One Punk’s Guide to Jazz Saxophonist Aubrey “Brew” Moore by Billups Allen

One Punk’s Guide to Jazz Saxophonist Aubrey “Brew” Moore by Billups Allen

May 04, 2023

The Near Misses of Aubrey “Brew” Moore

Here is a printable PDF of the article.

Artwork by Billups Allen
Layout by Todd Taylor

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Jazz evolves quickly. The evolution of style is prevalent for some players. Miles Davis began improvising during the small band era and rose to prominence as one of the best-known experimental artists in jazz. Thelonious Monk dissected and rebuilt themes from standard arrangements. Jazz was, and is, a moving organism feeding on new ideas and taking only hints from its own history. That history is important to know and understand. But it is at least equally as crucial not to be buried by it.

Bebop is a fast-tempo improvisational style of jazz developed among small combos evolving during the mid-’40s during a time when big band jazz was falling out of fashion. Bebop became the standard for improvisation in the ’50s and ’60s, and was the cutting edge of the genre. Almost as quickly as bebop became hip, it fell into relative obscurity because of more experimental styles. It wasn’t long before bebop changed from an improv phenomenon to a canon of standards. As the playing field of bebop players disseminated into many avenues of varying experimentation, popular interest in bebop waned. Better known players built on their styles and left behind only standard arrangements.

Aubrey “Brew” Moore was a tenor saxophone player who rose to prominence during the age of bebop. Moore was a disciple of the playing style of Lester Young. Young was a juggernaut of bebop and fellow Mississippian. The activation of bebop can be seen in the playing of Lester Young—his long and flowing solos slinking in the background of his time in big bands eventually brought the style to the forefront. Saxophone player Charlie Parker was another early admirer of Young. Parker first noticed Young and his unorthodox soloing in the infamous Count Basie Orchestra. Parker would also have a heavy influence on bebop.

Moore became a bebop purist. During his life, he struggled for money to buy time to explore the tenants of bebop and ended up living in Europe where many great jazz musicians plied their trade for wages, keeping them living indoors and drinking. Moore believed the short-lived genre within a genre had avenues to explore, whether the public wanted to hear them or not. His pure ethic towards bebop was admirable, but also contributed to his inability to get ahead. That said, drinking was Moore’s biggest obstacle. His nickname “Brew” came to him at an early age for learning how to make beer in a dry county.

Lester Young | Artwork by Billups Allen

Moore became a voice in bebop, but missed the boat when trends changed and he felt he had more to offer the genre. Like the 111-year-old Jack Crabb in Little Big Man, Moore had brushes with greatness. He played music in the strip clubs of New Orleans during World War II, sat in with big, established bands and emerging stars like Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Kai Winding, Sahib Shihab, and many others (including his second hero Charlie Parker) traveled with Woody Guthrie, played the great clubs of New York, San Francisco, and Paris, washed elephants for Ringling Brothers, and—as stated as the other fact most writings find relevant to him—died a little too early. Moore didn’t become a household name, but to a small group of jazz enthusiasts, he means something. His recordings are those of a thoughtful player and lost soul. He’s quoted in The Encyclopedia of Jazz as having said: “Everyone who doesn’t play like Lester is wrong.” It’s a quote long associated with Moore, although The New York Times quoted Moore as saying “Anybody who…”. Later in life, he amended the statement about Lester Young to include Charlie Parker, but not before the wheels of time rolled over all three of them.

INDIANOLA MISSISSIPPI SEEDS

Moore was born into a prominent family in Indianola, Miss. Moore’s father, Milton Aubrey Moore Sr., owned a local insurance agency. His mother gave him a harmonica in grade school. He blew the harmonica for years until the director of the Indianola High School marching band noticed him. Moore learned the trumpet and the clarinet, but the tenor saxophone was his revelation. He played throughout high school and got a scholarship to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, to play in the university band.

