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Interviews

James Moody: Timeless

By Published: March 10, 2005
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!"

At one point, Moody relocated to Las Vegas for several years out of concern for his family. "The reason I went to Las Vegas was that I was married and I had a young daughter who I wanted to see grow up. I didn't see my other children grow up because I was on the road. [Tenor saxophonist] Harold Land put me in touch with the contractor at the Hilton International Hotel in Vegas. So I went to Las Vegas and I had to wait because you have to be a resident for three months before you can play there. So I waited and then after that they put me at the Hilton. I played behind Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Liberace, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, the Rockettes, Ike and Tina Turner and Milton Berle. But no jazz. I was too busy trying to learn the clarinet, because I had to play the clarinet for the shows. You got extra for doubling up. Whatever the double was you got paid for that, whatever the show called for. Soon we noticed that a lot of people were coming in self-contained and little by little that style of music was phased out. My wife and I divorced just as my daughter was about to turn 13. That's when I left. It was bad at the time, I felt sad and everything, but man, I never knew that I was gonna find such happiness as I have now. And I didn't get that until I was 54. And I'm grateful for that. My ex-wife and my daughter, everything is fine between us."

The primary sources of Moody's faith and spirituality comes through his music, his marriage, and his embrace of the Baha'i religion, whose creed is "One God, one humanity, no divisions."

"Diz was a Baha'i, but that's not why I joined," Moody recalled. "My wife Linda and I were going to this place called the Faith Chapel here in San Diego. We'd go every Sunday, and [the preacher] would be saying the same thing: 'And Jesus said...and the Bible says... and Jesus said...' I was counting the members of the choir, I was so bored. When my wife found out about it, she tried to find another place for us to go. She looked in the paper, believe it or not, and saw an ad about the Baha'i. They were having a feast, so we went, and when we walked in there it was as if we had known everybody forever. We were welcomed with open arms. And then we started going to what they call firesides, where you go to someone's home, sit down and talk about the writings and things. We just liked that because the Baha'i faith teaches that mankind is one and Earth is one country. Moslems say 'Allah' and Christians say 'God'. What's the difference?" And practicing the Baha'i faith has had a positive effect on the message he tries to spread. "I would think that music isn't something that's just music. It involves everything. No matter what it is, music involves it. And the person that does it is influenced by everything that he or she has learned. That's the way it is."

Astonishingly, after all the playing he's done, Moody isn't satisfied. He actually doesn't like the way he plays. "I want to play better," he said. "My motto is: 'Play better tomorrow than I did today.' I want to approach the harmonies in different ways. All of the younger musicians, they've got a whole lot going for them and they're playing their butts off, male and female. I know I'm not gonna be number one but I'm not gonna be last. The sounds today, they're different. Slide Hampton, Jon Faddis and myself were guests with the Terence Blanchard Quintet at the Monterey Jazz Festival recently. It was a celebration for Dizzy Gillespie, and Terence wrote some very interesting music. There were things I wasn't familiar with, but it was enjoyable because I learned a lot."

When asked if he believed jazz is in good hands for the next generation, Moody was upbeat. "Oh, jazz has been in good hands ever since it was jazz. It's been in good hands because people are right behind each other, you know? You had Louis Armstrong, then there was Roy Eldridge, then there was Diz, then there was Freddie Hubbard. Now you've got Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove. I like to listen and hear what's going on. There are a lot of beautiful young musicians out there, and they keep getting younger and younger!"

As he moves into his ninth decade, Moody was effusive when asked about his goals for the next few years and sounded outraged when it was suggested that he's done everything. "Oh no! Oh hell no! No matter what it is, it can be improved upon. I don't care what it is, I don't care who it is, it can be improved upon. Because people are coming up knowing things that other people didn't know, you know what I mean? And when it stops, then you're through."

Recommended Listening:

· Art Blakey's Messengers/James Moody and his Modernists - New Sounds (Blue Note, 1948)

· James Moody - Hi-Fi Party (Prestige/OJC-Fantasy, 1955)

· James Moody - James Moody (Argo-Verve, 1959)

· Dizzy Gillespie - Something Old, Something New (Philips-Polygram, 1963)

· James Moody - Feelin' It Together (Muse, 1973)

· James Moody - Moody's Party (Telarc, 1995)

Photo Credit
Mark Sheldon



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