Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Moncur III, Grachan

"Whenever I have a conversation about what's wrong with the jazz business, I always start out by saying, 'Where is Grachan Moncur?'" says alto saxophonist Jackie McLean of his old friend and collaborator. Indeed, while the trombonist Moncur is one of the few to expand his instrument's vocabulary beyond bebop, his cerebral and introspective music remains an undiscovered treasure for many listeners.

Moncur was born June 3, 1937 at Sydenham Hospital in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, and he was raised in Newark, New Jersey. His father, Grachan “Brother” Moncur II, was a bassist who played with singers such as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, as well as with the Savoy Sultans, a band led by the boy's uncle, saxophonist Al Cooper.

“People like Dizzy Gillespie, Babs Gonzales, and James Moody were always dropping by the house," Moncur later recalled, "and they took an interest in me.” Sarah Vaughan and Moncur’s mother were best friends.

Moncur II started his son's musical education on piano and cello, then brought home a silver-plated trombone, wrapped in newspaper, one day when the boy was 11. As a precocious teen, Moncur played in an orchestra led by Nat Phipps with another Newark teen, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

One of Moncur's earliest and most profound musical influences was pianist Thelonious Monk. He has said that “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.”

In 1951, at age fourteen, Moncur's parents sent him to the Laurinberg Institute in North Carolina, a boarding school once attended by Dizzy Gillespie, to take him away from Newark’s drug scene. He returned to the East Coast after graduation from high school in 1955.

Moncur then attended both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, and began to cut his teeth as a working musician on gigs with saxophonists Shorter and Gary Bartz, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and at jam sessions around the city at clubs like the Open Door and The Five Spot. He eventually dropped out of school for financial reasons.

From 1959 to 1962, Moncur toured with rhythm 'n' blues singer and pianist Ray Charles. After he heard Moncur play on a bill they shared at Harlem's Apollo Theater, tenor saxophonist Bennie Golson recruited the trombonist to join the Jazztet, a group he co-led with trumpeter Art Farmer.

When the Jazztet disbanded, Moncur became the musical director of a collective group nominally led by Jackie McLean, which first included vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Khan on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The group, with a core of Moncur, McLean and Williams, recorded a series of albums for Blue Note in quick succession, starting with Evolution, Destination…Out! and One Step Beyond, all cut in 1963. These albums established Moncur's reputation as a composer as well as an instrumentalist, and mark Blue Note's first forays into what was coming to be called "avant-garde" jazz.

The album One Step Beyond, for instance, recorded in April of that year, includes the composition “Ghost Town,” which starts with an unconventional melodic statement followed by two horn choruses. The track uses the vibraphone primarily as a contrapuntal element, more than as a harmonic backdrop.

“Frankenstein,” from the same album, is a haunting and inventive waltz. As Moncur and McLean trade solos, Hutcherson moves key signatures from A-flat minor to A-minor on alternating measures, creating a tension which is simultaneously visceral and mental.

“Evolution,” recorded in November of 1963, is based entirely on whole notes, and includes some of McLean’s most angular and eccentric solos. Moncur's phrasing and tone are reminiscent of the dragging, violet-hued blues of Billie Holiday.

“Air Raid,” another Moncur composition from the same album, begins with two notes on bass by Bob Cranshaw. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes play a tender, yet foreboding rhythm in the background, until McLean’s mournful, acrid alto saxophone states the theme, a sad yet assertive melody. Moncur’s solos are terrifyingly ominous, yet passionate and freewheeling.

“Thandiwa” is another unusual waltz from the 1964 album Some Other Stuff. That same year, Moncur toured with Sonny Rollins and played and recorded with Marion Brown, Joe Henderson, and Archie Shepp.

“Hipnosis,” the title track of a double album Moncur recorded for Blue Note with McLean in 1967, is his best-known composition from this period. It boasts a bluesy bass ostinato and sustained tones that move over bar lines.

Michael Cuscuna, who produced a three-disc box set from these sessions for Mosaic Records in 2003, says Moncur’s compositions “are unique like Monk’s, and each one, coupled with its title, creates a vivid mental picture…while friendly to musical conventions, are also open and lyrical and exist within their own logic.”

In addition to his prolific work for Blue Note, Moncur wrote incidental music for and appeared in James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mr. Charlie in 1964, toured with Sonny Rollins in 1964 and recorded The All Seeing Eye with Wayne Shorter in 1965. In 1966, he recorded with Marion Brown, and in 1967 with Joe Henderson’s sextet.

In 1968, Moncur formed the cooperative group 360 Degree Music Experience, with drummer Beaver Harris and Dave Burrell, and recorded Mama Too Tight with saxophonist Archie Shepp. While living in Paris in the summer of 1969, he recorded two albums for the BYG Actuel label, New Africa and Aco Dei de Madrugada. The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra commissioned him to write Echoes of Prayer, a work which incorporates elements of West Indian, Latin American, and western classical music, that he recorded with the ensemble in 1974.

Moncur became a composer-in-residence at the Newark Community School of the Arts in 1983, performed with the group Blue Ark and poet Amiri Baraka, and recorded with Big John Patton in 1983 and Cassandra Wilson in 1985. Wilson also took ear-training lessons from Moncur during this period. He also toured and recorded with Frank Lowe in 1984 and 1985. He performed with Archie Shepp in Paris in 1986 and at Sweet Basil in New York early in 1987, and later that year he broadcast on radio as a member of the Change of the Century Orchestra.

Copyright disputes and dental problems kept Moncur from recording more widely in this period, but in 2004 he formed an octet to record Exploration, an album which features new versions of some of his older music, including “Frankenstein” and “Monk in Wonderland.” In 2007, he recorded Inner Cry Blues with another octet, an album of dedications to Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, and McLean, on which he also contributes vocals.

Despite this prolific and influential track record as both a performer and a composer, Moncur's music remains under the radar for many listeners. Fortunately, thanks to the renewed interest which has led to the issue of the Mosaic Select box set and the new Octet releases, McLean's urgent question, "Where is Grachan Moncur?" can be answered: he's right here, and still a master of free-bop improvisation.

Select Discography

As a Leader:

As Grachan Moncur:

Evolution Blue Note, November 1963

Some Other Stuff Blue Note, July 1964

New Africa BYG Actuel, August 1969

Aco dei de Madrugada BYG Actuel, November 1969

The Grachan Moncur III Octet:

Exploration Capri 2004

Inner Cry Blues Inner Module, 2007

As a sideman:

One Step Beyond (Jackie McLean, Blue Note) January 1963

Destination Out (Jackie McLean, Blue Note) September 1963

The All Seeing Eye (Wayne Shorter, Blue Note) October 1965

Mama Too Tight (Archie Shepp, Impulse!) August 1966

Three For Shepp (Marion Brown, Impulse!) December 1966

In Order to Survive (William Parker, Black Saint) June 1993

Contributor: Sean Singer