Kermit D. Moore: A Fellow Cellist, and Time Remembered
—Timothy W. Holley
When a mentor, colleague, or loved one passes away, the occasion always reveals itself as a profound opportunity for reflection upon the true legacy passed on through their life and accomplishments. As a classically trained African-American cellist, scholar, and pedagogue, news of the passing of Kermit Moore (1929–2013) provided a rich opportunity for me to reflect upon his life, career, and scholarly activities.
I first encountered Kermit’s name and his activity as a cellist on a phonograph record jacket for the multi-reed instrumentalist Yusef Lateef (Hush N’ Thunder, Atlantic Records SD-1635, 1973). Yusef and Kermit played a reverent flute and cello version of “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington; both musicians created a choral tapestry of sound through multi-track recording. I was in junior high school at the time, and playing the cello was not quite a social activity of the “coolest” distinction at that age! Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Chicago, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, George Clinton, the whole P-Funk Collective, and other pop recording artists far too numerous to list dominated the pop music airwaves. The engineer Rudy Van Gelder (in conjunction with Creed Taylor’s record label, CTI Records) produced a highly attractive body of jazz recordings that made jazz most accessible in the 1970s and 1980s to a generation of younger listeners whose aural definition of jazz had been shaped by musicians who lived through the 1960s. If that music “in and on the air” involved the use of string arrangements, then Kermit Moore was also there—among a distinguished host of musicians who were regularly at work in the New York recording studios from the 1960s through today, even though the use of orchestras for live television broadcasting and commercial popular music recording was in the midst of a long and serious decline. The irony of my discovery of their creative activities during that time was that there usually was not sufficient print space in either the liner notes or on the record jackets to include the artists’ musical and educational backgrounds (Wikipedia did not exist back then!). Seeing and knowing more details about their formative experiences would certainly have enhanced my recognition and appreciation of their fame, much of which still awaits a time of greater exposure. Kermit Moore’s visibility as a cellist and composer was matched by the musical gifts of his wife, composer and vocalist Dorothy Rudd Moore. Their creative enterprise functioned with supportive consistency for nearly five decades.
I met Kermit and Dorothy in August 1985 at the Black American Music Symposium, which was held at the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student in cello. The symposium, hosted by Dr. Willis Patterson of the unversity’s School of Music, was a legendary gathering that celebrated nearly a century’s worth of African-American musical performance. The symposium provided a weeklong smorgasbord of concerts and presentations during which hundreds of colleagues both younger and older were able to meet and reunite. In a sweeping brushstroke, the symposium encompassed the breadth of the African-American concert tradition and featured vocal, choral, keyboard, chamber, and orchestral performances—both sacred and secular. Panel discussions were convened that focused on subjects of scholarly and historical research, the role of black music in public school education, and the economic and cultural state of the black community. Kermit performed on several chamber concerts and conducted a chamber orchestra in which I had the honor of playing. Preparing and performing the music of Olly Wilson, Adolphus Hailstork, George Walker, Ulysses Kay, and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson pushed my technical and musical abilities to their extreme, given the limited amount of rehearsal time that ran concurrently with many of the presentations. Kermit and Dorothy were very warm and engaging, and welcomed the fellow musicians who had an interest in performing their music.
It can be said convincingly that Kermit’s life in music was crafted “in utero”: his middle name, Diton, was bestowed upon him in honor of the African-American pianist Carl Rossini Diton, whose own middle name has clear musical connotations. Kermit studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music while in high school, and by early adulthood he was playing recitals in New York City. He studied with several of the eminent cellists of the twentieth century, including Felix Salmond at The Juilliard School of Music, Paul Bazelaire at the Paris Conservatoire, Gregor Piatigorsky at the Tanglewood Institute, and Pablo Casals. He studied composition and musicology simultaneously at New York University, where he earned a master’s degree. In 1963 he and Dorothy studied with Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, two among the dozens of American composers who studied with her—Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein, and the African-American composers Robert Nathaniel Dett, Howard Swanson, George Walker, Quincy Jones, Julia Perry, and Adolphus Hailstork.
In 1949 Kermit became principal cellist of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and became one of only a few African Americans to hold such a post in an American orchestra at that time. He also taught at the Hartt School of Music and was a longtime faculty member of the Chamber Music Conference of the East in Bennington, Vermont.
