December 12, 2010


The history of jazz now spans a hundred plus years. The founding fathers have long since passed into music history, and, sadly, the ranks of the second and third generations of master musicians is becoming thin. On December 9th we lost James Moody, saxophonist, vocalist, band leader and a man who spread optimism wherever he went. I met James Moody in San Diego on February 13, 1998. Our interview was delightful, mostly because James had a knack for putting people at ease.

Along with his high level of musicianship, he was also known for his relaxed and humorous bandstand personality. As a disciple of Dizzy Gillespie, James gathered musical knowledge as well as tips on how to engage an audience and keep your musicians loose:

JM: But Diz man, I’d be playing, we’d be on the bandstand, and Dizzy would come up and whisper in my ear “Moody your fly’s open,” and man I’d be very — and then he’d look at me with that look you know.

Like many musicians, James was able to remember the circumstances and the feeling of his first infatuation with music, realized through a storefront window:

MR: How did you come to the saxophone? Was it your first choice of instruments?

JM: I just loved the way it looked, and loved the way it sounded.

MR: Yeah?

JM: Yeah. I told my wife Linda, I told her “honey,” I says “in Newark, New Jersey where I lived, around the corner from where I lived, I lived on West Street, and if you went down the block and turned a corner, that was Springfield Avenue, there was a music store there called Dawn & Kirchner. And they used to have these windows, and they were just lined up with saxophones, you know, just lined up. And boy I used to go and just press my nose in it and look at it. Oh, man.” And finally one day my uncle bought me, he got me a saxophone, but it didn’t look like those, it was silver and it was alto, second hand, you know. But later on I finally got a nice horn. But the first horn I got, when I got it, oh man, I dug it. I put it in the bed next to me and just looked at it. I was out man.

MR Oh, that’s nice, that’s nice. I wish we had a photo of that.

JM: Yeah. Sixteen years old.

MR: And that was an alto?

JM: Alto, yeah. And you know what? It must have been a Conn because it had one of those screw things on it. Because I even forgot what — like in those days, I mean it didn’t mean anything, Conn or whatever, it was a saxophone.

James’ early career received a boost with a serendipitous incident. While in Europe as a young man, he recorded a spontaneous version of “I’m in the Mood for Love.” The numbers of records sold involving a jazz hit certainly pales in comparison with a rock hit, but indeed this did become a hit for James and brought him back to the United States. His version of the song became known as “Moody’s Mood for Love.” James related the story behind the engaging saxophone introduction:

MR: So up until that point, even when you recorded “Moody’s Mood for Love,” it was all coming from your ear?

JM: All by ear. “Moody’s Mood for Love,” the same thing. What I did was, I was playing tenor, so Lars Gullen, who was a very fantastic baritone jazz player in Sweden — good musicians in Sweden boy, wonderful — he had this beat up looking silver alto sitting by him at the record date. I asked him do you mind if I look at it? He said no. In the old days it was different. You played other people’s horns. You know you would never do that now. So anyway, they says you have one more cut to do, what would you like to do? I said how about “I’m in the Mood for Love?” Okay? And they said okay. So Gus Aphalia — this is the truth — the arranger, he went into the john and jotted down the harmonies, and then came back out and put them up on the thing, and we did it in one take. Now here’s why it sounded like it sounded. When they hit the chord — boom — [scats]. I’m trying to find the notes, because it’s alto now, not tenor. And people said oh you must have been inspired. I said yeah, I’m inspired to try and find the notes, that’s what I was inspired.

“Moody’s Mood for Love” became one of his theme songs and his version was eventually covered with a vocal version by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure.

On the strength of this record James returned to the United States, against his better judgement. While in his later years he may have struck us as a man who was always upbeat and full of optimism, he had his share of negative experiences in his life. The most telling was in dealing with the racism pervading much of the United States during his early years. He related one incident which he experienced as a band leader traveling in the south:

JM: Because I had had it, like with the racism that went on. I mean it was — remember I told you about the Brook Benton Revue? We were on the tour, and, I forget just where we were, but I had a hundred dollar bill. So I went into the donut shop to get some donuts. They said they didn’t have any change. So I went across the street to an automobile company, where they sell automobiles, asked for change, they didn’t have it there. So I said oh the heck with it. I got back on the bus. So when I got on the bus, in a minute, Brook Benton called me and says “hey, Moody.” I said “what?” He says “this state trooper wants to see you.” So I thought he was joking, a state trooper. I looked out, sure enough there’s a state trooper down there. So I get off, and the state trooper looks at me, and he says “what’s your name?” I told him I says “James Moody.” He says, “what do you do?” I said “well see, my name’s on the bus there,” I said “I’m with the band here.” And Brook says “maybe —” he says “get the hell out of here, get over here, I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to him.” So he says “how much money do you have?” I says “I don’t know, maybe four or five hundred dollars.” So he says “let me see it.” So I reached in one pocket and pulled out my traveler’s checks. And in another pocket I had cash, but something told me don’t do it. So I gave him the traveler’s checks, about seven, eight hundred bucks in traveler’s checks, because I had to pay the band. And so he looks at the traveler’s checks, he looks at me and he says “too much money.” So what am I supposed to say to the guy? Too much money? I mean I didn’t say anything. He looked again, “too much money.” I said “well,” I says, “I’m the leader here,” and I said “and I have to pay the musicians. I haven’t paid them all.” He says “too much money.” So he put it down and he looked at me again. “Too much” — he must have said this about fifteen or twenty times, then he called for another car, and another car came with a lieutenant, and they talked, and then a captain came and they talked. After this crap went on about a half hour, forty-five minutes, they came over again and did it again. “Too much money — too much money.” And then I mean he just gave me the traveler’s checks back and he left. Now you know what happened? When I went in to the automobile store, evidently they said there’s a negro over here with a hundred dollar bill, he probably stole it. So the cops came, and that’s how that came about.

Unlike some of his contemporaries who started their careers during the early years of bebop, James lived a long and full life, passing away at the age of 85. He was able to reap some of the benefits when jazz became a respected music in the United States. He received honors from the International Jazz Hall of Fame and was named an National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. Still he was less than happy with the fact that a man in his position was unable to call his own shots when recording an album at the age of 72. During the interview we listened to an excerpt from his then most recent release entitled “Moody Plays Mancini.”

MR: How did this album come about?

JM: Well the company wanted a concept. And that’s the thing nowadays, concept.

MR: Right.

JM: So we came up with the concept. Frank Sinatra before this. And then after this, Mancini, so that was the concept. But that’s how that came about.

MR: Does that bother you at all? That you need to do a concept?

JM: Yes it does, I have to be truthful, yes it does. Because you see what I think is that, and it’s been like this for a long time, the artist or the musician should make the records, and the record companies should sell them. But it’s the other way around. They want to make the records and then they want you to sell them. I mean that’s the impression I get.

MR: That the people that hold the purse strings are not musicians.

JM: No, they never are … But you know what I would love to do? I would love to be able to go into the studio with the musicians that I want, and the engineer should be there, and I’d just do what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it, and that would be it. Rather than somebody stopping me — hold it, take one more take. I’d like to just be able to do that.

James was one of those people who make me think I should be more like him — to do my best to spread a positive attitude and engage with people I barely know. He was a self-described romantic, but could still swing the music while romanticizing it. He never failed to acknowledge the emotional and career support that his wife Linda provided for him. I felt privileged to spend 90 minutes with such a man, and of the 300+ interviews I’ve experienced, his was the only one which ended with the interviewee asking of me “can I get a hug?”