to the school, so when we stopped in front of the dormitory, I took my trunk out of the car and then I took my trombone out and one of the kids that was standing around said, "Oh, man, we got a trombone player," and that sounded good to me. Nobody had called me a trombone player before. Right away, they wanted me to take out my horn and play something for them and I had never really tried to play anything except what I had been experimenting with, but I did remember these two bars that I remembered from a record that Dizzy had made with Trummy Young on trombone and I did remember the first two bars of Trummy Young's solo and so that is all I played. I took out my horn and started playing these two bars over and over and then kids started clapping with me. That was it. I caught the bug. It was the first time somebody had gathered around me and clapped when I was playing. It was very enthusiastic. They were very supportive with their rhythm (laughing).
FJ: Your most celebrated collaborations have been alongside Jackie McLean.
GM: I met Jackie probably, I thought it was still in high school, coming home during the summer vacation. I was kind of like an early starter. I used to go around the clubs very early, sitting in and everything. I met Jackie when he used to come over to Newark with Art Blakey. Now, we're skipping way up because during the time when he was coming to Jersey, I knew of him before that, but we got tight when he started coming over to Jersey. This is a little later after I had got some experience of playing in a jazz group down in Laurinburg for about four years. When he used to come in town, I used to sit in with him. I sat in with Blakey and him just as a kid. Me and Jackie got kind of tight because Jackie liked the way I sounded and he saw this potential. I was a comer. We kept in touch and it was later on, that I used to come over to New York after I graduated from high school. I started going to Brooklyn and I started jamming at Birdland and all different things like that. I think it was a couple of years before I got with Ray Charles. I went over to Jackie's house one afternoon and we practiced all day and we kind of exchanged tunes and he saw the kind of progress that I had made since the first time that I had sat in with him. It was after I went with Ray Charles and I left the group. I was living in Brooklyn and I ran into Tony Williams and me and Tony got tight. Tony had just got in town working with Jackie in The Connection. So me and Tony got very close talking about the things we wanted to do musically and where our heads were at. We had played a little bit together. So Tony told Jackie about me and Jackie told him, "Yeah, I know Grachan." And Tony said, "Yeah, but Grachan is in town now and he's doing some new stuff." He knew that Jackie was getting ready to form a group. But it was really because of the fact that me and Jackie had shedded together maybe a year or so before that. With Tony's enthusiasm about him calling me in reference to the new group he wanted to form. I guess he knew that Tony's ear was sharp too. So right away, when he called me, it was just at a time where I had been home all during the summer and I had been doing some shedding with Bobby Hutcherson. I had met Bobby when he was working with Billy Mitchell and Al Grey. When I first met him, I was really impressed with Bobby's playing and we exchanged numbers and we immediately started rehearsing everyday together. Bobby and I had been rehearsing together for a couple of months and when Jackie called me between shedding with Bobby and writing a lot of music, a lot of new stuff that I was hearing and working them with Bobby and talking about them with Tony, when Jackie called me, he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing "Frankenstein" and "Ghost Town."
GM: Isn't that something? And so when Jackie called me that night, he said Tony said I was in town and that he had a couple of concerts and some club dates and a possible recording. He wanted to start rehearsing and see what we could put together. So I said, "Sounds good." Then I told him that I had been shedding with this new cat named Bobby and he was interested by new enthusiasm for Bobby and so he said, "OK, give me Bobby's number," and so I gave him Bobby's number and he got us all together and made a rehearsal.
FJ: And that became One Step Beyond. Destiny.
