Though Jamal R. Moore, the Baltimore-born and raised woodwinds player and composer, was meeting up to talk about his recently self-released debut album (his Organix Trio's "Ancestral Communion") and his upcoming appearance at this week's 17th-annual High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music, in conversation it becomes clear that the what and how of what he does cannot be separated from his own formidable knowledge of the art form's history. "You have to understand how the black American music aesthetic developed, which morphed into the term of 'jazz,'" he says.
Moore came to this interview straight from teaching a history of jazz class at Coppin State University, and his responses to questions about the class and about being an independent black artist reveal how artists navigate their creative labor today is intimately intertwined with how art is commodified.
"You have to deal with the fact of how it was exploited in its early development stages," he continues. "So from that point on you're dealing with capitalism and the exploitation of the music. And I believe that was the cause right there, where musicians began to morph their own path."
He's talking explicitly about black cornetist Freddie Keppard turning down the chance to record the "first" jazz record in 1912, an offer white Nick LaRocca eventually took in 1917, but it's the musical shell game 20th-century recorded music plays over and over again. Jazz—or free improvisation, or whatever term is used to market the creative expression of people of African descent in the New World—can't be separated from the context in which it is created. Moore knows this, and he's been learning about it, thinking about it, and addressing in through his music his entire life. Music for him isn't just a product manufactured for a marketplace; it's a way of understanding the world.
Moore was born in East Baltimore and raised in West Baltimore's Edmondson Village area, a place he notes has produced other homegrown talents such as saxophonist Antonio Hart and trumpeter Wendell Shepherd. Moore initially took up percussion, studying under Warren Wolf Sr.—father to the celebrated vibraphonist—who'd been friends of his mother since junior high. Moore's dad was a jazz lover, and hearing John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, and Ornette Coleman around the house made Moore want to play saxophone. He moved to the clarinet in fourth grade—when schools still had music programs—excelled at it, and then spent two years at Peabody Preparatory. He finally got to pick up the sax after he entered West Baltimore Middle School, where band director Betty T. McCloud both pushed and inspired him.
I've only caught Moore live once, in his Ancestral Duo collaboration with bassist Luke Stewart, who also performs at High Zero this week. This duo explores expansive, abstract excursions that involve shifting electronic textures, but even in such inky noise pools Moore's saxophone cuts an emotive path. With his Organix Trio—Moore's SoundCloud page includes a 2014 live set—he plays with athletic lyricism, which for any free-jazz head will likely bring to mind cherished players from the 1960s to the present.
Just don't get distracted in the gorgeousness of it all. "A lot of people fall in love with, admire, and romanticize the beauty of the music," Moore says. "But they don't understand—I don't want to say don't understand, they don't want to accept or deal with the content that came with the music and why the music evolved the way it did. We're talking not just the civil rights movement, we're talking all the way back to Reconstruction. That [understanding] must be taken into consideration with the music. And a lot of the times some of the guys who were progressive thinkers were not accepted, taking on this mentality where 'If I'm not going to be acceptable to the mainstream, I'm going to do my own thing.'"
It's way too easy to forget that many jazz artists were DIY long before punk/rock bands got in the van to jam econo. (See also, Sun Ra: "The man had his own record label, his own recording gear, and put out a massive volume of work," Moore says, "which is really profound to do in the 1950s and '60s.") Moore started gaining a more sophisticated appreciation of music theory in Frederick Douglass High School's storied music program, from which he graduated in 1997. After that he jumped straight into gigging around town, eventually hooking up with Kevin Robinson's Kuumba Collective, which later became KREation ensemble.
For the past decade Moore has pursued his independent streak mostly out of town. In the early 2000s he left to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he remained after graduating in 2005 until he entered grad school at the California Institute of the Arts. There he studied under trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith, a former member of Chicago's experimental music and culture organization the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a prolific titan of the American avant-garde. In southern California Moore lived in Val Verde, an African-American resort town that emerged because blacks were excluded from vacation spots in pre-civil-rights-era Los Angeles.
He graduated in 2012 and stayed in the L.A. area for about another year, moving back to Baltimore in 2013, when he first became aware of the High Zero fest. "I had no clue it existed, to be honest, even though it's been going on since before I even left, because it's so underground," he says. He went that year because his colleague Luke Stewart told him percussionist Alvin Fielder, another AACM alum, and instrument maker Walter Kitundu were playing. Soon he got to know a few Red Room members, performed at last winter's MOM² concert with Thomas Stanley when he came to town to promote his book, "The Execution of Sun Ra Vol. II," and was eventually invited to this year's High Zero fest.
As such, he's that rare High Zero participant, the Baltimore native African-American—others: Jackie Blake in 2002 and 2004, trombonist Che Davis in 2005—with a considerable body of work. Yes, the fact that predominantly white High Zero doesn't frequently overlap with majority black Baltimore is partly due to the city's racial and economic segregation; it's also due to the noncommercial music in general being even more niche on top of that. When creative labor isn't valued by mass market, it has to find its own paths.
"As I teach my students, you have commercial music and you have art," Moore says, noting that bebop, after all, was considered avant-garde when it emerged at the end of the swing era, but today being such a traditionalist is one of the few ways to make a commercial jazz living. "True artists constantly develop," he says, "and being a young artist in this field and aesthetic, one of the things made clear to me is that we no longer have to be subjected to an industry label."
So he's doing his best to carve his own path, like the artists who came before him. After High Zero he's performing with local drummer Menes Yahudah's Urban Foli at the Baltimore Rhythm Festival on Oct. 3, and he's working on lining up a local release show for Organix Trio's album, which currently is only available for purchase through him. The album is the third in a nine-volume output exploring his own system of melodic forms, his own engagement with the beautiful struggle.
"'Ancestral Communion' gets into understanding the concept of your ancestors, and taking that entity and giving it as an offering," Moore says. "It's about healing people's humanity, the dialogue taking place right here in the United States. The music might not have any verbal content but through the music you'll be able to feel what's happening—the love, the pain, the joy, and the sorrow of humanity, of experience, of life."