Saxophonist achieved fame as an associate of Dizzy Gillespie and co-composer of “Moody’s Mood for Love”
By Lee Mergner
Saxophonist, flutist and composer James Moody died today at his home in the San Diego area. He was 85 years old. Moody had been suffering from pancreatic cancer and had recently chosen to decline treatment by radiation or chemotherapy.
Funeral services are scheduled for December 18 at Greenwood Memorial Park, 4300 Imperial Ave in San Diego with a morning viewing and graveside service at 12:30 and a celebration of his life at Faith Chapel on 9400 Campo Road in Spring Valley at 2 PM.
In February of this year, Moody was operated on have the tumor resected, but according to his wife Linda, it proved to be impossible without endangering his life. The doctors removed his gallbladder and did a double bypass of his digestive system to remove the blockage. He was in the ICU at UCSD Thornton Hospital for almost 8 weeks with life threatening infections and was finally able to come home in May. Since that time Moody rested at home under the care of his wife and a team of hospice care workers, his time spent watching TV, listening to music and playing occasionally.
Once the Moody’s announced about a month ago via his website that he was suffering from pancreatic cancer and awaiting his fate sans medical intervention, the jazz community flooded his site and his e-mail with their prayers and well-wishes. Above and beyond his impact as a jazz musician, Moody was a man who seemed to make friends everywhere he went.
"There's an old philosophy, and it's been said many times, but people don't heed it," Moody told JT’s Bill Milkowski in 2004. "And that is simply this: 'So a man thinketh, so it is.' I think I'm young. My wife says I'm 78 going on 18, and that's very true in a way. That's how I feel."
Moody, who preferred to be called by his last name, was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 26, 1925. It is little known that Moody was born partially deaf. As a result when he was young and unable to hear the teacher, he was labelled mentally deficient and ordered to attend a school for the mentally disabled. Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he attended public school. Eventually, his hearing problem was diagnosed and he was sent to the Bruce Street School for the Deaf He later attended Arts High in Newark, N.J.
His uncle gave him an alto sax when he was 16. After hearing Buddy Tate and Don Byas perform with the Count Basie Band at the Adams Theater in Newark, New Jersey, Moody switched to the tenor saxophone. He was just 18 years old when he was drafted into the Air Force in 1943 during World War II. Unable to play with the white Air Force band, Moody played in an unofficial Negro Air Force band for three years. He was disturbed by the segregation that was prevalent in the military service at that time. Incredibly, he met Dizzy Gillespie while in the Air Force, as Gillespie came through for a performance on the base. After he got out of the service, in 1946, he joined the recently formed Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, one of the most important jazz groups at that time.
In a piece in the March 2004 issue of JazzTimes, Moody told writer Bill Milkowski that Dizzy Gillespie had an enormous impact on his life. "Diz influenced me from every standpoint. He was a friend, a father, a confidante, just everything to me. I'm 78 years old and I'm still realizing how much he affected me. And man, a lot of times I'll see something, and I'll remember what Diz told me and I'll go, 'Ah, that's what he meant!' Diz, boy-he was just a nice guy, a good man. And he was a child, too; he never grew up. But he was a child like a fox. I'm just thankful to him every day for giving me a chance because he knew-he must've seen something in me to let me be in the band for a minute." In turn, Gillespie once said of his frontline partner, "Playing with James Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself."
He stayed with Gillespie for two years and appeared on several key recordings from that period, including "O.W.," "Oop-Pop-a-Da" and "Two Bass Hit."
[Note: The rest of this article is excerpted from Bill Milkowski’s feature on Moody from 2004.]
In 1946, Moody was also a member of the Bebop Boys, an all-star group led by Ray Brown and featuring Dizzy and Dave Burns on trumpets, John Brown on alto sax, Moody on tenor, Hank Jones on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes and Joe Harris on drums. (Moody's first-ever recordings in the studio come from a September 25, 1946, session with the Bebop Boys, which also produced the blazing tenor feature "Moody Speaks").