GM: That was it. It is funny, Fred. That whole summer, I had taken that whole summer off, mainly because I had some problems with my ear. I had been working with Ray and we had a private plane and we used to fly all the time. My ears became plugged and so I wanted to take care of that. I had put in my resignation with Ray, not because I didn't dig the band or I thought I was so much ready to split, it was just that I had a burning desire to really get to New York and try to get down with a smaller group because working with a big band is nothing compared to working in a small group. So what I did was I didn't even concentrate on working that summer. I just lived off a little bread that I had made that year and just shedded. I just shedded on studying Monk's tunes. I didn't have a piano. I didn't really do that to learn his repertoire to play it. I was just doing it to analyze his music. I just wanted to get the sound of his music inside of my body. Between shedding on Monk's stuff and then I started writing on my own and this particular night, I had been listening to a lot of television and science fiction sounds and all that kind of stuff. This particular night, I would say about two hours before Jackie called, I wrote both, "Frankenstein" first and then "Ghost Town." I think I told Jackie that I just got done writing something and told him what the tunes were and he said to bring them. Dig, Fred. When we started rehearsing, we got so excited. We had about five tunes. We had five originals. It was three of mine, "Frankenstein," "Ghost Town," and "Sonny's Back" and Jackie had "Little Melonae" and "Saturday and Sunday." Besides that, we played standards. For the most part, regardless of what we played, "Frankenstein," "Ghost Town," and "Saturday and Sunday" were such odd tunes to us and to the audience and we played them every set. In other words, in between everything else that we played, we played those tunes too. We didn't have that much in our book. We played some standards like "Smile" and really hip things we did outside of that to break up the thing, but once we played "Ghost Town" or "Frankenstein," that became a show. That was like a show within itself because the music was so strange and we were stretching on it, Fred. We were playing hard and we were playing them to get everything we could get out of it. We just felt the enthusiasm. We didn't know what was going to happen, but we liked what we were doing and we played like we liked it and we liked each other and what everybody was contributing.
FJ: You mentioned poring over Monk. Did your studies lead to "Monk in Wonderland" (Evolution)?
GM: Ah, I wouldn't think so. I would say that the studying of Monk probably led to everything. I think it probably led to my whole compositional outgrowth because that's when everything started happening. After I did that study, I did the studying of Monk for six weeks or maybe two months and then I put that down and just started writing stuff and practicing and writing and writing. There were things that I started to write that I didn't finish, but those two tunes I actually finished that night, but they were things that I began to write. I was trying to look at writing at that point the way a painter would paint. You put your thing on the easel and you sketch something and you come back to it the next day or a couple of days. That's how I was trying to think musically. I wasn't trying to finish anything. I still don't do that. I don't try to write anything that I consider a complete piece, especially now. It is always a work in progress. I don't change anything, but I add.
FJ: And One Step Beyond led to your own date, Evolution.
GM: I think it was One Step Beyond or Destination Out ! I forgot the order in which we did the dates. I forgot whether it was Destination Out! or, it probably did. One Step Beyond probably did lead to my first date.
FJ: The crew mirrored the One Step Beyond sessions.
GM: Right and actually, Lee Morgan was Alfred Lion's idea. Lee was really one of my best friends, but at the time, Lee was having some problems like up in Harlem. He had got banged up pretty bad and he was out of commission and so I didn't even know that he was available. I had just met Woody Shaw because Woody was working with Eric Dolphy at the Five Stop and I had just heard Woody Shaw and I had no idea that Lee would have even been available or that Lee would even want to do it. I hadn't been in touch with Lee, but me and Lee were closer friends than me and Jackie were. Lee always tried to inspire me to come to New York and stuff like that and invite me over to spend weekends with him and show me the good life that he was living. He was making all these records with Blakey and he had a new sports car and he said, "Come on, man, you got to get a piece of this. Practice hard and see what's happening and get out here with me." Lee was very special to me, but like I said, I hadn't seen him, so when Alfred mentioned him to me, as a matter of fact, Fred, Alfred told me the night before the date that he was going to get Lee. Even Jackie didn't know that Lee was available and Jackie had asked this little trumpet player from Washington to be a standby at the rehearsal because he knew that he wanted a trumpet. I hadn't been able to contact Woody anyway. When Alfred said that Lee was going to make the rehearsal, that was fantastic. I had no objections. Woody was very disappointed. I made enemies for doing that and he never forgave me for it.
FJ: Evolution headlined Blue Note's dabble into the "new thing" as it were.
