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A Fireside Chat With Grachan Moncur III

AAJ Staff By

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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.
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