James Moody, Jazz Saxophonist, Dies at 85
By PETER KEEPNEWS
New York Times, Dec. 10, 2010
James Moody, a jazz saxophonist and flutist celebrated for his virtuosity, his versatility and his onstage ebullience, died on Thursday in San Diego. He was 85.
His death, at a hospice, was confirmed by his wife, Linda. Mr. Moody lived in San Diego.
In November 2010, Mr. Moody revealed that he had pancreatic cancer and had decided against receiving chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
Mr. Moody, who began his career with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shortly after World War II and maintained it well into the 21st century, developed distinctive and equally fluent styles on both tenor and alto saxophone, a relatively rare accomplishment in jazz. He also played soprano saxophone, and in the mid-1950s he became one of the first significant jazz flutists, impressing the critics if not himself.
“I’m not a flute player,” he told one interviewer. “I’m a flute holder.”
The self-effacing humor of that comment was characteristic of Mr. Moody, who took his music more seriously than he took himself. Musicians admired him for his dexterity, his unbridled imagination and his devotion to his craft, as did critics; reviewing a performance in 1980, Gary Giddins of The Village Voice praised Mr. Moody’s “unqualified directness of expression” and said his improvisations at their best were “mini-epics in which impassioned oracles, comic relief, suspense and song vie for chorus time.” But audiences were equally taken by his ability to entertain.
Defying the stereotype of the modern jazz musician as austere and humorless (and following the example of Gillespie, whom he considered his musical mentor and with whom he worked on and off for almost half a century), Mr. Moody told silly jokes, peppered his repertory with unlikely numbers like “Beer Barrel Polka” and the theme from “The Flintstones,” and often sang. His singing voice was unpolished but enthusiastic — and very distinctive, partly because he spoke and sang with a noticeable lisp, a result of having been born partly deaf.
The song he sang most often had a memorable name and an unusual history. Based on the harmonic structure of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” it began life as an instrumental when Mr. Moody recorded it in Stockholm in 1949, improvising an entirely new melody on a borrowed alto saxophone. Released as “I’m in the Mood for Love” (and credited to that song’s writers) even though his rendition bore only the faintest resemblance to the original tune, it was a modest hit for Mr. Moody in 1951. It became a much bigger hit shortly afterward when the singer Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Mr. Moody’s improvisation and another singer, King Pleasure, recorded it as “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
“Moody’s Mood for Love” (which begins with the memorable lyric “There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go ...”) became a jazz and pop standard, recorded by Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse and others. And it was a staple of Mr. Moody’s concert and nightclub performances as sung by Mr. Jefferson, who was a member of his band for many years. Mr. Jefferson was shot to death in 1979; when Mr. Moody, who was in the middle of a long hiatus from jazz at the time, resumed his career a few years later, he began singing the song himself. He never stopped.
James Moody — he was always Moody, never James, Jim or Jimmy to his friends and colleagues — was born in Savannah, Ga., on March 26, 1925, to James and Ruby Moody, and raised in Newark. Despite being hard of hearing, he gravitated toward music and began playing alto saxophone at 16, later switching to tenor. He played with an all-black Army Air Forces band during World War II. After being discharged in 1946, he auditioned for Gillespie, who led one of the first big bands to play the complex and challenging new form of jazz known as bebop. He failed that audition but passed a second one a few months later, and soon captured the attention of the jazz world with a brief but fiery solo on the band’s recording of the Gillespie composition “Emanon.”
Mr. Moody’s career was twice interrupted by alcoholism. The first time, in 1948, he moved to Paris to live with an uncle while he recovered. He returned to the United States in 1951 to capitalize on the success of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” forming a seven-piece band that mixed elements of modern jazz with rhythm and blues. After a fire at a Philadelphia nightclub destroyed the band’s equipment, uniforms and sheet music in 1958, he began drinking again and checked himself into the Overbrook psychiatric hospital in Cedar Grove, N.J. After a stay of several months, he celebrated his recovery by writing and recording the up-tempo blues “Last Train From Overbrook,” which became one of his best-known compositions.
In 1963 he reunited with Gillespie, joining his popular quintet. He was featured as both a soloist and the straight man for Gillespie’s between-songs banter, sharpening his musical and comedic skills at the same time. He left Gillespie in 1969 to try his luck as a bandleader again but met with limited success; four years later he left jazz entirely to work in Las Vegas hotel orchestras.
“The reason I went to Las Vegas,” he told Saxophone Journal in 1998, “was because I was married and had a daughter and I wanted to grow up with my kid. I was married before and I didn’t grow up with the kids. So I said, ‘I’m going to really be a father.’ I did much better with this one because at least I stayed until my daughter was 12 years old. And that’s why I worked Vegas, because I could stay in one spot.”
After seven years of pit-band anonymity, providing accompaniment for everyone from Milton Berle to Ike and Tina Turner to Liberace, Mr. Moody divorced his wife, Margena, and returned to the East Coast to resume his jazz career. His final three decades were productive, with frequent touring and recording (as the leader of his own small group and, on occasion, as a sideman with Gillespie, who died in 1993) and even a brief foray into acting, with a bit part in the 1997 Clint Eastwood film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” set in Mr. Moody’s birthplace, Savannah.
The National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master in 1998. His last album, “Moody 4B,” was recorded in 2008 and released this year on the IPO label.
Mr. Moody, who was divorced twice, is survived by his wife of 21 years, the former Linda Peterson McGowan; three sons, Patrick, Regan and Danny McGowan; a daughter, Michelle Moody Bagdanove; a brother, Louis Watters; four grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
For all his accomplishments, Mr. Moody always saw his musical education as a work in progress. “I’ve always wanted to be around people who know more than me,” he told The Hartford Courant in 2006, “because that way I keep learning.”