GM: I want to tell you something, Fred. To me, it wasn't avant-garde per say for what the avant-garde was really standing for at that time to me. The avant-garde at that time was dealing with the idea of being revolutionary music. I had no thoughts in my mind of this being revolutionary. I thought the way I named the album Evolution, I was thinking of the music evolving from the mainstream. I didn't want to think in terms of we are taking over, we're changing. My mind was never there. That is why my album was called Evolution. When I wrote the piece, the piece "Evolution" came to me naturally. It was weird. That came because the first guy that ever heard "Evolution," the first guy that I ever played "Evolution" for was Gil Coggins. Gillie lived up in Brooklyn too. I used to run into him quite a bit in the neighborhood. I remember the day after I wrote "Evolution," I told Gil about it and I told him I wanted to come up to his pad. I didn't have a piano. I had a melodica. I was writing most of my stuff on the melodica because I didn't have a piano at the time. I came up and I played it for him. Gil, as being as traditional as he is, I really wanted him to hear it because I wanted him to tell me what he really thought. When I played it, he said, "Damn, man, you got something there. I don't know what it is, but it sounds like something." That was good enough for me coming from him. I played exactly the way I wrote it. I played all the voicings just the way it was. I didn't change nothing.
FJ: The critical inability to register Jackie's One Step Beyond along with Evolution and your follow up, Some Other Stuff, effectively pigeonholed you.
GM: Fred, I think the reason why I got pigeonholed was because of the business because Alfred Lion and them were pretty disappointed with me that after they recorded Evolution, they thought that they were going to be able to put the music in their publishing company and I had already published mine and I had already sent them the copyrights and I had got my company name and all that. They were very disappointed with that and they kind of dropped me like a hot potato in reference to the plans that they had had for me, Fred. They were really going to go out for me, but me being as young as I was and didn't have any guidance, I didn't think it was such a big thing and I didn't know that they was going to take it the way they took it. Like if I had, knowing what I know now, I think I probably would have done it a different way. I probably would have made some kind of compromise. You take two and I'll take two or something like that. I think my mind was really going to a revolutionary attitude more on the business tip than it was on a musical tip because I was kind of determined on trying to own my own music.
FJ: Did you know at the time, Some Other Stuff would be your last Blue Note session?
GM: In a sense, yeah. I didn't even know I was going to do that. I didn't have really a contract with them at the time.
FJ: But no one had contracts with Blue Note at the time.
GM: Yeah, everybody was doing what they call one shot dates. It wasn't like I was drastically surprised. I was just surprised of their attitude and their attitude just grew and it became very detrimental to me because I think they poisoned other people in reference to me. It was almost like a blackballed thing. It hurt me very bad, Fred. I will tell you, Fred, I was very uptight about it. I had a meeting with John Hammond and John at that time was interested in trying to do something with me and I was telling him the problems I was having at Blue Note and he said to me, "The publishing thing is a touchy kind of thing right now. I will tell you something. I know what you're going through. I know it's not pretty, but I guarantee you one thing, Grachan, you will find out in years to come that in the long run, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff are two of the best cats in the music business." And he was right. Even though I had a hard time with them, my business books is more intact with that company than it is with any other company I recorded with in the world.
FJ: Even with all the drama, Lion and Wolff still had the presence of mind to do the right thing.