In 1948, Moody made his recording debut as a leader for the Blue Note label-James Moody and His Modernists, featuring arranger Gil Fuller and Art Blakey on drums along with such regular Gillespie sidemen as Ernie Henry on alto sax, Cecil Payne on baritone sax, Dave Burns and Elmon Wright on trumpets, Chano Pozo on bongos and vocals, Nelson Boyd on bass, James Forman on piano and Teddy Stewart on drums.
In 1949 Moody moved to Europe, and in Sweden that year he recorded his tour de force of improvisation on the Jimmy McHugh Tin Pan Alley tune "I'm in the Mood for Love" (which can be heard on James Moody & His Swedish Crowns on the Dragon label). Back in the States, pioneering vocalese artist Eddie Jefferson penned lyrics to Moody's exact solo on that tune and dubbed it "Moody's Mood for Love."
Meanwhile, an unknown singer named Clarence Beeks-aka King Pleasure-heard Jefferson sing his vocalese version of Moody's masterpiece at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati. Beeks promptly committed the performance and song to memory-the lyrics, phrasing and all of the nuances. In November 1951, Beeks sang Jefferson's signature vocalese offering at the Apollo Theater Amateur Hour, winning first prize along with a contract to record the tune for Prestige. The 1952 release of King Pleasure's debut recording, "Moody's Mood for Love," became an instant hit, to the utter surprise of Moody, who found himself an "overnight sensation" when he returned to the States that same year.
"It was amazing!" he recalls, "because I had no idea what a hit it was. So when I went to play a gig somewhere I'd be shocked at how packed the place would be. Suddenly I was being treated like a star or something. I never will forget the record company guy calling me up and asking, 'You want a Cadillac? You want a Buick? Whatever you want, I'll buy it for you.' And when I told my mother that, she said, 'Son, people do not give you anything for nothing. Watch out!' And she was right. There were all kinds of come-ons in those days but my mother-God bless her, man-she hipped me to a lot of things."
Today, Moody still includes "Moody's Mood for Love" in every set he plays. "Yeah, and if I don't, I might as well not come to the gig," he laughs. "It's like Tony Bennett with 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.' He still sings it and loves singing it, and I'm still singing 'Moody's Mood.'" (On a side note: After King Pleasure's version of "Moody's Mood for Love" became a smash hit, Jimmy McHugh sued for copyright infringement and won a partial victory in court, ultimately splitting proceeds with Moody on sales of any versions of the tune.)
Upon returning to the States in 1952, Moody worked with vocalist-hipster Babs Gonzales until they had a parting of the ways a year later. As Moody explains, "Babs was talking about 'I want more bread,' and I thought he was getting enough 'bread,' as he called it. So he said, 'Well, then I'm leaving.' And I said, 'Bye.' After Babs split we went to Cleveland and the word was out that I was looking for a singer to sing 'Moody's Mood for Love' with the band. And Eddie Jefferson came back and applied for the gig. I had no idea that he was the one who wrote the lyrics to 'Moody's Mood,' so when I found out I said, 'You got the job, man.' And it was cool from then on. Everywhere we would go we'd have to do that tune two or three times a night. I'd have to play it, and Eddie would have to sing it. And it was wonderful."
Jefferson remained a fixture in Moody's group through 1962. In 1963, Moody rejoined Gillespie and performed in the trumpeter's quintet for the remainder of the decade, but by the outset of the '70s he had lost his enthusiasm for the road. As he recalls, "My daughter was born, and I wanted to see her grow up. I didn't get to see my other children grow up since I was always away. So I finally just said, 'Aw, the heck with this.' That's when I went to Las Vegas, and I stayed there for seven and a half years."
