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Grachan Moncur III, trailblazing jazz trombonist, dies at 85

Grachan Moncur III.
Courtesy of Bill May
Grachan Moncur III.

Grachan Moncur III, a trombonist and composer who carved an intrepid path through modern jazz, on his own and with collaborators like the saxophonists Archie Shepp and Jackie McLean, died in Newark, N.J., on Friday, his 85th birthday.

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

A musician fluent in the languages of blues and bebop even as he veered toward the unknown, Moncur came of age at a fortuitous moment. The questing spirit of the early-to-mid 1960s was beginning to lead the brightest young jazz talents into new formal terrain — a movement well captured in the title and substance of Moncur's debut, Evolution, recorded for Blue Note in 1963 and released the following year. Consisting entirely of his own compositions, it features an imposing 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 improvisers, rooted but reaching, belonged to a peer group that created some of the defining post-bop of the era. Moncur forged an especially strong rapport with McLean, whose Blue Note albums One Step Beyond (1963) and Destination... Out! (1964) partly feature his compositions. As a trombonist, Moncur also added color and texture to ensemble efforts like Herbie Hancock's My Point of View, Joe Henderson's The Kicker, and Wayne Shorter's The All Seeing Eye.

Beyond the jazz performance circuit, Moncur contributed a piece of music to James Baldwin's Blues For Mister Charlie characterized in the New York Timesas "a play 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 ran on Broadway in 1964 — with Moncur in the cast, playing several 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 on a concert titled "New Black Music" in 1965. The program, which also featured bands led by saxophonists John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, was later excerpted for an Impulse album called The New Wave in Jazz.

A close association with Shepp, also initially chronicled on Impulse, can be heard to strong effect on albums like Mama Too Tight and The Way Ahead, to which Moncur contributed original material. He was also among the cadre of musicians who appeared with Shepp at the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algeria, in 1969.

That same year, Moncur made New Africa, an album that signaled both a cultural orientation and an ongoing commitment to discovery. Shepp plays on one track of 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 he made the albums for Blue Note, he wanted to own his own music. He wanted to not only get royalties as a performer but also as a composer. He was told that he was never going to work again. Basically, he still worked, but he was one of the first to get out there and actively try to own — and did end up owning — his own music."

Grachan Moncur III was born in New York City on June 3, 1937, and raised 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 a nickname, Bugie — was drawn to the trombone, though 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 quickly fell in with musicians like McLean and Williams. He went on the road with Ray Charles for a few years, emerging to a scene that was primed for his brand of experimentation.

That spirit was never extinguished, though Moncur struggled to survive the business end of the music business. Among his late releases is Exploration, an aptly-titled effort released in 2004, with fellow travelers like Cyrille and saxophonists Billy Harper and Gary Bartz.

In addition to his wife of 54 years, the 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 down there very early this morning to wish him a happy birthday," said Adrien Moncur. "He did open his eyes for a brief second to acknowledge that. He was made aware that it was his birthday."

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