GM: Right, and not only that, Fred, let me tell you something. Let me set the record straight for you. First of all, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff had their business in order. Whoever took over, if they meant to do well, if they meant to do right, everything was in order for they to do right with it. The musicians are very fortunate that my man, Michael Cuscuna, being the dedicated person he is, musically and the business person that he is and the kind of respect that he has for musicians in general and the music. Thanks to a guy like him, who is really responsible for most of the reissues, thanks to a guy like him or guys like him, he was able to set my thing in order the way it was supposed to be and for him to pick it up and to have me where I was supposed to be as a legendary artist within their catalog. If it wasn't for a person like that, I could be lost in the shuffle. So it was like John Hammond had said, they were the two best cats in the business because he knew better than I did or better than most of the fly by night record companies that were coming up during the time and are still coming up, he knew, being the businessman that he is. He knew then how they were handling their business. He knew down the line that my stuff would be, I would be in better shape than I would be with just about anybody else that I recorded with. That holds true with everybody. There is only a few other labels that come close to that so far like ABC/Paramount, labels that I've recorded with. Domestically, those were the two major labels that I dealt with, which is now Capitol and ABC, which is like Impulse! What I am saying is that you have some other companies that I think probably are on that level now, but because I haven't recorded as much music with other companies like I did with Blue Note because in a very short period of time, within about a two year or three year period, I recorded I would say pretty much half the stuff that I've every recorded, period. This is within a two year period, so they have quite a bit of my recording material, more so than any other one company. So I can't really make the good judgment of how these other companies are doing compared to them.
FJ: I take it that doesn't hold true for the European label that you did numerous sessions for, BYG.
GM: Oh, Fred, that has been a disaster. The tragedy is within the situation that I am now. The tragedy is my financial situation and the inactivity behind not being out there properly, just not being paid, first of all. Not being paid, that puts a damper on your lifestyle within itself. With them not doing anything for the artists as a follow up, it didn't lead for me to get any exposure or any work or any tours or anything. Whereas some of these other companies, once you record for them, they help to get the artists out there to start working. If they don't give you a million dollars, they get behind you to put something together and go out there and make some money.
FJ: That still doesn't explain why you are not recorded now. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff have long since passed and the BYG and Blue Note catalogs have been sold repeatedly. Hope, the bread by which we live, is dwindling.
GM: It's tremendously difficult. I am going through a thing right now, Fred, that is unbelievable. I wouldn't even want to discuss it with you. The only good part about it, the only real good part about it is that I know that my destiny is totally in my hands now because there are people who really want to do something with me and as soon as I give them the green light, certain things can happen. I've been so under the weather for one reason or another, a lot of it has been financially, which affects my domestic life, my family, just your family includes yourself so it doesn't help the flame that you need. When I was really out there during the days that we were talking about, everything was hot. I was around people that would inspire me everyday. They liked what I was doing and they were encouraging me. Now the things that I get, people like what I do and everything, but it is for a dog eat dog type of situation or it's a stick and blow situation. It is not a thing like it was in the past where you could kind of grow with the music and the musicians that you are dealing with. That is what is happening in New York now with the new breed of musicians like Wynton Marsalis and the so called "young lions" that are out here now, Wallace Roney and them guys. They are into a thing where me and Tony and Jackie was back then. I would imagine. This is what I miss. This is what I miss. Besides that, what hurts even more, even if that is not happening, there was a time when I had residence, a composer residence for nine years at the Newark Community Arts School. That kept my enthusiasm up, just working with younger musicians and being able to work on my material at the same time and even though I wasn't with my peers all the time, I was active and I could see things growing. It just kept me more enthusiastic. At this point, I kind of fell into a musical rut. Thank God, it is not a spiritual rut. If it was a spiritual rut, I would be finished. So I am blessed that I have not dropped to that level. But the level is only one notch from there. So it is like I am hanging on for dear life, Fred. But the life that I am hanging on to is my own and I don't have that dark feeling that I had maybe ten years ago or fifteen years ago that everybody is against me or that the world is against me. I don't have that feeling because I know it is not about that. It is about me now. I kind of feel almost the way Monk was before he died. I knew Monk very well. I got to know him very well about five years before he died. I got to know him a little bit before that. I remember the dark period that he had almost what I am going through now, is when I was very close to Monk. I