James Moody 1925-2010

james-moodySaxophonist, flautist and bandleader James Moody died on Thursday 9th December, 2010, in San Diego, California. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 85. One of the last living masters of the bebop era, Moody was perhaps best known for ‘Moody’s Mood For Love‘, his masterful 1949 improvisation over the chord changes of ‘In the Mood for Love’. It later became a pop hit sung by King Pleasure with lyrics by Eddie Jefferson and has been interpreted over the years by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones (twice), Van Morrison, Brian McKnight, Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse. It was even included in the ‘Jersey Boys’ musical score.

Moody was also known as the genial musical alter-ego of great trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie. His musical partnership and deep friendship lasted, with some interruptions, until Gillespie’s death in 1993. ‘Playing with Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself,’ Gillespie once said. Moody later responded, ‘I felt the same way with him. He was my mentor, my teacher, my best friend, and my brother.’

James Moody was born on March 25, 1925 in Savannah, Georgia and raised in Newark, New Jersey. His mother, Ruby Hann Moody Watters, worked at one of Newark´s major insurance companies and raised Moody as a single parent. She was a defining influence in his life. His father was a trumpet player whom Moody did not meet until he was 21. Moody was drafted by the Air Force in 1943 and was stationed in a segregated training centre in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he was part of the army band between 1943 and 1946. Decades later, he was still saddened by his experiences there. ‘German POW’s could go into town, jump off the trucks and go into a restaurant with the MPs to eat, but I couldn’t go into the restaurant; and I’m an American serviceman.’

He got his first saxophone at the age of 16 as a gift from his uncle. He learned the rudiments of the instrument from the musicians in the Air Force’s whites-only band while playing in the ‘unofficial Negro band at the base. There were no authorised Negro Air Force bands.’ While at the base, Dizzy Gillespie came to play with his band. Moody and fellow airman trumpeter Dave Burns were invited by Gillespie to audition after their discharge for a new band he was organising. They did. Burns was accepted but Moody was not because, he recalled, ‘[arranger] Gil Fuller said that I didn’t play loud enough.’ Still, two months later, he received a telegram that said, ‘You start with us tonight!’ On his first night, playing with the now-fabled 1946 Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at the Spotlite on 52nd Street, New York City, Moody’s bandmates included Thelonious Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Kenny Clarke on drums and Ray Brown on bass. His solo on ‘Emanon‘ established Moody as one of the leading tenor saxophonists in bebop. ‘It was different than any blues solo that you had heard,’ once recalled saxophonist Jimmy Heath. In 1948, capitalising on his early success, Moody recorded his first album as a leader James Moody And His Modernists featuring Art Blakey and Chano Pozo.

In 1949, battling alcoholism, he left for Paris to stay with his uncle. ‘I went for two weeks and stayed three years,’ he once said. While in Paris, he took part in a memorable performance with Miles Davis and Tadd Dameron at the Paris International Festival de Jazz in the spring of 1949. Later that same year, a workmanlike session in Sweden with local musicians included a striking alto solo in ‘I’m In the Mood for Love’. Without Moody’s knowledge, Eddie Jefferson added lyrics to it and, in 1952, King Pleasure turned Moody’s solo with Jefferson’s lyrics into a major pop hit.

In 1952, Moody returned to the States, organised a septet and criss-crossed the country as part of a revue that also featured Dinah Washington and Brook Benton. For the arrangements, he called on a young trumpeter and arranger named Quincy Jones. In 1958, after a fire at The Blue Note Club in Philadelphia destroyed his band’s instruments, uniforms and arrangements, an overwhelmed Moody checked himself into the Overbrook Hospital in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. He stayed there six months and upon his release recorded ‘Last Train from Overbrook‘, one of his mid-career masterpieces.

In 1962, he dissolved his group and rejoined Gillespie as part of the trumpeter’s exceptional quintet. But by 1973 had Moody decided to leave life on the road and stay at home to see his young daughter grow up, so he settled for the security and stability of a pit job in Las Vegas. He stayed in the Las Vegas Hilton Orchestra for seven-and-a-half years, playing in shows headlined by Bill Cosby, Glen Campbell, Liberace, Elvis Presley, The Osmonds and Ann-Margaret.

Moody resumed his jazz career in the mid-80s with a Grammy nomination for his solo on Manhattan Transfer‘s Vocalese album. In 1986, he returned to the recording studios leading his own group for the album Something Special. The most significant development in this period, however, was Moody meeting Linda McGowan, a real estate agent from San Diego, at a concert in Los Angeles in 1987. In December 1988, he came to San Diego to perform and met Linda again – and three months later they were married. Moody’s Best Man was Dizzy Gillespie who flew in from Japan.

In the ’90s, Moody once again rejoined Gillespie, now leading his United Nations Orchestra, and pushed forward with his own recording career. In 1990, Moody and Gillespie received a Grammy Award nomination for their rendition of Gillespie’s ‘Get the Booty’. Moody also found time to appear in Clint Eastwood‘s 1997 film ‘Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil.’ He received an Honorary Doctorate Degree of Humane Letters from the Florida Memorial College, was inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame and received the prestigious 1998 Jazz Masters Fellowship Award granted by the National Endowment for The Arts. On July 22nd 2000, Moody was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the Berklee College of Music.

In 2005, Moody and his wife Linda founded the James Moody Scholarship Endowment at Purchase College, New York. ‘We created the scholarship to give kids a chance to have the musical education that I never had,’ he once explained. ‘Education is the key to everything.’ Earlier this year, the Moodies created a new scholarship, The James Moody Scholarship Fund For Newark Youth, with the objective of ‘helping talented youth where the idea of going to college wasn’t even on their radar’.

James Moody is survived by wife, Linda, daughter Michelle Bagdanove, brother Lou Watters, sons Patrick, Regan and Danny McGowan, four grandchildren and a great-grandson.

James Moody, March 26, 1925 – December 9th, 2010

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