Moore was keen to enlist in the army in 1941, but his ankle was weak from tuberculosis, setting poorly after an ankle break in eighth grade. He was ineligible for service and decided to leave school for Memphis. Moore couldn’t find work as a musician in Memphis, and at the suggestion of DownBeat magazine’s New Orleans’s correspondent Dave Banks, Moore traveled to Louisiana to see what the jazz scene of the 1940s had to offer. He arrived with three dollars in his pocket, but New Orleans provided a lot of opportunities to play. There he quickly found regular work in strip joints and cabarets.

WE’LL HAVE BIG FUN ON THE BAYOU

Moore often played at a strip club called The Puppy House. A typical strip bar and cabaret, The Puppy House was among twenty such clubs on the strip circuit alone. Moore, like many New Orleans musicians, played in the show bands of clubs like these to make a living. But it was not challenging work. At The Puppy House, Moore was keen to play in the intermission band where opportunities to sneak in different styles of playing was looser. Customers weren’t focused on the music during the intermissions and it allowed freedom for the musicians to improvise. Patrons of The Puppy House were primarily interested in the strippers, not the improvisational skills of the band. But during the stripping, the music had to be danceable. When the management of The Puppy House found out Moore could read music, they placed him in the show band as a regular. This was somewhat uninspiring, but the musicians in New Orleans ate well. In one interview he recalled, “A plate of unshelled shrimp cost thirty cents.” Behind the strippers was where Moore spent a bulk of his time honing his craft. Regarding his time in New Orleans, Moore was quoted as saying, “I was twenty-one years old before I ever saw a naked woman from the front.”

Brew Moore | Artwork by Billups Allen

Moore played along much of the strip and cabaret circuit’s twenty-plus clubs during his stay in New Orleans. He often returned to The Puppy House, where the band was known to do eighteen shows a night, blazing though the club’s roster of show tunes and dancers to promote turnover in the club, and got paid well. For a while, Moore begrudgingly followed New Orleans’s fickle tide and relished opportunities to “really wail” when there was time for improvisation.

New Orleans proved to be a training ground for Moore and many players like him. The resurgence of Dixieland in New Orleans eventually caused Moore and many others to feel even more constricted in what they were permitted to play. In New York, bebop was coming into style. As he and his peers made pilgrimages to experience what was happening in NYC, the show band became an unbearable option. Moore spent time traveling back and forth and quickly became part of the blossoming New York City jazz scene. The experience rendered him “too modern” to stay in New Orleans much longer. Moore sought to stay in New York.

NEW YORK’S ALRIGHT IF YOU LIKE SAXOPHONES

Moore was mostly established in New York City by 1943. Moore recorded one of his earliest sessions for Savoy Records in 1944. The record wouldn’t be released until 1948 when he began to make a name for himself. By then he had recorded in Newark, N.J. under the name Brew Moore And His Playboys, and played on records backing up Howard McGhee and Kai Winding. A year later, Gerry Mulligan and Kai Winding appeared on the single “Gold Rush” b/w “Mud Bug” under the name The Brew Moore Bop Boys.

This was the same septet that later made up the Brew Moore All Stars, a combo that released one of Moore’s most telling singles for Savoy called Lestorian Mode. This title telegraphed Moore’s fanaticism for Lester Young. Moore maintained a lifelong dedication to Young’s legacy. He and some of his peers were known as disciples of Young’s relaxed phrasing and smooth sound, a style that defined the early bebop movement. He, like many of his other bebop contemporaries, felt jazz had nowhere else to go. During this time, Moore was destined to meet and play alongside some of the soon-to-be-legends of jazz, but it would be six years until his most significant recordings were made under the Fantasy Record label.

Charlie Parker | Artwork by Billups Allen

In 1953 he made some of his best-known recordings of the era with the then-emerging guitarist Chuck Wayne and recorded another seminal session with his good friend Tony Fruscella. During the era from 1945-1955, he honed his craft around New York and New Jersey, recording when able and playing sets at legendary clubs like The Bop Club, The Open Door, and The Royal Roost. He played with Charlie Parker at his legendary Birdland nightclub. Miles Davis also employed Moore at Birdland for a while in the ’50s. As a gun for hire, Moore backed many famous names, including playing lines for singer and activist Harry Bellefonte’s first recording session. Moore’s extensive discography indicates he was getting around and becoming a well-respected player, but the heavyweights he played with quickly eclipsed him in varying degrees of success. Among his peers, Moore lagged in notoriety. As he continued to record, his name became less prominent. Although he was clearly respected, he was one among many competent jazz saxophone players trying to make a living.