think that is one reason how I got close to him because he felt very relaxed with me because he didn't feel anything pretentious or that I was, he could just feel the genuine respect that I had for him. I felt comfortable with him. I didn't look at him like he was weird. He was a human being. I really felt what he was going through and I lived through some of the things that he went through. I went through it and I couldn't believe it, somebody like Monk. When you say, Fred, "Damn, how could you be going through this Grachan?" The same thing you are telling me is how I saw Monk and I was with him. I was with him at certain times when he was embarrassed by his peers. I was with him. I couldn't believe certain things that I witnessed with him. When his break came, I got to be with him a little bit and I even traveled with him off and on because I was doing a lot of work with Archie Shepp during that time and we would meet up with Monk on the same concerts sometimes. I saw Monk at the height of this thing within this five year period after he got on the cover of Time. I was with Monk the day people came from Miles' house over to Monk's house saying that Miles sent, two young kids came over to interview Monk and I was hanging out with Monk at his house and I was hanging with Monk the day that they came. I had been hanging with Monk all day when the kids came. Miles had sent them. They went over to interview Miles, but Miles said that he wanted them to do the interview with Monk and he was the one they should be interviewing. That was Miles' way of kind of telling Monk he was sorry for some of the nasty shit that he even took Monk through. So what I am saying to you, Fred, is I was there. They came and saw what was happening. It was two young kids, a girl and a boy, two white, young writers. So anyway, when I saw Monk after that and he was at the top of his game as far as the business, but it wasn't long that he had been through such sharpness and pain that he couldn't even dig it. I am telling you some shit, Fred (Grachan's voice starts audibly breaking up). I can feel this shit as I am telling this shit man. You can hear it in my fucking voice.
FJ: Critics and the industry as a rule are pariahs, but it's a whole other animal to be beat down by your peers.
GM: Yeah, man. I haven't really been through what Monk was going through. I mean, I am going through what I am going through. But I can relate. Everybody's life is different and we touch here and there with similarities, but I'm not trying to compare my life or what I am going through with Monk's, but it boils down to be the same thing. You get disappointed, Fred. You get beat down.
FJ: One aspect of the health issues you made reference to is the extensive dental work you have had done, of which there is an adjustment period.
GM: Well, I will tell you. Once, I will tell you what would have helped, it is not going to take long. At the most, going really full speed, like everyday, I would give myself between six to eight weeks. I would say nine to ten at the most. That is with me really wanting to put the icing on the cake. But if I bear down, I know I would feel comfortable about what I want to do now because it can't be about where I just left off because it is always different. Once you start like I have to do now, or like I am doing, there is always going to be a change and the change is usually very positive, but you have to work toward making it do what you want it to do. You can hear it, but it just don't drop out of the sky. You have something to reach for. That gives you your enthusiasm. I am not working now. I am beginning to practice again now. It has been a month. The work has been finished. What has been like a stop and go thing with on the practice tip is mainly because life's problem. I am going through the domestic shit, like I have a family. I have a wife and six kids, four grandkids. We have a house. I am blessed in a sense. I've been married thirty-three years to the same woman. I see a lot of things that are positive in my life, but there is a lot of responsibility. There is a lot of things that come with it where I haven't been able to be on top of shit the way I would like to be and the way everybody else would like me to be. That is the damper on your enthusiasm. It is not always about being able to work playing. If I could have just had some kind of a teaching job like I said, the nine years that I did that residency was a breath of fresh air for me. That ended in '91. That began in the early Eighties until '91, straight through, which was very great. I had no idea that it would be so hard to come across something like that again. I've done residencies, but it has been nothing consistent. I miss that consistency of financial stability, to feel like your two feet are on the ground so you can do what you've got to do. The only positive thing I can say is it boils down to what I said earlier. The ball is in my hands. It is not that I can't do things. It is all on me. It is about getting into a position to get a grip so I can go ahead and go straight ahead. It feels though every time I think that I am not going to have to worry for the next month or two, something else comes up and the rug is pulled from underneath me in some kind of way financially and there I was back again worrying about something that I shouldn't have to worry about. I just haven't had that peace of mind, Fred, to do what I really have to do and think about my music and not have to think about nothing else. It is not like when I was young, back in the day with Jackie. I wasn't married. I didn't have no responsibilities. I could do anything I wanted to do. If I wanted to sleep in the park, you know what I'm saying? It's a different ballgame today.
FJ: I have hope. It's all we have and I cling to it daily.
GM: Hey, Fred, I am glad you said that.
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