Kermit and Dorothy were founding members of the Society of Black Composers, and Kermit was one of the “founding fathers” of the Symphony of the New World, an interracial orchestra in operation from 1964 to 1976 that championed the works of African-American and women composers. He also founded and conducted the Classical Heritage Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that explored and championed the neglected works of black composers. The Symphony of the New World also dared to address some of the realities that are still present among American symphony orchestras and American audiences: the paucity of African-American orchestral musicians among the full-time contracted “ensemble rank and file,” and the growing cultural and aesthetic “disconnect” between the classical concert tradition and the image and voice of a much more multivalent culture in America.
As a composer, Moore composed works of many genres, ranging from those that involve cello to works for full orchestra and chorus. He composed music for several significant documentary films, including the 1984 HBO film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey directed by his longtime friend Gordon Parks, which recounts the same slave narrative upon which the current film about the life of Northrup is based (12 Years a Slave). He composed the film score for Ida B. Wells: A Passion For Justice (1989), and he wrote, directed, and contributed to the film score for Ralph Bunche, An American Odyssey (2001), which also included music by William Grant Still. Kermit was featured in Half Past Autumn (1997), the documentary about Gordon Parks’ life and career, and he and Dorothy performed at Parks’ memorial service in New York City in 2006.
Kermit Moore’s name and accomplishments served as uncommon inspiration to me during my high school years. He was an invaluable historical resource for me as I was preparing for my doctoral dissertation recitals at the University of Michigan, which focused on the cello and chamber music of African-American composers. I spoke with him several times at length over the past year regarding the music of Margaret Bonds (1913–1972). I had read about an arrangement of “Troubled Water” for cello and piano by Bonds and contacted Kermit to inquire about the work’s existence. He cheerfully replied, “Of course I’m familiar with it; Margaret wrote it for me, and we played it many times while on concert tours together, since we were under the same concert management.” I was preparing to co-host a centennial celebration of Margaret’s birthdate (with Dr. Louise Toppin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and hoped to prepare the arrangement in time for the two-day symposium. That question was just one of so many linked topics within our conversations, which always ran too long because we kept coming up with interesting musical topics to talk about!
I will sorely miss those opportunities to discuss “African-American cello history” with him that passed so swiftly, but I treasure the wealth and depth of his perspective that I was able to glean from those conversations, for he was one of the most knowledgeable cellists of his generation. It was through those conversations that I learned more about the African-American cellists Leonard Jeter (1881–1970) and Marion Cumbo (1899–1990), both of whom were conservatory-trained and professionally active in Harlem. Kermit celebrated and championed the music of Howard Swanson (1907–1978), both as a cellist and with the Symphony of The New World. My relationship with the composer Hale Smith (1925–2009) was enhanced by contact with Kermit; Hale wrote his Sonata for Violoncello and Piano (1955) for him.
While all these memories are largely scholarly and collegial, one last detail stands out with jovial charm and personal interest: the jazz bassist and vocalist Major “Mule” Holley (1924–1990)—my late uncle—listed four items in his “Special Studies” experience in his public relations pamphlet: “William Hellstein (tuba), Kermit Moore (bass bowing), Hale Smith (composition)”; and “Attitudinal Skills Training (6 months).” The last item appears to be both cryptic and self-deprecatory and is consistent with Major’s style of self-assessment. That training apparently came from his time spent in the United States Navy…but ultimately lasted four years! Those six months afforded my uncle opportunities to meet and play with dozens of musicians in the Navy band, some of whom would play in the Ellington and Basie bands and even cross paths with musicians like Hale and Kermit. Those “degrees of separation” have been fewer than six people for a long time anyway!
In closing, I realize all the more that legacies are not merely bequests passed on from one generation to the next, but are charges left for us to keep and pass onward. When remembering Kermit and his legacy, I am reminded of the meeting in 1985 of those two to three generations of musicians at the Black American Music Symposium in Ann Arbor. While it was never spoken of in such overt language, a “torch” of learning and teaching, performance, documentation, and criticism was passing back then, and it has since passed once again. When I have the opportunity to meet and perform with my string colleagues around the country, I understand the importance of the “present charge” with a profound sense of energy and urgency—particularly when gathering with my African-American colleagues. We are now the future generations who have this charge to keep so that its bequest and care will continue to be valued, remembered, maintained, and ultimately honored in the face of unique change and challenge. This charge has its greatest meaning housed within the closing prayer of the 90th Psalm: “And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us; and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Thanks again, Kermit…the next generation will carry onward, prayerfully keeping the charge you’ve left us.