Moore’s nomadic lifestyle kept a hold on him. Recordings exist of him playing with Charlie Parker in Montréal in February of 1953. Bebop hit Greenwich Village hard. And like so many other trends in New York City, people’s interest quickly faded. Moore was again feeling trapped; his honed skill and love for bebop became passé in the town it was known for. As the legend has it, Moore was flat broke sitting in Washington Square Park one afternoon when a 1949 Buick pulled up. A man stuck his head out of the window and yelled, “Anyone for the coast?” Driving the car was Billy Faier. Faier was a banjo picker, a regular on the Greenwich Village folk scene, and, later, a well-respected folk historian. Moore didn’t know him, but nothing was happening for Moore in New York, so he said, “Why not?” or “Hell, yea,” depending on what article you’re quoting, and got in the car.

HARD TRAVELIN’

Waiting in the car were folk legends Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. As a trio they’d planned to drive across the country playing for coins and sharing expenses, but they decided to pick up just one more for the ride. Moore was in the car with three Western-style ramblers. He was reluctant to play with them, and rightfully so. Guthrie disliked Moore intensely and refused to speak to him for the whole trip after an impromptu roadside jam session in Texas. Guthrie, of course, was a legendary lyricist. It’s reported Guthrie disliked instrumental music, specifically jazz, of which Moore, of course, felt strongly. I’ve only ever found this dynamic mentioned as the barrier between Guthrie and Moore. My gut instinct supposes there is more to the story, but to anyone who has ever heard or been a part of a genre argument knows it’s possible to see that exchange get out of hand. Either way, the quartet edged their way intrepidly to Los Angeles in near silence, where Moore got out of the car and boarded a bus for San Francisco.

The story says a lot about Moore’s luck. In the annals of jazz history, his life is rarely described in more than a few sentences, but that’s enough to get across the idea he was never quite in the right place at the right time. He brushed up against greatness often. His accomplishments are largely shadowed by anonymity. Moore’s interface with fame reached outside of the giants of the jazz world. Jack Kerouac was a fan of Moore’s mellow style. Moore is mentioned in Jack Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels. Kerouac eerily confirms elements of his playing that have been touched on in the small pool of research available about Moore in a passage where he and some friends arrive at a nightclub:

which he holds mouthpieced [sic] in the side of his mouth, cheek distended in a round ball like Harry James and Dizzy Gillespie, and he plays perfect harmony to any tune they bring up—He pays little attention to anyone, he drinks his beer, he gets loaded and eye-heavy, but he never misses a beat or a note, because music is his heart, and in music he has found that pure message to give the world—The only trouble is, they don’t understand. (Kerouac pg. 221)

At least physically, it’s a comical but seemingly somewhat accurate portrayal. Photos of Moore show his right cheek uncharacteristically blown out from his face, contrary to what brass and reed players are taught. Dizzy Gillespie also carried this affectation. Photos have also captured his big hound dog eyes drooping, presumably from a long night of playing and drinking. Photos also show him aimed slightly away from the camera, as if he wanted to avoid being completely photographed. Music critic Ralph Gleason wrote on Moore several times. Aside from the many positive things Gleason wrote about Moore, he also stated during one session that Moore, “Had a face of a catcher’s mitt and he moved in sections—like he was put together too loosely to work right...”

The Blackhawk | Artwork by Billups Allen

Moore’s cross-country excursion in the ’49 Buick with the folkies landed Moore in San Francisco. This was a prolific time for Moore. His skill, sharpened by years of constant playing, and his vision and style were becoming more apparent. Moore hit the ground running. In 1954, he played a long stint at the legendary Black Hawk as well as regular showings at clubs like The Cellar, The Jazz Workshop, and The Tropics.

