Tom Moon was the pop music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer for nearly 20 years. He left the newspaper to write a book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, which came out in 2008, but hit a wall when he tried to get back into journalism. Frustrated and rudderless, Moon picked up his long-neglected tenor saxophone and began to practice. What began as a salve during troubled times morphed into a reignited passion. Moon wrote and recorded an album, “Into the Ojala,” as the Moon Hotel Lounge Project, and released it earlier this year.
Q: Did it weigh on you, while making this record, that you would be seen not just as a musician but as a music critic stepping over to the other side?
A: Not much at all.
A: I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 50. In the days when I was coming into journalism, if you were on the track to work for a place like the one where you worked or where I worked, you immediately and forever forswore doing anything in your discipline. And then I watched the Internet redraw all the lines for recording artists and for arbiters. People were playing both sides of the fence. So somewhere in this recent evolution I finally decided that there’s no reason not to. It was very much not my intention to put it out, though, initially. The acid test was, “Does this actually contribute something that’s not in the conversation already?”
Q: What was your original intention? To just engage in the creative process?
A: That’s right. And to document the music. I’d done that many years before. I made a record before I was hired by The Inquirer and participated in several other records when I lived in Miami. And I always considered the process of just developing music and writing songs and composing and playing with people to be, you know, an incredibly important learning process, whether or not I ever shared it with anyone. And the entire time I was at the Miami Herald and then the Inquirer, I went to jam sessions. I played as much as I could, I continued to write. To me it was more the discipline, in the way that, say, yoga is discipline. You do it because if you don’t then there’s atrophy. Believe me, in the last couple of years I’ve been humbled and have encountered a lot of what could only be described as atrophy and worse. I mean, I’m not the musician that I was when I left the University of Miami’s music program, maybe in some ways for the better but in most ways for the worse. It’s incredible to be around people who are doing it all day, every day and to realize that as much as I was thinking about music all day, every day, because I wasn’t playing, my ears might be good but my fingers are not.
Q: And do you think that that’s largely a function of not doing it daily, not keeping up your chops, or do you think that aging is a factor?
A: Boy, I think about that a lot. That’s a million-dollar question. When you look at visual artists, we’re trained to see them as having a long arc of a career. In many cases the technique continues to evolve and they don’t lose stuff until well into the twilight of their career. And that’s what you would hope would be the case with music, but what I found was that even though I was able to hear and conceptualize what I wanted to play, it was simply not available. It took a lot of basic playing of scales, very basic practicing, but also a lot of mental stepping back and just sort of accepting the fact that some parts of my musical development were way ahead of others.
Q: So you had to make accommodations.
A: Yeah. They say it’s hard to learn an instrument when you’re over 50, that it’s somewhat like learning a language, and I think that’s true. On the other hand I know people that have started that late and they play beautifully now. I don’t think that you can make an absolute rule about it.