Moody's tenor-playing pal Harold Land is the one who hipped him to the steady gig opportunities in Las Vegas. During that lucrative period, from 1971 to 1978, Moody worked at the Flamingo Hilton, where he played shows with Leslie Uggams and Sandler & Young, and also at the bigger Las Vegas Hilton, where he played with a host of big-name entertainers including Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Liberace, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, the Rockettes, Lou Rawls, Ike and Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Connie Stevens, the Everly Brothers, Steve and Eydie, Eddie Fisher and Bobbie Gentry.
He was back in New York by the early '80s, and Moody's career received a boost with a Grammy nomination in 1985 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for his playing on Manhattan Transfer's Vocalese. He then signed to RCA/Novus, and Moody's 1986 debut for the label was the straightahead quartet date Something Special featuring pianist Kenny Barron. His follow-up was Moving Forward, and in 1989 he was reunited with his friend and mentor Dizzy Gillespie on "Con Alma" and "Get the Booty" on Sweet and Lovely.
On March 26, 1995, a 70th birthday celebration for Moody, hosted by Bill Cosby, was held at New York's Blue Note club. Telarc recorded the show and released it as Moody's Party: Live at the Blue Note. He followed that up with two tribute recordings for Warner Bros.: 1996's Sinatra tribute Young at Heart and 1997's Moody Plays Mancini.
He made several recordings during the last decade of his life, including Homage, Moody 4A and Moody 4B, the latter two for IPO. Moody 4B was recently nominated for a Grammy award.
"I have a goal in life, and my goal is to play better tomorrow than I did today," Moody says. "I'm not in competition with other musicians because there's too much going on, you can't be into that. So I'm in competition with myself. I just want to be able to play better tomorrow than I did today. And I've got to hurry up and play better because it seems like when I practice and I think I got something, I go outside and everybody else has got it and gone. So I'm still working at it because I haven't found it yet. It's a never-ending search. It's the old thing of I'll never get it but it's worth trying."
Moody’s 2004 album for Savoy, Homage, featured tunes specially composed for the record by some of his friends. Here's what a few of the composers had to say about Moody, for the piece written by Bill.Milkowski.
Kenny Barron: "He's just an amazing person for so many reasons. Number one is just his boundless energy. Number two is his humility. He's just a great musician and a really great guy. We spent four years together with Dizzy and what used to amaze me is that he would eat these chord changes up and then come back and say, 'Man, does that sound OK?' And I'd say, 'Come on, Moody, are you kidding?' He's like the eternal student of music, and he keeps on getting better. The other thing I can say about Moody is I wanna be like him when I grow up. The piece I contributed was just a blues because that's something that Moody excels at, and he can put any kind of twist on it-it could be very modern, it could be gutbucket, whatever it is, whatever it calls for. He's just a real open-minded cat, and he brings so much to the music. He's open to what the younger guys are doing, interested in finding out what it is and how they're doing it. So I really take my hat off to him. And I really would like to be like that when I'm 78-always ready to learn."
Marc Copland: "I found working with Moody to be a humbling and humanizing experience. This is the kindest person I ever worked for, and he became the godfather of my son. Here's a man who played with the greats, yet he doesn't carry an attitude or rest on his laurels. All he talks about sometimes is how much he needs to practice, how far he still has to go in this music. As a human being, he's old enough to be my father, and over the years we've had a deep exchange of musical and personal ideas. He once said to me with a twinkle in his eye, 'Marc, sometimes I'm the father, and sometimes you're the father. I know!' My personal homage to Moody is this: Every time I play, every time I travel, I hope to play with the same spirit that he does and hope to treat other musicians with the same kindness and respect that he does."
Chick Corea: "James is a treasure of an artist and musician. He makes me smile every time I meet him and every time I hear him play. His work with Dizzy will remain unforgettable."
David Hazeltine: "What's amazing to me is that at his age, after all the music that Moody has performed and recorded, he remains a serious student of jazz, always looking for new ideas and interesting, innovative ways to articulate the chord changes."
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