Diane Moser was a musical tornado
By GWEN OREL
The music world, and Montclair in particular, lost a unique performer and bandleader this past Thursday, Dec. 17, when Diane Moser passed away. The 63-year-old pianist had been suffering from two forms of cancer and multiple health issues. She had just had hip surgery, and was recovering, said Miki Hatcher, who six months ago organized a GoFundMe for Moser to handle medical expenses. Moser had been acutely suffering from cancer for a year and a half.
Hatcher, a violin and viola teacher in West Caldwell, was one of the first to post the news to Facebook.
Moser, Hatcher told Montclair Local, was the "center of the jazz musical community out here in New Jersey and New York. People would travel all over the Tristate area to play with her, for basically nothing, for dinner."
Since 1997, Moser and her Diane Moser's Composers Big Band played regular concerts in town. For a long time, DMCBB played every Wednesday at Trumpets, later changing to once a month.One of the attractions of playing with DMCBB was that composers could "bring their charts, and play on the charts with the whole bands," Hatcher explained.
"Then they'd go off and tweak and make changes. The band was the seed so all this other music was able to grow from it."
Moser had released eight albums, including 2018's "Birdsongs," inspired by playing with the birds during a residency at the MacDowell Colony. Critics raved:
"Pianist/composer Diane Moser’s Birdsongs offers refreshing and imaginative music that is lifted into the air on the wings of stellar performances from her," wrote Mel Minter in Musically Speaking.
After founding the Diane Moser Quintet in 1999, In 2002 Moser founded the Diane Moser Trio. More recently she formed The Birdsong Trio, named for her 2018 album.
Moser was also on the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Music Composition Program, and The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. She had received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Arts, among others, and received many grants and awards in composition.
“Every day I was recording with them and improvising with them and at night I’d listen to the recordings,” Moser told Montclair Local in 2018. She launched that album in Montclair's Central Presbyterian Church.
Moser is survived by her son, Chad Moser of Montclair. He has told Hatcher that the band will continue.
When musicians speak of Moser, over and over they speak of how she pushed them to express their individuality.
Montclair guitar player John Ehlis, who performed a concert honoring jazz sax player Joseph Jarman with Moser in 2011, said that Moser recently told him, "anytime you make a decision you are being yourself."
Individuality is not a word one associates with a big band, where players have to have a united sound. But by all accounts Moser loved to foster individuality and expressiveness in the musicians and composers she worked with.
And the fact that she did so, was itself unusual.
"There is so much emphasis in the jazz world on recreating the past," said Mike Lee, a longtime instructor at Jazz House Kids, who plays alto saxophone. Lee was not in Diane Moser's Composers Big Band, but subbed and sat in frequently.
Moser's emphasis on individuality, on compositions was unusual. "Her musicianship was her soul," Lee said. "While well-steeped in the past, she was always looking forward, encouraging people to bring out their voices.
"I don't write a lot for Big Bands, but for her Big Bands I wrote a couple of things. "
Moser came originally from Iowa, and kept a midwestern, grounded, gentle sensibility, said trombonist Ben Williams, of Maplewood. Williams had played with Moser for about 25 years, playing in the Big Band and in the Diane Moser Quintet.
That practicality could be seen in how Moser never stood on ceremony when something to be done. Chris Napierala, creative director of Seed Artists, said, "Even if she was performing that night, she would put up flyers during the day, set up for concerts, help send out thank-you cards." He and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, also of Seed Artists, are working on a web page memorial honoring Moser, who served on their board and later on the advisory board.
Moser and akLaff met as musicians in the NYC music scene during the '70s. "She was always present, ready to help do anything that was necessary to be done to make the music happen." For Moser, music was not just an entertainment, akLaff said, it was a science, and a spiritual work.
A MUSICAL COMMUNITY
Musicians who played with Moser describe a band that felt like family.
