Thursday, October 12, 2017

Any Friend of Chief’s…

Indigenous Peoples Day Blog Series (4 of 5) By Guest Blogger J. Andrew Darling, Southwest Heritage Research, LLC

When I think about it, it is ironic. After nearly 20 years working in Arizona, one of the more profound moments in my career as an archaeologist happened to take place on 7th Street in Greenwich Village, New York City in February of 2013. My trip was cobbled together from various research projects but the main mission, and this may seem particularly unremarkable, was to visit the Village Vanguard, one of New York City’s most venerable, basement jazz clubs that opened in 1935. I wasn’t there to hear music and I wasn’t looking for Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Dizzy Gillespie. I was searching for the late Russell ‘Big Chief’ Moore. It was a relatively mild winter’s day and I happened to arrive in the middle of the afternoon. 

Allow me to explain…

In 1973, during off hours, the O’odham jazz legend and trombonist, Russell ‘Big Chief’ Moore, recorded an album at the Village Vanguard.  The album was produced by Jazz Art, a short-lived, record company run by a man named Phil Stein. The first album was recorded under the title, Russell ‘Big Chief’ Moore’s Pow Wow Jazz Band.  The second, Russell “Big Chief” Moore, Vol. II, was released in 1978, and consisted mostly of previously recorded material from various years and as far away as Paris. 
Phil Stein, who was a former assistant to David Siquieros, the Mexican Muralist, and later his biographer, also was a painter and muralist, who adopted the pseudonym, Estaño.  Stein had an interest in the Village Vanguard, or more specifically, his sister, Lorraine, who was married to the owner, Max Gordon.  Stein also had famously painted the untitled mural that still can be seen in the back of the club and he adorned the Jazz Art album covers with his own portraits of Big Chief.

Russell Moore, for his part, had achieved some measure of international fame with Louis Armstrong for his contribution to the very successful album Hello Dolly in the early 1960s and for his work as a member of the All Stars.  The first Jazz Art recording at the Village Vanguard with Russell Moore as leader, however, was unique and represented a milestone in the career of this distinguished jazz musician.

Russell Moore was born in Gila Crossing, Arizona in 1912 in the Gila River Indian Community.  He came from a talented family of writers and musicians and for a time he and his brother Everett Moore, who was a piano player, spent a portion of their youth with their uncle, William T. Moore, in Blue Island, Illinois near Chicago. Uncle Bill was from Gila Crossing, too, and a multi-talented instrumentalist and band director.  Another relative, Anna Moore Shaw, also from Gila Crossing, authored multiple books on O’odham history and culture.  In 1929, while standing on the street outside the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, the underage Russell Moore heard Louis Armstrong play for the first time.  This was enough to set him on the path toward a career in jazz music that, until his passing in Nyack, New York in 1983, would span nearly five decades. 

As a testament to his talent, Moore played with many of the more prominent musicians in American jazz history including not just Louis Armstrong, but Lionel Hampton, Ernie Fields, Sydney Bechet, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker and many others.  He also managed to play in all of the famed Jazz Cities in the United States: New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago.  He even made it back to Phoenix to play in the well-remembered Riverside Ballroom.  Later in his career, Russell Moore, brought jazz music to the reservations in a way that often reminds me of Louis Armstrong’s international jazz ambassadorship for the US State Department.

Russell Moore was unique in that he fully embraced his Native American identity during his career as an American jazz musician.  Since 2012, exhibits and articles have appeared regularly to commemorate his life and music (2012, incidentally, was both the 100th anniversary of Russell Moore’s birth and the Arizona state centennial).  These include an exhibit produced by the National Museum of the American Indian located in the old Customs House in New York City, the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Huhugam Heritage Center in the Gila River Indian Community.  Just last July, an article by Douglas Yeo, Professor Emeritus of Trombone at Arizona State University, appeared in the International Trombone Association Journal featuring rarely seen images of Russell Moore as well as links to other articles and information. Robert Jackson, a reporter for the Gila River Indian News, also acknowledged Yeo’s article last month, in a piece that describes Russell Moore’s life, musicianship and contributions to jazz.  Finally, the recently released and much acclaimed documentary, Rumble, is a comprehensive treatment on Native American contributions to popular music that also recognizes the late, great Russell Moore.

There’s a lot more that could be said about Russell Moore but I should finish my story.  So…there I was, standing in front of the Village Vanguard in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday staring at the bright red awning printed in bold white letters.  At that hour, I already knew that the front door would be locked.  So, I dialed their number.  An understandably bewildered gentleman answered the phone and I identified myself as an archaeologist, who had come to see the room where Pow Wow jazz was recorded.  He paused for a bit and then exclaimed, “CHIEF! You’re a friend of Big Chief! Well, any friend of Big Chief is a friend of ours!”

He ran up the long flight of stairs, threw open the door, and escorted me down to the empty club, where I was invited to look around, to sit, and spend as much time as I wanted with Estaño’s mural.  

I never knew the late Russell Moore, but at that moment I felt that suddenly we were the best of friends.  If you ever get to New York City, there’s a little bit of Gila Crossing, Arizona that still lingers in a jazz club on 7th Street in Greenwich Village.

J. Andrew Daring received his Ph.D. In Anthropology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1998.  He is the former Director of the Cultural Resource Management Program, Gila River Indian Community and is currently a co-owner of Southwest Heritage Research, LLC.  Darling also holds adjunct affiliations with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University in Tempe and the Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.

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