Bassist Don Moore was the pulse of numerous avant-garde jazz bands, collaborating with such luminaries as Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Jackie McLean, and Elvin Jones to create cutting-edge music that defined an era. In addition to his recording and touring, Moore also co-founded Collective Black Artists, an organization whose goal was to help black musicians who were shut out of jobs at clubs, recording studios, orchestras, Broadway shows and other mainstream venues.
Moore, like fellow bassist Reggie Workman, was born in 1937 in Philadelphia. "My mother was a trained singer. She and Marian Anderson were students of the same voice coach down in South Philly, [and] my father was a classical music lover, so there was a lot of music in the house, Moore recalled during a recent phone conversation. "There was a piano, but actually I was drawn to the bass after several trips to the jazz clubs in Philly. It was about when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I guess.
The musicians that influenced Moore as he was coming up weren't exclusively bassists. "Ahmad Jamal was one of the major influences. There were [also] a lot of local bass players [who] I had a chance to get close up on and listen to them play, and Reggie Workman was one of them. In fact, Reggie gave me my first good [bass], the one I'm playing right now, actually. So it was Reggie, and Arthur Harper, [who] passed on not too long ago, [and] Spanky DeBrest, who worked with the Jazz Messengers for a while. Jimmy Heath and his brother Tootie, and Percy heath was in and out of Philly all the time. The folks around Philly gave me a real opportunity to share the bandstand with them and it was inspirational. You really had to go back and figure out what you didn't know. It was a very important opportunity to play with some of the finer musicians over in Philly at the time. So I heard some very good bass players in Philadelphia and the standard was so profound, you know. And Philly was a good town to develop in [because the players] were very meticulous and discerning. You couldn't slack too much up there. They were gonna call you on it.
The 1960s were a cauldron of social and political upheaval, and the pivotal changes that the world was going through were reflected in the changes in the nature of jazz. Max Roach recordedWe Insist! The Freedom Now Suite
, Nina Simone protested on "Mississippi Goddamn, and "free jazz" was a battle cry as much as a definition. Moore traveled to Europe during the early sixties, beginning his tenure with the group eventually known as the New York Contemporary Five. "It was a co-op band that consisted of Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, myself, (drummer) J.C. Moses and John Tchiai, who was waiting for us in Denmark," Moore said. "We were there for about three months, we went around Europe and played a lot, and we went back a second time. Ornette Coleman, with whom Shepp and Cherry had played, inspired much of their music in terms of structure and style. The NYCF played its first date on September 3, 1963 in Copenhagen and stayed together for a couple of months, gigging and recording a few albums.
The audiences in Europe were quite receptive to the kind of free form music they were hearing. "I was surprised at the music we were playing," Moore said proudly. "Like I said, the Philadelphia tradition wasn't steeped in avant-garde music, it was pretty much a solid foundation of music with structure. So when I got the opportunity to travel with that band I took it but I was like a fish out of water most of the time. [What I tried to do was] bring more of a foundation to that music, trying to see if you could juxtapose a structured kind of bass function to music that was somewhat lacking in predictable structure."
In this context Moore developed a deep admiration for Don Cherry. "Don Cherry played with a lot of structure. I learned quite a bit from [him]. He was very much an accomplished musician. He really knew a lot of music. He had a strong foundation in bebop, [and] was a very good, very effective musician. I have tremendous respect for Don Cherry."
Besides Cherry, there were others with whom Moore enjoyed playing, and from whom he learned much. "Jackie McLean gave me my first break when I got to New York after traveling in Europe with Archie [Shepp] and the fellas. I had some exposure with Elvin Jones, I went on the road with him. And there was Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Abdullah Ibrahim. I did a couple of recordings with McLean, a couple with Elvin. I did one with Grant Green, and that was good. So I had an opportunity to play with some good musicians, I must say.