Scott Neumann, of Brooklyn, played with Moser for about 15 years. "She was very much about community, very much about Montclair," Neumann said. Moser curated the concert depending on who she was featuring. "She embraced not only the tradition but also the avant garde," Neumann said. "She studied a lot with [jazz pianist] Jaki Bayrd, who was very much in the Be Bop post Bop tradition, with angular composition.
"And she studied Count Basie, Duke Ellington too, but also loved the avant garde and playing free."
Moser would say to a musician she knew in the audience, "Come up, play a tune," Neumann said.
Local musician Don Sarlin said that Moser had subbed in his own R&B band a few times. He recalled seeing how the 15 members of the band treated one another with humor and respect as they set up. "All eyes and ears would be on her — she never needed to ask for their attention," Sarlin said in an email.
"My favorite moment was when she introduced every player by name, often with a quip, to the applause of the friends and family in the audience."
As a musician, Moser was sensitive to the entire sound in the room. Montclair guitarist John Ehlis played a concert celebrating jazz saxophonist Joseph Jarman in 2011.
Guitar and piano can overlap in their sound, because both are chordal instruments. But Moser, he said, was "one of the few pianists I ever played with where I never felt I couldn't add something. You can go anywhere, playing with her, there's no limits."
"She was a supporter of everybody's projects," said horn player Scott Reeves, who subbed in DMCBB. "She loved to talk, and would always ask what you were doing. Everything seemed to excite her, especially if it was something new and different. She brought a lot of enthusiasm to anything anybody was doing that was out of the ordinary."
Trombonist Williams agreed, saying that Moser at the piano improvising in the rhythm section had a special connection to the other musicians. "If I'm playing, she's following, pushing, goading me, to as far as I can go and maybe a step beyond," he said.
The musicians also connected on a personal level, said Williams. "I have a friend who joined the band later. Every time we did a gig, the day after, there would be floods of emails we sent each other, 'That was great, 'I love you.'
"That was Diane. She created a community."
CARING FOR THE COMMUNITY
Moser was also involved with family on a literal level: several musicians knew her through their children. She gave lessons, and stayed in touch with her students, connecting them to their passions and helping them see the possible.
"She was a Boy Scout leader for her son's troup," Ehlis said. His son took piano lessons from Moser.
Moser also made space for students who could not afford to pay, Hatcher said.
Lee's son Julian took piano lessons from Moser from age 5 until 18, when Julian went to Juilliard to study saxophone.
Lee asked Julian if he wanted to find another perspective. Julian did not.
Hatcher's son is a professional musician in Denmark. "He says some of the most intense musical conversations he's ever had have been with Diane," she said.
Moser also loved to connect people: if a child had an interest, she would say, "let me give you this phone number," Hatcher continued.
Napierala recalled his daughter Sadie's first lesson with Moser, at 6 years old. "She came in with a rudimentary song she had worked on.
"At the end of the lesson, Diane had thrown her planned lesson out the window and helped Sadie work in the song, get it into GarageBand, work on the instrumentation.
"Sadie left that day with a recorded song and notation, in 45 minutes. Diane wanted to help inspire her to create her own stuff."
"She cared about other people. More so than almost anyone I'd ever met," said Rob Henke, a Montclair trumpet player who performed with DMCBB since its founding.
An alto saxophone player, Ed Xiques, died from COVID-19 a few weeks ago. And although Moser was suffering herself, "she was emailing us like she was fine, talking about Ed," Hanke said, choking up.
Despite their loss, musicians recall Moser as a strong force of positive energy.
"I've worked for some bandleaders where it was not nearly as much fun. She always made it a good time for everybody, always smiling and laughing," said Reeves.
"She inspired people to strive. She'd spark people to get moving and go. She was incredibly positive and encouraging," Hatcher said. "She was just a force. An incredible powerhouse of a person."
"She was a tornado of positive energy," Henke said.
"She led by encouraging everyone to bring out themselves, as soloists and composers," Lee said. "Every great musician's aspiration is to be truly themselves, and she was great. She was more herself than any musician I know."