A date without Moe is a song without sunshine,” I would say to him before the start of every session, parodying a then-current orange juice commercial. And Moe would laugh in his bouncy, guarded way, not really comfortable with direct praise, simply content to be a sideman doing something he loved: making music.
Moe. Three letters that described everything you needed to know. Not Morris, his real name; just Moe. Need a piano player? Call Moe. Can’t remember the original key of some standard? Ask Moe. Moe’s mind was an encyclopedia of the music business, and he could recall everything he ever played. I used to eavesdrop on conversations – which were actually highly intellectual arguments – between Moe and Stu Scharf, another brilliant musician, about the correct name for the voicing of a particular chord. But you never disagreed with Moe: if you persisted, he would just shrug and tune you out. He knew he was right and that was that.
After a stint in the Army, Moe went on the road working with the big bands, earning his reputation as one of the top keyboard players. Later, he graduated into studio work, the best and most respected form of employment for a musician, going from session to session each day to sight-read whatever chart was put in front of him. As a composer at the start of my own career, I was looking for a pianist who could play all the different styles of music that I would be required to write for my advertising clients. Someone recommended Moe, and from then on he played on every session I ever did, no exceptions. I felt safe when Moe was in the studio. He had the musical history to guide me over any mistakes I might have made in my orchestrations. Simply: my music was better when Moe played it. I was very lucky.
He was certainly a crusty curmudgeon, quick with an opinion, barking his response when he became irritated, but this quality was somehow acceptable – most of the time – as a balance for his huge talent. Sharing a meal with Moe was an adventure. No one ate faster, probably as a result of the survival training he had learned on the road when the band was given only a few minutes at a bus stop to gulp down some food.
Moe’s love of sports was particularly maniacal. He had season tickets at Yankee Stadium – two seats – for the New York Giants during their heyday in the 50s and 60s, and he defended their sometimes poor play with a passion. One day, coming home after a session, he noticed that the car next to him was being driven by Frank Gifford, the great Giants running back. Moe got so excited that he followed the car all the way to Frank’s home in Connecticut. When asked why, his answer was pure Moe: “Hey, it was Frank Gifford, man. Frank Gifford!”
Moe and his wife Margaret quickly became part of my personal world and my extended family. They were automatically included in every event as my children grew – every sweet 16 party, every wedding, every summer gathering. My kids loved Moe, too, and always looked forward to the games he played with them, taking out his false teeth to scare them, and then laughing loudly at his own joke. Moe and Margaret accompanied us to Milwaukee for my wife’s funeral. No one could ask for more devoted and loyal friends.
When studio work dried up, Moe spent his last years in Florida, far from the music world he loved. To pass the time, he still played the piano. After Margaret died, he didn’t play as much, instead passing his days listening to albums, many of which he had played on, and others whose music he just admired.
This is a sad time for all of us. We have lost a dear friend in Moe. And the music business has lost one of its last old-time giants.