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Now 63 years old, Chicago-born avant-garde jazz saxophonist JEMEEL MOONDOC – who began his recording career in the 1970s – is still going strong and has just released a new album, ‘The Zookeeper’s House’ for the Relative Pitch label. Moondoc, who was a disciple and student of free jazz piano legend, Cecil Taylor, in Antioch, Ohio, came to prominence when he moved to New York City and formed Ensemble Muntu with kindred spirits William Parker, Roy Campbell Jr, and Rashid Bakr.

In a rare interview, he talks to SJF’s US correspondent, John Wisniewski, about his life and music…


JemeelWhen did you begin playing jazz music? Were you playing from an early age?

Maybe it was around ’67 – ’68, my first attempt at playing jazz. I became acquainted with Michael Cosmic, Phillip Musra and Doug Ewart who were associated with the AACM, these guys were already astute musicians. But I started clarinet around 8, nothing serious just curious, but I stayed with it, learned some scales and few little tunes. Mostly I just played it, with records or just improvised by myself. I started playing flute in my High School concert band. There were too many clarinet players when I went to audition, so the band master handed me a flute. I never played flute before that; later on, I picked up the alto sax. What a wonderful sound. I didn’t play the sax that much while in high school, except a few times when I played at parties with friends, but that was not jazz.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

In my house as a kid the jazz records we had was Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nate King Cole. But I remember as a teenager the jazz guys that sort of dominated the scene in Chicago were Ramsey Lewis and Gene Ammons. One of the hit records back then was Dizzy’s ‘Sweet Low – Sweet Cadillac’. Cannonball Adderley was also popular. Later we started listening to Bird, Miles and Trane, Ornette and Cecil. We also got plenty of Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Art Blakey and the Messengers. There are some contemporaries whom I enjoy playing with, Jessie Sharps and Juan Reyes who came to Antioch to play with Cecil from the Horace Tappscott Band. And certainly members of my ‘Jus Grew’ Orchestra; William Parker, Roy Campbell, Steve Swell and Bern Nix Jazz is filled with so many great musicians throughout its history it is hard to say that a few or my favorites.

What inspired your newest composition ‘The Zookeeper’s House’?

A mixed media art piece by Ronnie Phillips (ronphillipsart.com) was a visual and intellectual stimulation to me. I was so inspired by this piece I used it for the cover of the CD. My idea is that the Zookeeper is a keeper of history, a keeper of archives, not just animals, but a collector of any and all documentation and records relating to the existence of mankind. Sometimes this type of inspiration adds to the motivation to keep creating and composing music new and different, to be recorded or performed live.

Do you enjoy playing live?

Live performances are the most nourishing just in terms of feedback. The feedback is instantaneous, and in most cases positive, uplifting and encouraging. There are people and fans out there who what to be entertained with something new and different. Recorded sessions can also be very gratifying and encouraging; it also serves as a documentation of your work as a composer and band leader.

Could you tell us about working with Matthew Shipp who joins you on ‘Zookeeper’?

I always liked Matt’s playing and approach to the piano. Especially his work with David S. Ware. His playing is open avant-garde so to speak, and soulful at the same time. I would say his approach and result is somewhere between a Cecil Taylor and a Don Pullen.

There is a rendition of an Alice Coltrane composition also (‘Ptah, The El Daoud’) – are you an admirer of her work?

Alice Coltrane is a wonderful composer, everything she has ever recorded and written is new and different and spiritual. I think that ‘Ptah, The El Daoad’ is an unforgettable piece that just dances in your head. It is one of Alice’s defining compositions that caught everyone’s ear, a wonderful anthem or march theme, with great solo interpretations by Pharoah and Joe Henderson.

Who in jazz history would you most liked to have recorded or played alongside?

That would be Louis Armstrong. I can remember trying to play the clarinet along with a couple of Louis’s records we had at the house. I was 9 or 10. Back then when anyone said the word jazz, the very first image that would pop into my head was that of Louis Armstrong; I know that there would be no jazz without Louis. This also gave me a feeling of pride. Cecil would be another jazz great that I would love to play with. Who wouldn’t? A few times, when I was playing in his Black Music Ensemble back at Antioch; I had a few brief moments of playing with him one on one. Incredible minutes in my life. But when the stew started to cook, and the pot started to boil, Cecil would stop, and calmly get up from the piano. One of Cecil’s greatest recordings is a record called ‘Dark Unto Themselves,’ with David S. Ware, Jimmy Lyons, Raphe Malik and Mark Edwards. What a great recording. I got a chance to play and record with the great Ed Blackwell; what a wonderful experience. It was with Ed and Fred Hopkins, we played a concert over at NYU. This came out on a record called ‘Judy’s Bounce’ on Soul Note. It is one of my own favorites.

‘The Zookeeper’s House’ is dedicated to Roy Campbell Jr. Could you tell us about him?

Roy Campbell and I were long time friends; we have been playing together since the mid ’70s. Roy added a very strong sound and spirit to MUNTU. Roy and I continued to work and record together after MUNTU had dissolved. Over the years Roy and I recorded about nine records together including the MUNTU box set. He was a permanent member of the ‘Jus Grew’ Orchestra. Roy Campbell Jr. was well versed in the bebop and post-bop jazz traditions. His trademark was the way he blended his traditional roots with the new avant-garde. He could display a big brassy sound comparable to Louis Armstrong, Lee Morgan and Woody Shaw but also could deliver a soft, sweet, well-articulated tone reminiscent of Kenny Dorham or Don Cherry. Roy was an excellent composer and his approach was harmolodic, but he also had a firm knowledge of traditional chord structure and harmonic movement. More than any other musician that I have worked with, Roy was the one that I learned the most from. Roy Campbell Jr. was a powerful and elite musician way ahead of his time.