He continued to appear on many recordings, including those of popular players such as Miles Davis and Cal Tjader. Tjader once said Moore was his favorite saxophone soloist. Moore secured a contract to record for Fantasy Records and recorded two of his seminal records during this time. The first album, titled The Brew Moore Quintet, was released in 1956. Regarding this work, Moore was quoted as saying: “I like a small group—such as the quintet we have on this album—where there is no other front line and I can just let myself go.” In the liner notes, Ralph Gleason asserts Moore’s style comes from “…things you cannot earn by wood-shedding (practicing), or in any conservatory. You have to be born with them or learn them by living.”

Moore certainly was learning by living. He began to build a name for himself in San Francisco. His next album for Fantasy titled Brew Moore was culminated from sessions recorded at The Tropics with Harold Wylie completing a two-tenor team. These albums capture Moore at the height of his improv ability. He was becoming known around town, and San Francisco was becoming the place to be for bebop. But hard times often loom over a nomadic lifestyle, and Moore’s difficulties were never padded by more than a few dollars. During this time, Moore also found work playing popular tunes on a cruise ship touring Asia. He also spent some time in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus band where he played in the show band and earned a few extra bucks feeding the elephants.

BASTARDS OF YOUNG

One thing that held Moore back was he was adamant Lester Young and Charlie Parker were the pinnacles of the integrity of jazz and refused to change. While many jazz professionals went on to either experiment with or play music that was more relevant, bebop had a hard shelf life in America. Moore’s dedication to the sound caused him to spend more time in cabarets and as a hired hand doing studio work to survive between stints of playing in his own style. Rather than experimenting with his own sound and changing with the trends of jazz, Moore stuck within the tenants of bebop.

Toward the end of his life, he was quoted as saying: “When I hear what Bird had done for himself, I realized that Prez (Lester Young) was not the complete messiah. So I combined Bird and Prez and my own thing.” This is a noble statement, but not one encompassing much more than a quip regarding a style represented in a few short years of jazz history. It’s particularly ominous considering Prez and Bird both died young without seeing the full scope of the credit they later received for their contributions to jazz, nor were they properly compensated what they were owed. Although Moore made solid recordings for Fantasy and Savoy, he was just another player among many during a short era of bebop gaining mainstream acceptance.

Fantasy Records,  Savoy Records | Artwork by Billups Allen

SAFE EUROPEAN HOME

Just as it had become more difficult to make a living playing jazz in New York a few years earlier, times became difficult in San Francisco. Moore, like many other players, had to make the decision to evolve or flee. Moore’s heavy drinking was also wearing on him. As these problems escalated, he began to fade from the scene. He, and many like him, discovered Europe as a refuge for jazz musicians. European audiences celebrated the style Americans were taking for granted. Europe became a haven for the working jazz player. Moore began his first European stint in Paris in 1961. A gig manifested quickly with legendary drummer Kenny Clarke at the prestigious Blue Note. It was a good start. Parisians were a receptive audience and Moore and Clarke had a long run at the Blue Note. From there, Moore traveled to Copenhagen and Germany, playing a big chunk of the Scandinavian circuit along the way. Moore felt at home spending time in Copenhagen.

After a brief return to San Francisco, Moore settled in Copenhagen and found work that was more than just sustainable. Although he still suffered from the on and off financial troubles most musicians are stuck with, Moore began to consider Copenhagen his home. Moore made several return trips to America, including a three-year stint to New York City. During this time, Ira Gitler wrote twice in DownBeat magazine about Moore returning to New York in good form: “Moore has sounded consistently good since his return from Europe last year, in engagements at the Half Note and La Boheme…” and further commented: “Moore’s brand of emotional, romantic, hard-swinging music captivated the waitresses and bartenders as well as the JI regulars. It also got to the usual nighttime denizens of the club—the rock kids. A rock band scheduled to play that night had come early to stash their instruments and stayed until Brew was through.” Those who took notice appreciated Moore’s playing. But during this time he was mostly keen to return to Denmark. “I’m happier waking up in Copenhagen,” he said in DownBeat. “New York is exciting. There’s always something happening, but a lot of it is unpleasant.”

