Moody's Mood Was Always Happy

Jack Bowers By

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James Moody, whose noble spirit and radiant personality were as impressive as his exploits on saxophone and flute for more than six decades, died December 9, 2010 from pancreatic cancer at his home in San Diego. He was 85 years old.

To anyone who was lucky enough to meet him, the Moody hug was unforgettable: a warm, good-natured embrace accompanied by a smile as wide as the horizon. Moody's personality was the same: friendly, outgoing, overflowing with geniality and humor. Although he never took himself too seriously, music was another matter. From the time he was a teenager, Moody (the name he preferred to be called) devoted himself to becoming the best musician he could be, which became a lifelong pursuit. "I have a goal in life," Moody once told an interviewer, "and my goal is to play better tomorrow than I did today. . . . It's a never-ending search. It's the old thing of I'll never get it but it's worth trying."

And try he did, ever since his childhood in Savannah, GA, where Moody was born partially deaf in 1925 and labeled mentally deficient because of his inability to hear what his teachers were saying. When he was 16 and living with his family in Newark, NJ, an uncle gave Moody an alto saxophone (Moody's father was a trumpeter, his mother a jazz fan with a houseful of records). After hearing tenor saxophonist Don Byas perform with the Count Basie Orchestra, he switched to tenor. Moody was 18 when he was drafted into the Air Force in 1943. Unable to play with the all-white Air Force band, he played for three years with an unofficial all-black band. That turned out to be a blessing, as Dizzy Gillespie's band came to the base to perform, Gillespie heard Moody play and invited him to call once he'd been discharged. Moody did just that, failed an audition for Gillespie's band but passed a second one a few months later, delivered a head-turning solo on a recording of "Emanon," and, more important, formed a life-long friendship with Gillespie.

"Diz influenced me from every standpoint," Moody told writer Bill Milkowski in 2004. "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. 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 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 have seen something in me to let me be in [his] band for a minute." Moody stayed with Gillespie's band for two years and made his recorded debut as a leader in 1948 with James Moody and His Modernists on the Blue Note label.

Moody moved to Europe in 1949, and it was during a recording session in Sweden that he borrowed baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin's alto to record "one more tune," the one that was to change his life and career forever, a variation on Jimmy McHugh's Tin Pan Alley hit, "I'm in the Mood for Love." "The producer decided we needed one more tune," Moody recalled, "but he didn't have any music prepared. I suggested 'I'm in the Mood for Love.' We did it in one take, with me playing this beat-up alto saxophone. Well, you know what happened." What happened was that two years later, singer Eddie Jefferson penned lyrics to Moody's version of the song, calling it "Moody's Mood for Love." Another singer, Clarence Beeks, later to become known as King Pleasure, heard Jefferson's version, committed the performance to memory and sang it at the Apollo Theatre Amateur Hour, winning first prize and a contract to record the song for Prestige Records. The 1952 release became an instant hit, luring Moody back to the States when he had intended to remain in Europe.

"It was amazing," Moody later recalled, "because I had no idea what a hit [the song] 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 . . ." Ironically, after breaking up his group with singer Babs Gonzales, Moody was auditioning new singers and one of those who applied was Eddie Jefferson. "I had no idea," Moody said later, "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.' Everywhere we'd go we'd have to do that tune to or three times a night, and Eddie would have to sing it. And it was wonderful." Moody also sang the song, along with others such as the humorous Gillespie-inspired parody "Benny's from Heaven," at many of his concert gigs, and yodeled in a high-pitched voice that was always a crowd-pleaser.

Moody and Jefferson remained a team until 1963, when Moody rejoined Gillespie and performed in the trumpeter's quintet for the remainder of the decade. By the 1970s, Moody, by then a father, had tired of the musician's road life and moved to Las Vegas where he worked for seven years backing such big-name entertainers as Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Liberace, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Ike and Tina Turner, Glenn Campbell, Connie Stevens, the Everly Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Eddie Fisher and Bobby Gentry. Moody returned to New York in the early 1980s and started recording again, receiving a Grammy nomination in 1985 for Best Instrumental Performance for his work on the The Manhattan Transfer's album, Vocalese. He signed with RCA Victor, for whom he recorded Something Special (with pianist Kenny Barron) and Moving Forward before recording with Gillespie again (Sweet and Lovely) in 1989. In March 1995, Moody's 70th birthday party, hosted by Bill Cosby at New York's Blue Note Club, was recorded by Telarc Records and released as Moody's Party: Live at the Blue Note. Moody followed that up with tributes to Frank Sinatra (Young at Heart, 1996) and Henry Mancini (Moody Plays Mancini, 1997). In his last decade, Moody recorded Homage, Moody 4A and Moody 4B, the last of which was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award.

In 1997, Moody had a small but memorable part in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, filmed in his hometown of Savannah and directed by longtime fan Clint Eastwood. The following year he was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. As for "Moody's Mood for Love," it was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. And speaking of Halls of Fame, no such society worth the name is complete without the inclusion of James Moody, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists who ever lived.

Farewell, Dr. T
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