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Music

Jemeel Moondoc, Intrepid Saxophonist and Composer Who Carved a Path Through the Avant-Garde, Is Dead at 76

Jemeel Moondoc
courtesy of the artist

Some jazz innovators are bathed in hype and adulation, while others labor in undeserved obscurity. Saxophonist and composer Jemeel Moondoc belonged to the latter camp.

He was a prime mover of the New York City loft jazz scene of the 1970s, and then the Lower East Side/East Village scene of the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yet he rarely received accolades for his work.

Moondoc died on Aug. 29 at 76, after a battle with health issues including sickle cell anemia. His death was confirmed by the organization Arts for Arts, which praised him as a “passionate, driven, unapologetic musician determined to make music on his terms.” He is survived by his son, Max Moondoc, and two sisters, Deborah Holliday and Rita Majied.

Born in Chicago on Aug. 5, 1946, Jemeel Moondoc came by his birth name honestly. Its origins are a fusion of moonshine and medicine man. (In 1981, for an interview in Cadence magazine, he told Bob Rusch that his first name was common in the South.)

His father was a tenor saxophonist, and Moondoc was active musically during his upbringing. He sang and played piano in the church, demonstrating an early ability to play tunes by ear. Once, in high school, he sat in on flute with blues legend Willie Dixon.

He studied saxophone at the New England Conservatory of Music, initially focused on Chicago-based, bluesy players like Gene Ammons. But when he heard Cecil Taylor’s classic 1966 album Unit Structures, he was enraptured. Moondoc learned that Taylor was in residence at the University of Wisconsin, so he hitchhiked to Madison to audit classes and occasionally play with the legendary pianist.

Jemeel Moondoc at Studio Rivbea
Tom Marcello
Jemeel Moondoc at Studio Rivbea, with William Parker on bass.

When Taylor moved to Antioch College in Ohio, Moondoc followed, studying with Taylor, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and drummer Andrew Cyrille for two years before he moved to New York City. There he started Ensemble Muntu, named for a text Taylor had assigned.

“Jemeel is absolutely fundamental to the loft scene,” attests Cisco Bradley, author of Universal Tonality: The Life and Music of William Parker. “His music, especially [with] Ensemble Muntu, has a unique and unbridled quality.”

Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr became the backbone of Ensemble Muntu, before Taylor hired them to be his rhythm section in the early ‘80s. Parker credits Moondoc as a primary influence on his career. “Jemeel was very important to my development as a musician,” he says. The bassist met Moondoc in 1973, and they played together for several years. “Jemeel had a different way of conceiving music — what was then known as the new music. It was not based on chord changes. It was built on sound projections of constantly changing rhythms and harmonic backgrounds.”

With its elegant dynamics and swirling polyphonies, Muntu’s music displays a heavy Taylorian influence, but Moondoc’s acerbic solos make it distinctively his own.

Jemeel Moondoc / William Parker / Hamid Drake | New World Pygmies

He went on to found the Jus Grew Orchestra, which played weekly gigs at the East Village performance space Neither/Nor. His other bands included Revolt of the Lawn Jockeys, Tri-P-Let, and New World Pygmies. Each band offered a distinctly Moondoc sound, raw, urgent and nearly confrontational.

Drummer Chad Taylor played in several of Moondoc’s bands. This week he posted a remembrance on Instagram.

For his part, writing by email, Parker says: “Jemeel was a blues-man from Chicago who was the leader of his own school of music. I hope people will begin to listen to all the music he created. It was all brilliant black and blue.”