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A Fireside Chat With Grachan Moncur III

AAJ Staff By

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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."

FJ: Fate.
About Grachan Moncur III
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