Jemeel Moondoc (1946–2021)

Jemeel Moondoc at the Sons d'Hiver Festival in Arcueil, France, 2016. Photo: Paul Charbit/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

“EVERYTHING ENTERS INTO THIS MUSIC,” the saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc once observed. “It could be anywhere or anything, everything enters into the music.” A self-proclaimed “melodic storyteller,” Moondoc, who died in August a few weeks after his seventy-sixth birthday, was a font of prodigious invention, his nearly fifty-year career in free jazz one of the music’s lasting, though little-known, achievements.

Born in Chicago in 1946, Moondoc’s surname derived from his great-great-grandfather, the original “moondoctor” who sang, danced, and sold cures in “moonshine medicine shows” at the turn of the century. Moondoc was partly raised by his great-grandmother, Katie, who lived to be over one hundred years old, providing a living link to the era of slavery. Moondoc, who sang in the choir of the Truevine Baptist Church in Chicago, later remembered how moved he was “listening to Amazing Grace and feeling something inside.” First playing clarinet, then flute, he picked up the alto in high school. Tellingly, the first two saxophone records he bought were a side by Chicago soul jazz tenorist Gene “Jug” Ammons and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures (1966).

Moving to Boston and studying at the New England Conservatory with pianist Ran Blake, Moondoc caught wind of Taylor’s classes at the University of Wisconsin and hitched a ride. For the next two years, he was part of Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble at Wisconsin and Antioch College, Ohio. Though sadly unrecorded, the group produced what he later called “some of the most exciting music I ever heard in my life.” Taylor’s courses included Janheinz Jahn’s influential study of “Neo-African culture,” Muntu; Moondoc would borrow the name for a group cofounded with saxophonist Jesse Sharps, locating free jazz within Black diasporic traditions of perpetual renewal and innovation. Muntu’s music, Moondoc wrote, “embraces the living and the dead [and] can bring into the room the spirits of ancestors known and unknown.”

Moondoc and pianist Mark Hennen departed for New York in the summer of 1972, reforming Muntu as a quintet with trumpeter Arthur Williams, bassist William Parker, and drummer Rashied Sinan (replaced by Rashid Bakr). This was the era of the so-called Loft Jazz scene. Musicians like Sam Rivers were rehearsing in, performing in, and moving into decrepit, postindustrial Manhattan spaces. Money was low but creative energy was high, and, while working variously as architectural draftsman, dishwasher, and messenger, Moondoc became a mainstay of the lofts.

Moondoc’s improvisational style was forged out of the crucible of two avant-gardes—bebop and free jazz—along with the spirit of populist forms like soul jazz and the blues. Drawing on the declarative volume of players like Cannonball Adderley and the “Chicago tenors” whose music had been all the rage when he first came onto the scene, he aimed for a “wide-open alto sound,” seeking “to manipulate the alto in a way that I can speak through the saxophone.” While at high school, Moondoc had sat in with Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon, and he remained, as guitarist Bern Nix put it, “one of the blues guys,” however avant-garde his playing. Moondoc was capable of playing until the end of time without ever running out of ideas. Combining the fluent virtuosity of bebop with the bite, energy, and unbounded use of space of 1960s “Fire Music,” his playing could be outstandingly plangent and intense or light as air. A defiantly sardonic streak manifested in titles like “Revenge of the Negro Lawn Jockeys,” but he was equally capable of playing heart-stopping ballads both lush and stripped bare.

Hennen and Williams left Muntu in 1978, with Williams’s departure especially painful: One of the few queer musicians within a largely heterosexual scene, he suffered from intense mental anguish and addiction. Of his replacement, Roy Campbell, Jr., Moondoc remarked: “More than any other musician that I have worked with, Roy was the one that I learned the most from. You could tell he had a really traditional bebop training, but you could also tell that he had a free mind. He’s got these huge ears, he can hear it, easily. He can put it right back at you.” Muntu’s music could be immensely exciting. On the 1981 release New York Live!, drummer Denis Charles can be heard in the audience, “screaming and yelling all the way through.”

Given Moondoc’s professional training, it’s tempting to apply an architectural metaphor to his music: a skyscraper in which huge masses of material are organized so that the joins don’t show, or the creative response to the housing injustice of a squat or New York loft, the music metonymic of the postindustrial spaces in which it was played. But if architecture involves careful planning in advance—an art of precaution—Moondoc’s music enacted those virtues—construction, a sense of space and environment—in real time, throwing caution to the wind. “Our lines are jagged and sharp as well as soft and smooth,” he wrote. “We are symmetrical and asymmetrical in the same instant.”

In the early 1980s, Moondoc formed the Jus Grew Orchestra, named for Ishmael Reed’s 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo, where the phrase indicates the spread of Black diasporic culture. But gentrification and the increasingly conservative taste of funding bodies took its toll on the Loft scene. Moondoc took in trumpeter Dewey Johnson—best-known for his fleeting appearance on Coltrane’s Ascension—when the latter was in need and was himself forced to all but retire from music while working as an architect’s assistant.

In the 1990s, however, his career revived. He performed regularly at Patricia Nicholson and William Parker’s Vision Festival and recorded a series of brilliant albums for Eremite Records including New World Pygmies (2018), a duo record with Parker, and the Jus Grew Orchestra’s exuberant Spirit House (2017). In the liner notes to another late album, The Zookeeper’s House (2013), he writes of the musician as “a keeper of history, a keeper of archives. . .a collector of any and all documentation and records relating to the existence of mankind.” The record offers a stunning arrangement of Alice Coltrane’s anthemic “Ptah the El Daoud,” for years a part of Moondoc’s daily practice routine. His other projects are too numerous to name here, but he played, toured, and collaborated almost until the end.

Moondoc’s music emerged from a New York under siege—urban decay, addiction, gentrification, and state violence—a vanished era for good or ill, haunted by postindustrial ghosts, the deaths of friends and peers and the ever-threatened survival of Great Black Music. Reflecting on the demise of the Loft scene in 2014, Moondoc admitted that “The energy is different now.” Yet he insisted: “I think it’s still there; it’s always gonna be there, it’ll never go away. . .The spirit of free music is happening, and so it’s just a matter of putting it all together. . .As long as you do that, and you’re dedicated to that, I think everything’s gonna be fine.”

David Grundy is a poet and scholar based in London.