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Arizona Musicians: Big Chief Russell Moore

Big Chief Russell Moore

“Almost all Indians have a natural musical talent. Every Indian schoolboy and schoolgirl should think about the study of music. It is a way-of-life and a useful and productive one. Music is a source of revelation, and a means of understanding one’s self and a means of understanding one’s fellow man.”

—Russell “Big Chief” Moore

The celebrated Dixieland trombone player Russell Moore, a Pima Indian known as “Big Chief,” toured on the international stage as a member of Louis Armstrong’s big band and leader of several Dixieland groups.

Moore was born August 13, 1912, in the Gila River Indian Community located just south of Phoenix, but moved to Chicago at the age of eleven to live with his aunt and uncle, where he studied classical music and developed a passion for jazz. His uncle taught him how to play trumpet, piano, drums and French horn before he made a trombone wail.

Moore moved to Los Angeles in the early 1930s and started working with celebrated vibraphone player and bandleader Lionel Hampton in 1935. He arrived in New Orleans, the home of Dixieland jazz, in 1939, and played with a number of jazz musicians. He is best known, however, as a regular in Louis Armstrong’s big band from 1944-1947. On the album Hello Dolly, Louis says “Take it, Big Chief,” as Moore launches into a trombone solo of the song “Someday You’ll be Sorry.”

He freelanced when the orchestra broke up, performing at venues such as Jimmy Ryan’s in New York City and throughout Europe. During the 1970s, he led his own Dixieland band and recorded his first albums, Russell ‘Big Chief’ Moore Powwow Jazz Band (1973) and ’Big Chief’ Russell Moore and Joe Licari with the Galvanized Jazz Band (1976).

Moore has played the International Jazz Festival in Paris, France, the Kennedy Center for the Arts in New York City, and many places in between. He has performed at inaugural balls for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and has played one of the receptions for the marriage Prince Charles and Diana. One of his favorite venues, however, was at the Gila River Indian Community, where he frequently gave concerts. In March, 1982, Moore was honored on the broadcast “First Americans in the Arts.” He died from diabetes in 1983 at age of 70.

The trombone music of “Big Chief” Russell Moore is immortalized in several jazz albums.