James Moody: In The Mood

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James Moody. Warner Bros. hide caption

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James Moody

James Moody.

Warner Bros.

He was a virtuoso musician, known for his work on multiple saxophones and flute. He was also a man who radiated love: When you met him, he'd hold you tight and kiss you on both cheeks, as if you were old friends.

In a career that extended more than 60 years, James Moody developed a personal sound that reflects that warm personality: romantic, witty and earthy.

"The individual voice is so distinctive," historian and educator David Baker says. "You could hear one notes, two notes and people like Moody, Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy, Miles ... one note, two notes, and it is so distinctively them that you can't miss it. And with Moody, it's even more phenomenal, because it doesn't make any difference which instrument he's playing. He picks up the flute, two notes: Moody."

Moody's roots go back to the coastal town of Savannah, Ga., where he was born on March 26, 1925. During the Great Depression, his family, like thousands of others, migrated north. The Moodys settled in Newark, N.J., not far from Manhattan.

When he listened to records and live performances on the radio, he dreamed of becoming a musician. At 16, his uncle bought him an alto saxophone secondhand. "I used to go to [the local music store] and look at the saxophones every day," Moody said. "And when I first got my saxophone, I just put it in bed beside me and kept looking at it."

But Moody didn't become serious about playing until he was drafted into the military. He was stationed at a segregated Air Force base in North Carolina during WWII, where he channeled his frustrations into music. It also put him in position to audition for Dizzy Gillespie's new big band, when the bebop master swung by the area. He was denied at first.

"So about three months later, I got a telegram from Dave Burns, my buddy from the Air Force, and he said, 'You start with us tonight,' and that was at the Spotlite Club of 52nd Street in New York," Moody said. "Thelonious Monk was the piano player, Kenny 'Klook' Clarke was the drummer, Milt Jackson, vibraharp and Ray Brown on bass. Yeah, it was a good school, but like I always say, I'm glad I didn't know too much, because I didn't realize where I was, and I'm glad of that."

Moody stayed with the Gillespie band for two years. It was the beginning of a close personal and professional relationship that spanned 40 years. But he left the Gillespie band in 1948 on a European vacation, and ended up staying several years.

While in Paris, a Swedish drummer and record producer asked Moody to record a dozen sides in Stockholm with a local band. For his 12th and final selection, he called "I'm in the Mood for Love." His improvisation over that tune was so popular that Eddie Jefferson eventually added words to it, calling it "Moody's Mood for Love." Subsequent versions were recorded by dozens of vocalists, including King Pleasure, Aretha Franklin and Van Morrison. It became his signature tune.

In 1952, the success — initially modest, but later chart-topping — of "Moody's Mood for Love" lured him back to the U.S. He toured with small groups across the country, recorded for the esteemed Prestige record label and taught himself the flute. Around the same time, Moody also suffered personal setbacks. He lost all his instruments and sheet music in a fire at a Philadelphia nightclub. His addiction to alcohol got out of hand, and he checked himself into a mental institution.

"Well, people kept telling me how great I was," Moody said. "And I said, 'Great? I don't know anything,' you know. So I drank to kind of cover that up, and all that did was make matters worse."

Moody kicked his habit and was invited to make a record in Chicago. Last Train From Overbrook symbolized that moment. And before long, he was back to work full-time with Dizzy Gillespie's bands, among others.

"You know, in many ways, the younger musicians had to catch up to him because he was so far ahead," critic and producer Ira Gitler said. "His sense of harmony really extended the width of the harmonies way before the other people were doing it. He plays the outer edge of the chords — you know he'll play unusual parts of the chords, and yet he never loses touch with the soulfulness, the earthiness."

In the late 1960s, Moody decided to stop touring and raise a daughter. So he took a job for a show band at the Flamingo Hilton in Las Vegas, backing up folks like Elvis Presley, Liberace, the Osmonds, Ike and Tina Turner and Liza Minnelli. There was scant time for him to improvise on stage, but he continued to practice at home, and he eventually returned to the jazz circuit. According to trombonist Slide Hampton, "[Moody] was playing more sax than he played before, and he knew that."

In 1989, newly married, Moody — always just "Moody" to friends — moved to San Diego, Calif. But he continued to play and charm audiences with his natural ebullience.

"Moody is a person that has a lot of love to give," Slide Hampton said. "He needs people to give it to all the time. He's giving us plenty all the time; he's kissing all of us all the time. But even after he got married, he kept on kissing us just like before."

In 2010, James Moody was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It proved inoperable, and Moody declined chemotherapy or radiation treatment. One week before his death on Dec. 9, 2010, he was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album for his last effort, Moody 4B.

"If I'm the same tomorrow as I was yesterday, I'm losing," Moody said. "You should grow in some kind of way every day."

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