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At rare moments in life a pure musician like Joe comes along. When he played, it was the most sublimely musical thing you could imagine; he put you right in heaven. He sang just right, his intonation was perfect, and he had tons of feeling. He wasn’t loud, so he never attracted a big crowd, and as a result, he never got the recognition he deserved.

—Tony Bennett

The Good Life (1998)

The deaths this month of vibraphonist Milt Jackson and trumpeter-fluegelhornist Art Farmer diminish the nearly depleted ranks of jazz masters. Although we currently have no end of technically accomplished young musicians, few have yet evolved distinctive sounds or styles. Most seem unable to emerge from the long shadows of their predecessors, as evidenced by the tidal wave of tribute CDs resurrecting the music of jazz pioneers ranging from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane and Bill Evans. To discover fresh voices, it’s sometimes more fruitful to look backward to uncover the work of artists who failed to receive the attention they merited in their own time.

One of these is singer-accordionist-organist-arranger-composer Joe Mooney. A thoughtful 1997 New York Times article by Terry Teachout revived interest in this nearly forgotten musician. As a result, two CDs of Mooney’s work have just been released, and two more are scheduled to appear next year.

Born in 1911 in Paterson, N.J., Mooney began piano lessons at age 6. By 12, he was performing on radio; later, he studied organ informally with Fats Waller. A hereditary degenerative eye disease rendered Mooney blind by his mid-teens. He formed a vocal duo with his brother Danny, also blind. Ironically dubbing themselves the Sunshine Boys, they recorded 20 sides for Columbia between 1929 and 1931. The duo broke up in the mid-’30s, after which Mooney became an arranger, writing charts for orchestras headed by, among others, Les Brown, Paul Whiteman, and Russ Morgan.

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In 1943, while touring with Morgan’s band, Mooney was involved in an automobile accident that left him with a broken back, leg, and hip. He emerged from a lengthy hospital convalescence with a permanent ambulatory disability compounding his sightlessness. Undeterred, he formed an accordion-clarinet-guitar-bass jazz quartet that won overnight but fleeting acclaim. Initially, Mooney took up the accordion to see if he could transform that unwieldy squeezebox, long associated with Italian weddings and polka parties, into a swinging jazz instrument. He succeeded, combining bop-inflected harmonies and rhythms with an unorthodox angular, darting keyboard style as the centerpiece of a chamber group of extraordinary subtlety and originality.

Debuting in 1946 at Sandy’s Hollywood Grill in Paterson, the Mooney Quartet quickly developed an enthusiastic following. Later that year, it opened at the House of Dixon on Manhattan’s 52nd Street, where it enjoyed a 27-week engagement, drawing such illustrious admirers as composer Alec Wilder, pianist George Shearing, and Frank Sinatra. Down Beat editor Michael Levin proclaimed Mooney’s quartet “the most exciting small group I have ever heard,” and, within weeks, Mooney had signed a Decca recording contract and begun broadcasting a quarter-hour ABC weekly radio series live from the House of Dixon.

But the Mooney Quartet had the misfortune to emerge in the midst of the bebop era. Its pastel, introspective sound seemed out of place at the height of a musical revolution marked by virtuoso soloists feverishly negotiating advanced chord changes at quicksilver tempos. In 1947, the group toured the country, performing in hotels, restaurants, and clubs where its music unsuccessfully competed with noisy audiences. After recording 16 sides, Decca dropped the band, and some of its original members departed. (Bassist Gaetan Frega left to become a Capuchin monk.) In October 1949, a disheartened Mooney disbanded the quartet.

Do You Long for Oolong? collates 22 recordings from Mooney’s early days—eight of the Decca sides, four World Transcription cuts, four rehearsal acetates (recently unearthed by two New Jersey record collectors at a rummage sale), and two air-checks from a WNEW radio broadcast. The CD ends with four 1951 trio tracks made for the obscure Carousel label, featuring guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. By this time, Mooney had abandoned the accordion for the Hammond organ, his instrument of choice for the remainder of his career.

