A Magnificent Midnight: An Appreciation of Jemeel Moondoc

Saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who died on August 29, 2021, a few weeks after his 76th birthday, haunted the edges of the jazz avant-garde for nearly 50 years. His achievement far outstripped his renown. But let’s not spend too much time lamenting the cruel and whimsical nature of fame and fortune; they are not very reliable judges of musical quality to begin with. Even if the world’s attention was often turned elsewhere, Jemeel was still compelled to make music and he did so with an intensity and determination that few other musicians possessed. He had a vision and he followed it always, without compromise, for his whole life. He was, more than anything, a singular person, totally honest all the time, mordantly intelligent, and without self-pity. It was all there in his music. Never mind that he was, as he titled one of his compositions with the sardonic wit that permeated his music, “Not Quite Ready for Prime Time.”

Moondoc grew up in Chicago, where he learned clarinet and later alto saxophone in the supportive environment of his family and the city’s Black community. Tellingly, the first albums he remembers buying were by Gene Ammons and Cecil Taylor. The blues and Taylor provided the foundations on which he built his singular style. He left Chicago for Boston to study music but soon left for the University of Wisconsin at Madison after learning that Taylor was teaching there. He later followed him to Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Taylor’s teaching and music launched Moondoc deep into his own ideas and the development of his own voice in music. Auditing Taylor’s lectures at Antioch (he was never enrolled), he read Janheinz Jahn’s early study of African culture and spirituality, Muntu: African Culture and the Western World. It not only provided him with the name of his first, longest lasting, and most important band, but it also gave him a philosophical framework for his music making.

“Muntu is about the transition and survival of an old world culture connected to me by birth,” he said. “Muntu is about me traveling back centuries into an ancient world known to me only through my ancestors. This connection is spiritual, and embraces the living and the dead. When performing music, the execution of contacting the ancestors requires a religious belief. This process can be an out of body experience causing one to be possessed, but can also bring into the room the spirits of ancestors known and unknown. The intent of the performance is not to merely entertain, but to uplift, and awaken the listener’s spiritual powers.”

After moving in the summer of 1972 from Yellow Springs to New York with pianist Mark Hennen, who would be a founding member of Muntu, Moondoc was astonishingly determined in his pursuit of music, and certain of its importance. He reconnected with trumpeter Arthur Williams, whom he knew from Antioch, and brought in bassist William Parker and drummer Rashied Sinan (later replaced by Rashied Bakr) to form Muntu. The quintet remained more or less intact until late 1978, when Moondoc replaced Hennen and Williams with trumpeter Roy Campbell. By my estimate, Muntu played more than 100 gigs at lofts, churches, community arts centers, and on the radio in New York between 1973 and 1980, making them one of the busiest bands of the loft era. And that’s not counting tours of Europe in 1978 and 1980, and a tour of Canada in 1979. He also released two self-produced LPs, First Feeding (1977) with the Muntu quintet, and the triumphant Evening of the Blue Men (1979) by the quartet. That’s hustle.