Finding Bill Moore

Bill Moore. The name seems like a pun on itself, a homophone inviting literally “more” to be said about it while resisting that urge through its own frequency. The number of birth certificates, census records, coroners’ reports, and gravestones for “William Moore” or “Bill Moore” makes it a daunting prospect when it comes to research. I’m interested in the trumpeter Bill Moore, but there are several players with that name, playing different instruments and kicking up more hay around my desired needle.

Irving Brodsky - Piano  Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini
Irving Brodsky – Piano
Left to Right: Ray Kitchingham, Stan King, Bill Moore and Adrian Rollini

What I’ve found (so far, based on admittedly perfunctory research) says little and repeats it often: that Moore worked with the California Ramblers in all of their pseudonymous forms as well as with Ben Bernie, Jack Pettis, and many other bandleaders. His unique position as a Black musician playing in white bands also comes up frequently. Howard Rye, quoting Albert McCarthy’s The Dance Band Era in Names and Numbers magazine, explains that “One of the regular personnel [of the California Ramblers] in the mid-20s was trumpeter Bill Moore, a light-skinned Black who ‘passed.'” Discographies confirm that he played with a variety of bands through the Swing Era, with a 1950 Billboard review praising his “Armstrong-inspired” trumpet. There’s not much more to learn about the man, even less when it comes to the musician. Bill Moore is very hard to find.

The sound of Moore’s trumpet during the twenties takes us past the realm of historical ciphers and gigging sidemen. At that time, Moore was a distinctly pre-Armstrong player. His tone is far removed from the rich, brassy sound now virtually synonymous with “jazz trumpet.” It’s narrower and more piercing, like a needle rather than a sword, well suited to tying an ensemble together rather than cutting its own path.

Even through the haze of acoustic records, Moore’s trumpet has a buzzy edge to it, different than the cool quality of his contemporary Red Nichols, the broad, warm tone of Paul Mares or Johnny Dunn’s crisp flourishes.

Moore also frequent played with a mute. Brass players often point out how mutes can be used to hide intonation problems (with King Oliver a favorite example) but the possibility of expressive choice is worth considering in Moore’s case. Moore’s pinched sound was put to good use on a series of sessions throughout the late twenties.

Moore also chatters rather than blasts, maybe to hide an uneven tone, maybe to show off fast fingers. Either way, he lets this brash instrument—seemingly designed for sweeping bursts—speak in tight, concentrated patterns.

Armstrong experimented with what Brian Harker called a clarinet-like approach early on in his career. Nichols used clever, clipped lines throughout his long career. Jabbo Smith and Roy Eldridge frequently employed double-time with the boppers later adding their own phrasing and harmonic ideas.

Moore’s chattering is based on a pre-Armstrong aesthetic that emphasized contrast and variety over continuity and flow. It’s also more of an ornament, as Moore sticks closer to the melody than many modern jazz musicians care to—while Moore knows how to have fun with even the silliest tune, rather than simply throw it out. The emphasis on contrast, paraphrase, and mutes indicates that Moore might have been listening to “novelty” trumpeter Louis Panico.

Listening to Moore reveals more than session dates and personnel listings. It points to influences, musical choices, textures, and his own stylistic vocabulary. In other words, there’s a distinct musical voice at work. Neither a genius granted immortality nor a hack deserving complete neglect, after generations of brash, brassy trumpeters in the Armstrong mode, Moore’s style might seem like a wholly new experience (even if it originated decades before most readers were born).

from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929
from The Reading Eagle, November 7, 1929

Jazz purists might dismiss Moore based on his different sense of swing, comparatively restrained improvisational approach, or some other interesting but ultimately illogical bit of teleology. Given his post-ragtime, pre-Armstrong soundscape, criticizing Moore (and his contemporaries) for not sounding like later players is like chastising Renaissance paintings for having too many religious references. Rather than admiring the work in its historical context or apart from the critic’s context, everything is measured against one stylistic endpoint with all “great” works leading up to or issuing from it.

Not that many even take the time to dismiss Moore based on his playing.  As is often the case with the earliest chapters of music history, discussion beyond the session cards and matrix numbers and right to the sound of the music appears infrequently. Maybe reacting to the music itself seems too subjective. Maybe now that Moore and his colleagues are no longer around, maybe the only thing left to do is ensure an accurate record of the past. Hopefully, when the record is complete, we’ll remember why it was assembled in the first place.

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7 thoughts on “Finding Bill Moore

  1. Andrew Homzy says:

    Bill Moore has the qualities that leaders adore. Now that I’ve established my poetic prowess, let me explain. Mr. Moore displays good intonation, consistency & endurance – qualities very much in demand when trumpeters played in clubs and dance-halls for hours end-to-end, night-after-night and then expected to play perfectly for a recording session the next morning. Given another path, Moore might have become a significant lead trumpeter in the early big bands. As a soloist, he has a distinct identity – and on every recording, he propelled the bands to, perhaps, over-achievement. Thanks to Bill Moore.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Great points about what made Bill Moore such a strong musical force, Andrew. I’ll admit that I don’t credit players’ sheer stamina as much as I should. Thanks for reading and for your insights!

  2. Randy Sandke says:

    There is a poster for Jack Pettis and his Pets circa 1927-8 in which Bill Moore is the only other musician identified. He must have been somewhat known to the public at the time. Remarkable considering he hadn’t issued any records under his own name, despite all he played on. Wish we knew more about him.
    You can see the poster at Albert Haim’s Bixography Forum:

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Interesting observation, Randy: Moore was obviously as admired by audiences as he was by bandleaders. Obviously a distinct musician, and not just some name on personnel listings.

      Thanks for reading, and for keeping the conversation going, and for that link!

  3. Andrew J. Sammut says:

    For those readers asking “so, whatever happened to Bill Moore?” saxophonist and composer Dave Pell spoke to me over the phone about working with Moore in Bobby Sherwood’s band during the forties.

    Pell noted that Moore was one of the older players in the band and that he was very well-respected. Sherwood really liked Moore and thought he was “just a really nice guy,” even if like many players Moore occasionally drank a little more than he should have (even showing up late and getting left behind when the stage rose at the Paramount one morning). Pell noted that for the most part Moore was a reliable player who got to solo fairly often in the Sherwood band.

    As soon as I mentioned Bill Moore’s name, Pell praised him as a “good dixieland player,” adding that “good notes are still good notes whether you’re playing dixieland, bebop or anything else!”

  4. ‘Chattering’ is an inspired description!

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Thanks, Michael! I hope more people are inspired to listen, especially listeners who might not otherwise pay attention to prewar jazz.

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