Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Cooper-Moore (Gene Y. Ashton)

Multi-instrumentalist, composer, storyteller, instrument-builder and educator Cooper-Moore’s approach to music has gone beyond simple categorization. His work emerged from the jazz avant-garde, but never lost sight of the traditions he deems so important. This adherence to tradition is reflected in his name, derived from the family names of his two grandmothers and adopted in 1985.

Born Gene Y. Ashton in rural Virginia on August 31, 1946, Cooper-Moore recognized the power of community very early in his life. He relates that on a Saturday in September 1954, his mother, the minister and Sunday School teacher of the family’s church, and his first-grade teacher sat down at the kitchen table where serious business was discussed. It was decided then that he would play piano, giving his first recital in Sunday school six months later.

“I never had to search for who I was or was going to be,” he said. “The elders chose for me—a musician; it has always been special.”

He played piano in church throughout his youth, but developed an increasing fascination with jazz. Horace Silver and Ahmad Jamal were early formative influences on his piano playing. At age thirteen, he first heard the innovative orchestrations of Charles Mingus, and began to dream of moving to New York.

Through his teenage years, Cooper-Moore practiced piano, read voraciously from jazz magazines sent to him by relatives, and listened avidly to many musical styles and genres. He also developed interests in shortwave radio, electronics and astronomy, all of which were supported by his parents, who encouraged him to maintain his individuality. He studied physics and advanced math at Norfolk State College under a National Science Grant in the summer of 1962.

He began to focus his energies on jazz in the mid-sixties, when the experimental playing of John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman began to coalesce into a movement that some would call the “New Thing,” or even a “Jazz Revolution.”

He attended Washington, DC’s Catholic University from 1964 to 1966, and Boston’s Berkeley School of Music in 1967. However, he gravitated towards collaborations with other musicians who also identified with the “New Thing,” and sought to surround himself with talented performers who were constantly playing and composing this music.

One key collaborator from this time was saxophonist David S. Ware. Along with drummer Mark Edwards, Cooper-Moore and Ware founded the group Apogee in 1970. The group played from 1970 to 1974, and opened for Sonny Rollins at New York’s Village Vanguard in 1972. Their work is documented on one album recorded years after the fact, Birth of a Being (Hat Art, 1978),

Cooper-Moore moved from Boston to New York in June of 1973, but his stay in the city was short-lived, and he returned to Virginia in 1975. Over the next ten years, he built instruments and worked as a music therapist with the severely handicapped. He was eventually hired by the Wolf Trap foundation in Virginia, using music to teach in the Headstart program for young children.

His educational philosophy deals with compartmentalization and memory development through the use of music; Recognized internationally for his work in the classroom as well as in shelters for the homeless and for battered women, Cooper-Moore continues to teach and to instruct teachers to use his methods.

In 1985, Cooper-Moore moved back to New York with his second wife and youngest son. In the early 1990s, he joined New York’s Improvisers’ Collective, a group of artists from many disciplines, and began the series of recordings for which he is best known.

These have included work with William Parker’s large ensemble In Order to Survive (AUM Fidelity), Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble (Boxholder) and various collaborations with multi-instrumentalist Assif Tsahar (Hopscotch.) He has performed with Butch Morris and fronted the trio Triptych Myth with bassist Tom Abbs and drummer Chad Taylor.

From 2007 to 2008, he led a group in which he played organ for the first time since the late 1960s. A 2006 trio with Tsahar and Chicago drummer Chad Taylor, Digital Primitives, found Cooper-Moore reviving his interest in electronics by using them as a sonic backdrop to the group’s jazz-rock aesthetic.

Beyond performing and teaching, Cooper-Moore told stories in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on Sundays for ten years, spinning folktales under the park’s “storytelling tree” for enthusiastic crowds.

A lover of theater, dance and of the human voice, he has been involved in multimedia productions since 1984. In 1998, he collaborated with Dance Theater Workshop in “A Mindset,” comparing the U.S. Criminal Justice and Welfare systems.

Former U.S. poet Laureate Rita Dove’s “The Darker Face of the Earth” (2000), for which he wrote the music, is a modern adaptation of the Oedipus story set in the enslaved South. Poet and dancer Marlies Yearby was choreographer for the project, she and Cooper-Moore performed together at New York’s 2007 Vision Festival.

Cooper-Moore’s interest in theater informs his entire oeuvre: his music is as theatrical as his stories are musical. His pianism can invoke moment-to-moment shades of Cecil Taylor’s multilinear constructs or Jaki Byard’s historically informed paraphrases. It exists, as one of his album titles proclaims, Deep in the Neighborhood of History and Influence.

Whether playing piano or any one of his homemade instruments, his music exudes a striking directness and simplicity that evokes everything from rhythm and blues to the simplest vocal monody. These points of reference lend his music multileveled appeal while always allowing for a fresh approach to composition and performance. They harken back to the infinitely complex yet starkly simple myths from which human communities draw for continued survival; for Cooper-Moore, this is as it should be. “We often forget the simplest human emotions, and it’s part of my job as a musician, as a performer, to remind people.”

Homemade instruments on which Cooper-Moore performs include:

Fifes and flutes (of clay and bamboo respectively)

The Diddley-bo

The Horizontal Hoe-Handle Harp

The Mouth-Bow

The Twanger (two banjo strings on an unfretted neck)

The Ashimba (a wooden xylophone)

Taiser (eight-string electric zither played with sticks)

Contributor: Marc Medwin