Grachan Moncur III, pioneering jazz trombonist, dies at 85


Grachan Moncur III, a trombonist and composer who forged an intrepid path through modern jazz, alone and with collaborators like saxophonists Archie Shepp and Jackie McLean, died Friday in Newark, NJ, his 85th birthday.

The cause was cardiac arrest, his son Adrien Moncur told WBGO.

A musician mastering the languages ​​of blues and bebop while veering towards the unknown, Moncur came of age at a fortuitous moment. The quest spirit of the early to mid-1960s was beginning to drive jazz‘s brightest young talent into new formal terrain – a move well captured in the title and substance of Moncur’s early, Evolution, recorded for Blue Note in 1963 and released the following year. Composed entirely of his own compositions, it features an impressive cast of collaborators: Lee Morgan on trumpet, Jackie McLean on alto saxophone, Bobby Hutcherson on vibraphone, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Tony Williams on drums.

These grounded yet reaching improvisers belonged to a group of peers that created some of the defining post-bop of the era. Moncur forged a particularly strong relationship with McLean, whose Blue Note albums One step behind (1963) and Destination… Out! (1964) present some of his compositions. As a trombonist, Moncur also added color and texture to ensemble efforts like Herbie Hancock’s. My point of viewby Joe Henderson The Kicker, and Wayne Shorter The all-seeing eye.

Beyond the jazz performance circuit, Moncur contributed a piece of music to James Baldwin’s Blues for Monsieur Charlie featured in the New York Timesas “a room with fires of fury in its belly, tears of anguish in its eyes and a roar of protest in its throat”. Loosely based on the tragic story of Emmett Till and dedicated to the memory of Medgar Evers, it was broadcast on Broadway in 1964 – with Moncur in the castingplaying multiple characters.

Moncur’s place in a socio-politically urgent avant-garde was also ratified by his friend Amiri Baraka, the poet and activist who included him in a concert titled “New Black Music” in 1965. The program, which also included groups led by saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, was later taken from an Impulse album titled The New Wave of Jazz.

A close association with Shepp, also originally recounted on Impulse, can be heard forcefully on albums like mom too tight and The path to follow, to which Moncur contributed original material. He was also part of the group of musicians who performed with Shepp at the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria in 1969.

That same year, Moncur made New Africa, an album that signals both a cultural orientation and an ongoing commitment to discovery. Shepp plays on one track on the album, which otherwise features Roscoe Mitchell on alto saxophone, Dave Burrell on piano, Alan Silva on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. “He was a revolutionary in music,” his widow, Tracy Moncur, told WBGO. “After making the Blue Note albums, he wanted to own his own music. He not only wanted to get royalties as a performer but also as a songwriter. He was told he would never work again. Basically , he’s always been working, but he was one of the first to jump in and actively try to own – and ended up owning – his own music.”

Grachan Moncur III was born in New York on June 3, 1937 and grew up in Newark. His paternal grandfather, Grachan Moncur, had immigrated from the Bahamas. His father, Grachan Moncur II, was a bassist who played with the Savoy Sultans. His mother, Ella Catherine Moncur, was a beautician who owned her own salon at 32 High Street in Newark.

As a child, Moncur – known to his family by the nickname Bugie – was drawn to the trombone, although his father encouraged him to study the cello. He found his way back to the trombone, which he studied at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina.

Returning to the greater New York area after high school, Moncur soon encountered musicians like McLean and Williams. He went on the road with Ray Charles for a few years, emerging onto a stage primed for his brand of experimentation.

This spirit never died out, although Moncur struggled to survive the commercial end of the music industry. Among his latest releases is Exploration, an aptly titled effort released in 2004, featuring fellow travelers like Cyrille and saxophonists Billy Harper and Gary Bartz.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, former Tamam Tracy Sims, Moncur is survived by two brothers, Loften Moncur and Lonnie Moncur; three sons, Grachan IV, Kenya and Adrien; two daughters, Ella Moncur and Vera Moncur; and a number of grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Toih Moncur and a daughter, Hilda Moncur.

According to his family, Moncur had been in poor health for some time. He recently had a leg amputated due to a vascular issue and was hospitalized for much of the spring. “But my mother and my sister were there very early this morning to wish him a happy birthday,” said Adrien Moncur. “He opened his eyes for a brief second to recognize him. He was informed it was his birthday.”

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