Denmark was where he had the most freedom to play his music his way. He released several recordings there under his name. His Danish fans were some of the most responsive of his career, and his discography from Denmark is considerable. His Denmark recordings were released on small record labels with little or no distribution in America.

Stockholm Brew was the last solo album completed by Moore. It was recorded in 1971 with a stable of Copenhagen musicians he came to know well and played with often in Denmark. Jazz critic Sam Charters in the liner notes called the sessions “some of the best modern jazz to be heard in Europe. Brew, hunched over his horn above the crowd, eyes closed to faces, beer glasses, mirrors, toilet signs, and the club’s long bar, just blew. He had to do something in all those years, and what he did was get better.” By the late ’60s, Moore was active in Denmark, but mostly forgotten in the United States.

Moore made a few trips to America in the early ’70s, mostly to visit his parents who lived in Indianola their whole lives. Moore worked during these trips, recording when he could, but, mostly, as he was known to do, going where the work was, playing behind friends in small clubs, and even local dances to earn money. Moore struggled back and forth from Denmark where his mild fame sustained his lifestyle.

Moore made one final trip back to Indianola in 1973 during when he lost both his mother and father. The family insurance agency had done well over the years, and his mother’s death left Moore with an amount of money he could use for security while living in Denmark. But not long after arriving back in Denmark, during a typical drinking binge, Moore fell down a notably steep flight of stairs at the Tivoli Gardens. Moore broke his neck and was killed instantly. He was forty-nine years old.

DO YOUR THING

Moore was a principled player and a solid character in the history of jazz. Widespread recognition evaded him partially because of his dedication to Lester Young’s style and partially because he developed his style during a time when so many others were changing. As jazz began to become more and more experimental, Moore never felt the need to extrapolate on his passion. It’s this snare in his philosophy which makes him such a compelling player. He refused to change with the times. His discography is relatively small, considering the length of time he was active, but it is respected among jazz enthusiasts. Moore said in an interview for DownBeat Magazine, “My main idea is to get back to simplicity.” His devotion to bebop kept him from modernizing his sound: a single-mindedness making him a champion of bebop phrasing. Although many of the people with whom he played shared his enthusiasm, Moore lived his enthusiasm. Ken Burns used Moore’s famous quote in episode nine of his documentary Jazz (2001). But Burn’s attributed the line, “Everyone who doesn’t play like Lester is wrong,” to “one musician.” Once again, Moore failed to be mentioned among his heroes and colleagues, but this seemingly insignificant snub is oddly apropos as a reflection on Moore’s life.

Bibliography

Astrup, Arne. A Discography of Brew Moore. Denmark. Bidstrup Discographical Publishing Company. 1992.
Author Unknown. “Brew Moore: ‘a tragic figure in jazz.’” The Enterprise- Tocsin. 13 September 1973.
Author Unknown. “Brew Moore Dies; Jazz Musician 49” The New York Times. 20 August 1973.
Author Unknown. “Indianola’s hometown jazz star” The Enterprise-Tocsin. 30 May 2013.
Charters, Sam. (1971). [Liner Notes.]. On Brew’s Stockholm Dew [LP]. London, England: Sonet Productions.
Gitler, Ira. “Brew Moore: The Scene, New York City” DownBeat magazine. Chicago Ill. 29 May, 1969.
Gitler, Ira. “Home Brew: Brew Moore returns.” DownBeat magazine. Chicago Ill. 24 July, 1969.
Gleason, Ralph. (1958). [Liner Notes.]. On Brew Moore [LP]. United States: Fantasy Records.
Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angles. United States. Riverhead Books. 1995.

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Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor. He has worked in seven different record stores around the country and currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes music and movie writing regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. His most recent book, 101 Films You Could See Before You Die, is available on Goner Records.


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