In April of 1977, with President Jimmy Carter in the White House, the ship Daphne departed the U.S. and cruised through Caribbean waters, docking in Havana Harbor. The Cuban national press, accustomed to writing only about the alleged achievements of Castro’s regime, didn’t devote a single word to the arrival of the vessel, which carried a distinguished and impressive group of musicians and press from the States. My friend Arnold Jay Smith told me that even Ry Cooder, who years later would produce the famous Buena Vista Social Club recording, was onboard. Nothing like that had occurred since 1959.
I found out about it because Arturo Sandoval, who happened to be in the area, recognized Dizzy Gillespie as he was leaving the ship, and convinced him to hop on his dilapidated Opel car from the 1950s. After taking him through the ruins of the once vibrant and beautiful city, Arturo drove Diz to my house in the suburb of Marianao, at the west end of town. Since I wasn’t there at the time, they wrote a note in Spanglish on a paper bag—signed by Gillespie—and secured it to the front door. When I arrived home I thought it was some kind of a joke, until an officer from the political police appeared and ordered me to grab my horn and get into his military vehicle. Without any explanation, he proceeded to speed up to the Hotel Havana Libre (formerly the Havana Hilton), where the surprise of my life awaited me: a jam session with some of the musicians I had admired since childhood. Among them were Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha” Hines, David Amram, Rudy Rutherford, Rodney Jones, John Ore, Ray Mantilla, Mickey Rocker, Joanne Brackeen, Ron McClure and, of course, Dizzy Gillespie. And while we were chatting at a table for a couple of minutes, he asked me, “Do you know James Moody?” And without giving me a chance to reply, he added, “He is the sweetest person in the world … and a pretty funny guy as well!”
After mentioning the name of his friend and colleague of so many years, the legendary trumpeter wore a tender and somewhat mischievous smile. It was obvious that the man behind “Moody’s Mood for Love” had a very special meaning to Gillespie, who had at his side—at one time or another—many of jazz’s most legendary saxophonists, from Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane.
That 1977 meeting in my native and beloved country marked the beginning of a wonderful and fruitful relationship. And one of the things for which I was most grateful to Dizzy was the opportunity to meet and work extensively with James Moody, a first-class musician whose greatest virtue was selflessness: He never thought twice about inquiring if he was doing something wrong, so that he would get a better sound for the whole band. His desire to continually become better, personally as well as professionally, was one characteristic rare among admired artists of similarly long and successful careers. His concerns about proper sight reading, expanding his harmonic understanding, playing in tune, and phrasing evenly with others are becoming uncommon in an environment plagued by would-be “superstars”—many of whom don’t seem to understand what the word “unison” means.
Regarding his sharp sense of humor, Moody would make feast of it, especially during the most critical times. I recall that once, while on tour in Europe, there had been a disagreement with one of the musicians, a fellow who was somewhat problematic. Without going into detail, things turned ugly and we had to get rid of the malcontent, who hightailed it out of there. Bad vibes quickly arose, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Moody then broke the silence by exclaiming, tragicomically, while pointing in the direction of the exiting musician: “Listen to me, pal, if your phone doesn’t ring, it’s me, OK?!”
Moody was very fortunate to have met Linda, an extraordinary woman who understood and took care of him until the very end. She easily became a great friend to many of his friends, and because of that, we got to love her as much as we loved her husband. Today she remains within us as the integral part of the valuable musical and human legacy he leaves behind.
So Dizzy was right. James Moody was sweet and funny—very funny—and we shall remember him with a big smile. I’m sure he’d appreciate it.