Kathleen Moore, Ascending
A Heritage with an Ivory Touch
Marianna Massey Photograph
Kathleen Moore grew up in a family of seven children with 60 direct first cousins. Her father Tony played classical guitar in the evenings, her mother Louise loved rhythm-and-blues records; music flowed through the homes of several uncles and aunts.
When she was 9, her parents took her to Lafayette Square for a concert by a famous uncle: Deacon John and his band, the Ivories.
“I remember it was very crowded, with bright lights,” Moore says. “He put on a marvelous show – had the crowd in the palm of his hand. I remember thinking, ‘If I can do that, it would be out of this world.’”
When Deacon John pulled into Rock ‘n’ Bowl on the last Saturday in July, the Ivories had 11 instrumentalists and two vocalists: the seasoned Danon Smith who moves fluidly from R&B to gospel, and Kathleen, 27, the niece whose grand voice and simmering stage presence are in another orbit from her job as choir director at Mater Dolorosa and cantor at Sunday Mass.
“Making the switch from bandstand to church is something you have to prepare for,” she says matter-of-factly. “You have to be a smart musician and understand the limitations of your voice. You have to be particular about your repertoire, make sure you get enough sleep – and hydrate yourself. The way Olympians train. You have to take care of your whole body, your whole being. It takes maintenance, proper care, a lot of prayer, too. You’re coming from a secular side and seeing all sorts of things in the audience on Saturday. Sunday is more serious and settled. You have to switch, mentally and vocally.”
Kathleen Moore has had more than her share of unexpected switches.
Influenced by an older sister who played saxophone, she began music lessons in high school at St. Mary’s Academy, studying alto and tenor under bandleader Emile Francis; he also gave her private lessons and CDs of John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon. In the garage behind the family house in Broadmoor she played along with Coltrane on “My Favorite Things,” developing her technique; she also played in a jazz ensemble and won a scholarship to Loyola.
She had just moved into the dorm for her first semester when the city evacuated for Katrina. She flew to Tucson; an aunt who worked at University of Arizona helped her enroll. The family house in Broadmoor flooded and was looted. She lost her horn. Even with her aunt close by in Tucson she felt lonely, dislocated. She began singing in a choir.
Sophomore year she transferred to the University of North Texas, which has a renowned jazz program; but she didn’t have a horn and was worried about college debt, what it would take to get back home, what she would do when she did. She studied business.
“Katrina showed me how precious things are and how quickly we can lose things,” she says. “I just wanted to make the right decision to be happy.”
In fall 2007, she enrolled in the University of New Orleans, studying in the music program. Among her courses was vocal pedagogy, “the study of usage and mechanics of the voice,” she explains. Her professor, Megan Dearie, led the choir and was cantor at Mater Dolorosa; in time Dearie hired her to assist in the parish music program, and after Dearie took another job, Moore was hired to take her place.
“UNO was a wonderful music program,” says Moore. “I was in general music, studying voice, wanting to join the symphonic band.”
One day she got a call from her uncle Deacon, saying, “Are you still interesting in playing saxophone?” Brother, was she. “Well,” he said, “I have an alto saxophone for you.”
Her involvement with the Ivories, the longest-running R&B band in town and now the prevailing big band, came in a typically Deacon-esque way. He didn’t need another horn. He handed her a cassette with six songs and said, “Learn these and be ready in one week for a gig.”
“I’d never heard these songs,” she sighs. “The Shirelles, Roberta Flack, the Supremes, all this 1960s music. But I learned ‘Our Day Will Come’ and ‘Killing Me Softly’ and ‘Baby Love.’ When we got on the gig the only one he called out was ‘Our Day Will Come.’ That was my first solo.”
Many more have followed. She sings eight or 10 songs on a given night. But Deacon John and the Ivories rarely perform in public. Most of Deacon’s work is private parties, wedding receptions, balls and for groups that can pay 13 people behind the blues maestro with the fabled Cheshire Cat grin.
Sunday mornings Kathleen is up for midmorning Mass at Mater Dolorosa, leading the choir, singing from a side pulpit. Her favorite selection: “Be Not Afraid.”
Young musicians keep bruising schedules, gigging whenever they can, taking side jobs, keeping up with professional lessons, working the Internet for publicity, pushing bios, downloads, press kits and generally hustling as hard as they can.
Moore rehearses regularly with two ensembles and plays in Live Wire Brass Band; she continues the voice lessons with Dearie and another teacher, Cindy Scott. Her dream is a venue as chanteuse with a trio in a nice hotel. But she’s no high-octane climber.
“My craft is the most important thing right now. I’m not rushing. It’s very important to me that my craft improves and that I put in as much time as I can doing that. That’s more important to me than getting gigs. I’m not trying to do things prematurely.”
Under The Spell Of The Blues
“I have a black-and-white photograph, taken in 1948 by Herman Leonard, of the youthful, legendary Dexter Gordon. In the picture, Gordon sits with his polished saxophone resting on his knee and exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke, which hovers above him. He looks as if he’s under the spell of the blues.”
– Irvin Mayfield, A Love Letter to New Orleans