A mixture of vocal and instrumental performances, Do You Long for Oolong? documents the creativity and individuality of Mooney’s music. His casual, conversational singing conveys a surprisingly wide range of emotions, from hip humor to romantic lyricism to wry disenchantment. The album’s title derives from his deconstruction of “Tea for Two,” transforming the bubbly ’20s love song into a barely encoded celebration of conjugal pot smoking (“Oh what a boot/From a long tender shoot/Of oolong”). “September Song” and “We’ll Be Together Again” resonate with swooning tenderness, but two offbeat Mooney originals deal with disastrous relationships. “Have Another One, Not Me” depicts an impasse reached by two fast-track alcoholics (“I can’t hold your hand, dear/While I’m holding my head”), and “Nowhere” is the plaint of one of love’s refugees (“The first time I turned this old heart loose/It went out on a halo hunt and bagged a noose”). The instrumentals are equally inspired, interweaving complex, blithely swinging ensemble lines with brief, fertile improvisations. On the opening chorus of “It Might as Well Be Spring,” the melody passes almost imperceptibly from clarinet to guitar to accordion. Mooney’s original “Phantasmagoria” evolves through several thematic movements and tempo shifts, as ingenious and demanding in its way as a classical chamber piece.

In 1951, Mooney retreated to Florida, where he performed regularly, if obscurely, in small clubs. During a brief 1952 sojourn to Manhattan, he recorded several tracks with the then-popular Sauter-Finegan orchestra. One of these, the ballad “Nina Never Knew,” became a pop hit but failed to revitalize Mooney’s career. In 1956, he headed north once more to make his first LP, Lush Life. Backed by guitarist Lee Robinson, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Osie Johnson, Mooney interprets an elegant program of ballads (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Crazy She Calls Me,” “My One and Only Love”), accompanying himself on organ with an exquisite refinement that dispels the instrument’s traditional associations with church services and skating rinks. He reprises “Nina Never Knew,” a sensitive yet, for the time, surprisingly candid song about a young woman’s sexual initiation (“Sweet surprise/ Filled Nina’s eyes/She did not understand/When I kissed her hand/Why dreams began to stir/Deep down inside in her”). Admired by musicians but ignored by the press and public, the album sold few copies. Declaring, “I can’t stand to be discovered once more,” Mooney resumed his Florida exile.

And yet he made one final attempt to capture the national spotlight. In 1963, Kay Finegan, manager of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, talked Columbia into signing him for a two-record contract. The result was a brace of memorable albums: The Greatness of Joe Mooney, with an ensemble of top-flight studio musicians, and The Happiness of Joe Mooney, featuring a smaller group, including Andy Fitzgerald, the clarinetist with Mooney’s original quartet. Unwilling to expend any promotional muscle on a forgotten artist at the dawn of the British Invasion, Columbia surreptitiously leaked the albums into release without distributing review copies. Mooney returned for good to Florida, where he resumed working in his usual out-of-the-way haunts and playing organ at church services until his death in 1975.

Next year, Hep will release Joe Breaks the Ice, drawn from the same era and sources as Do You Long for Oolong?, and Koch will issue The Greatness and The Happiness as a twofer CD. Unless some yet unknown air-checks come to light, they will complete Mooney’s small but invaluable legacy.

I suspect that the deceptively effortless finesse of Mooney’s art is largely responsible for his failure to win popular acclaim. Without breaking a sweat or exhibiting a trace of self-importance, he created timeless music that perhaps will now, at last, find an appreciative audience. If not, the fault isn’t Mooney’s but ours. As musicologist Gunther Schuller, writing about the Mooney Quartet recordings, observes in his definitive critical study The Swing Era, “Indeed, the history of jazz has had little to offer in the way of such a rarefied blending of refined taste, sophisticated musical invention, disciplined execution, and lighthearted unpretentious humor.” CP