The name Grachan Moncur III floats mostly unremarked through the music of post-bop jazz, not unlike his opening notes on the title cut of his second album as a leader, Some Other Stuff. Despite walk-on roles in biographies of Dizzy Gillespie and Wayne Shorter, and mentioned favorably in interviews with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean, Moncur remains mostly a shadow from the 1960’s even with his trombone and compositions appearing on the recordings of not just McLean and Shorter, but also Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Art Farmer.
Grachan Moncur III: The Beginning of an Evolution
Due to myriad problems both personal and professional, Grachan Moncur’s first and most satisfying album, Evolution from 1963, proved to be a high water mark. Until the new millennium, Moncur was only occasionally to be heard, and mostly on albums by artists such as Archie Shepp and Cassandra Wilson. While Moncur did have an important comeback with Exploration in 2004, featuring trumpeter Tom Hagans and reedman Gary Bartz, this album is hardly a simple reprise of his earlier success. Exploration requires a taste for the avant-garde and can be challenging for the casual listener. Which might also be said for much of Moncur’s music after Evolution. And just perhaps, is one of the reasons he has struggled to gain wider appreciation.
After high school, Grachan Moncur went on the road with the Ray Charles Big Band in 1959, a time he recalls fondly in later interviews. Leaving the band a couple of years later for health reasons, Moncur spent the next several months woodshedding and experimenting with other musicians. It was his friend, sax man Jackie McLean, who helped kick-start a journey of musical exploration still underway, Moncur now 79 years old. This turning point would be McLean’s 1963 Blue Note release One Step Beyond.
A Turning point for Moncur
Both McLean and Moncur were working to stretch beyond hard bop, yet perhaps without really thinking so much about just being different, as often suggested. Moncur recalls in an All About Jazz interview from 2003: “…when Jackie called me (about playing on One Step Beyond), he happened to call me on the same night that I had finished writing “Frankenstein” and “Ghost Town.” Moncur was also spending a lot of time jamming with vibes great, Bobby Hutcherson, who in turn had recently been playing with John Coltrane. Perhaps at Moncur’s suggestion, Hutcherson also appeared on One Step Beyond, his first time to record with McLean as well. The invitation to Grachan Moncur was, in fact, a gutsy move on McLean’s part.
Though McLean had first recorded as a leader in 1956, by 1963 he had around 20 albums to his credit. But the release of One Step Beyond was intended to live up to its title by allowing McLean to explore new ideas. Beyond choosing to record with a couple of relatively unknown players – and using Moncur’s edgy compositions for two of the four cuts – McLean was also experimenting by adding a vibraphone instead of a piano. With Tony Williams on drums and Eddie Khan on bass, this quintet swings hard, though clearly more so with the compositions of Moncur than those of McLean.
Evolving outside of the Mainstream
A few months later, given an opportunity to record under his own name on Blue Note, Grachan Moncur was explicit about his intentions with Exploration, demonstrated by the composition of both music and band. Other than the addition of Lee Morgan on trumpet and Bob Cranshaw instead of Khan on bass, the band remained the same. And the music continued to move toward a sound that could not be confused as simply variations on hard bop themes. Moncur had this to say about Evolution: “I had no thoughts in my mind of this being revolutionary. I thought the way I named the album Evolution, I was thinking of the music evolving from the mainstream.”
Grachan Moncur’s follow up album the next year, Some Other Stuff, saw a new, tighter line-up with heavy-hitters Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock joining Cecil McBee on bass and only Tony Williams remaining from the Evolution session. With the first track, Gnostic, the distance traveled between Moncur’s work on One Step Ahead and Some Other Stuff, is obvious. Listening to Wayne Shorter’s 1965 release, The All Seeing Eye, Moncur’s presence, if not his influence, abounds. Interestingly, the two had played together during Shorter’s college career in the band of Nat Phipps in Newark.
And it should be noted that Lee Morgan was also interested in stretching out, but was hampered by his unexpected popular success with the crossover pop hit Sidewinder, recorded a month after the Evolution session. Morgan reportedly commented that he considered the work with Moncur to be more advanced than his albums around the same time. Just prior to his senseless death eight years later at age 33, Morgan demonstrates his continued efforts to find new directions for his music. Morgan’s final album, The Last Sessions, was the only one to feature his longtime friend Grachan Moncur III.
Grachan Moncur’s Legacy
Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, among others, created jazz for audiences looking to be challenged. And while their avant-garde and free jazz works are inspirational beyond jazz circles – just check out the terrific new book The Jazz of Physics by Stephon Alexander – this music arguably remains an acquired taste. It might be that Moncur moved forcefully enough away from mainstream jazz too early in his career, finding himself in a spot where there just wasn’t enough audience to go around. His free jazz playing with fellow trombonist Roswell Rudd and one-time Coltrane sideman Archie Shepp did more for their careers than his.
Ironically, despite the accolades for his two comeback albums in 2004 and 2007, Grachan Moncur III remains most often remembered for his playing with straight-ahead players in the early 1960’s like McLean and The Jazztet. With both Evolution and Some Other Stuff still easily available, this is a trip down memory lane sure to offer up some new paths to explore.