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Jazz bass legend Charnett Moffett dies aged 54

Charnett Moffett
(Image credit: Sharon Crocker)

Jazz bass guitar legend Charnett Moffett has died, aged 54. He suffered a heart attack, and was pronounced dead at Stanford University Hospital on April 11.

Moffett’s publicist, Lydia Liedman, said in a statement that he was with his wife and longtime collaborator Jana Herzen at the time, and that he had been ill in recent years with Trigeminal Neuralgia, a condition that caused him intense pain and that his family suspects played a role in his heart attack.

Upon the release of his 2021’s New Love, Moffett made no mention of his condition when in conversation with Bass Player. New Love, he said, was “to bring a little light and joy to the world right now when it’s in such a dark place. The music is supposed to make people feel good!”

Over a 40-year career, that’s what Moffett did. His father, Charles Moffett, was a jazz drummer and an inspiration who played with Ornette Coleman. Charnett would do likewise, appearing on Coleman’s audacious instrumental double release Sound Museum in 1996.

Born on June 10, 1967, Moffett started young on the bass, after initially picking up drums. Playing music was in the family. Educated at Juilliard, the list of players whom Moffett played with reads like a who’s who of top-tier talent: the Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Arturo Sandoval, Harry Connick Jr, Bette Midler – not to mention Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Sharrock and Courtney Pine.

Moffett made his Blue Note debut as a leader in 1987 with Net Man, with Stanley Jordan on guitar. As a band leader and sideman, he was prolific. And typically fulsome in his praise for his fellow musicians.

Of Herzen, whom he played alongside for 12 years before being married for two, he said her guitar freed him up to express himself fully on the bass, popping out of the rhythm section to hold down lead.

“The way that she plays the guitar is so lyrical: she plays it like she’s singing through her guitar, which is what every instrumentalist aspires to,” he said.

Players such as Jaco Pastorius and Alphonso Johnson were big influences, not least for technique, but for the sensibility their playing taught him. Moffett understood jazz – and, indeed, music – as a conversation, with the power raise people’s spirits and give them strength.

“It’s a way of being in direct communication with people, and trying to uplift their spirit and make them have a good day, even if it’s just for an hour a day,” he said. 

Moffett’s final release was a live EP, performed with Herzen and drummer Corey Garcia as the Charnett Moffett Trio. New Love, however, is a fitting epitaph, its themes resonating with Moffett's ambitions to make music that makes people feel better.

“What is really the most important thing in this life? The most important thing in life is truly love, in my opinion,” said Moffett. “How could there be anything greater than love? You have someone that you care about, or someone that cares about you. A best friend, your mom – anybody. It’s someone that you share a bandwidth with, right? The common denominator is love.” 

Moffett will be remembered at a private memorial on April 24, with his family planning to celebrate his life and work in his birthplace New York City, late August/early September.

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Jonathan Horsley has been writing about guitars since 2005, playing them since 1990, and regularly contributes to publications including Guitar World, MusicRadar and Total Guitar. He uses Jazz III nylon picks, 10s during the week, 9s at the weekend, and shamefully still struggles with rhythm figure one of Van Halen’s Panama.