In this era of disposable culture and accepted mediocrity, it's gratifying to applaud the life and accomplishments of someone who has managed to transcend evanescence. James Moody, sax master and flutist, one of America's most enduring and beloved musicians, turns 80 this month. Born in Savannah, GA, Moody started with the alto sax but fell in love with the tenor after hearing players like Buddy Tate and Don Byas. After a stint in the Air Force during World War II, Moody joined Dizzy Gillespie's Bebop Big Band, a hotbed of young stars waiting to ignite that was a sort of precursor to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Moody cut his first record as a leader in 1947 and two years later recorded his signature tune, "Moody's Mood For Love", a timeless standard which has been recorded countless times by performers including Eddie Jefferson, Aretha Franklin, George Benson and Van Morrison.
When praised for his longevity, Moody said "I guess you might say the Creator has a lot to do with that, [as well as] my wife and my mother. But I don't feel like it's longevity." After six decades of performing, Moody is still going strong, recording and touring regularly. To celebrate his birthday, he'll hold court at the Blue Note, sharing the stage over several nights with players representing a diversity of styles and eras, including Ray Barretto, Roy Hargrove and Kenny Barron, as well as 2005 Grammy winners Slide Hampton and Paquito D'Rivera.
"My beginning of playing the jazz thing was with [Dizzy's] band, and I worked with him off and on for 47 years," Moody explained recently in a phone interview. "When the Second World War broke out they took anything that was warm and I wound up in the Air Force in Greensboro, N.C. Dizzy used to play at a place called the Big Top near the base and one day he said, 'When I get back to New York I'm gonna get another band. Come try out for it.' So after I was discharged I tried out, but Walter Fuller, Dizzy's arranger, said I didn't play loud enough, so I didn't make it. Two months later, though, I got a telegram that said 'You start with us tonight.' That was at the Spotlite on 52nd Street and when I got there Thelonious Monk was the pianist, Kenny Clarke was the drummer, Ray Brown was on bass, Milt Jackson on vibes."
Although known primarily as a saxophonist, Moody also plays the flute, an instrument he stumbled onto by way of some questionable serendipity. "I was in front of a club in Chicago one night and a guy came up to me and said 'You wanna buy a flute?' I said 'How much is it?' It was 30 dollars, I think, so I bought it. But you know what? I would never do that again because it was a hot flute. I wasn't thinking. A few weeks later I made Flute 'n' Blues
." So he took to the instrument quickly, but not without effort and discipline. "I had a lot of bad habits. I was holding it wrong and I didn't have the embouchure set in the right place. I'm still trying to correct them. And correcting bad habits, boy, it takes a little doing, but I'm trying."
Queen Latifah covers "Moody's Mood" on The Dana Owens Album
, with the man himself on tenor sax. Considering her connections to the hiphop and film worlds, Moody's chestnut is reaching a generation that might not have heard it otherwise, and not just through the Queen.
"Check this out," Moody gushed. "Bill Cosby's wife Camille asked me and my wife Linda to go to the premiere of Fat Albert, and said that she had a surprise for us. Near the end of the movie Mushmouth and another one of Fat Albert's friends made an automobile out of the junk from the junkyard. So when Fat Albert and his girlfriend and her friend got in the car, he said 'Go ahead, turn on the radio.' When they turned the radio on Mushmouth went 'There I go, there I go, there I go....' He sang the whole song with one of those little old-time accordions. I said 'Oh, man, that's really something.' I did that song in 1949 in Stockholm, Sweden. And you know, if I go somewhere and I don't do that song, I might as well not come. No matter how much I fight it. But that's okay with me!"