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James Moody: Playing with the Changes

James Moody
James Moody (photo: Bette Marshall)
James Moody, New York City, 1951

James Moody is up on his tiptoes, mugging and yodeling his way through “Benny’s From Heaven,” the tongue-in-cheek parody of “Pennies From Heaven” that his erstwhile partner Eddie Jefferson concocted back in the 1950s. By the time he gets to the paternity punch line-“Well, then Benny’s from heaven ’cause he damn sure ain’t from me!” -Moody’s got the audience eating out of his hand. They howl with good cheer, raising their glasses in salute as he launches into a robust, swinging tenor solo.

It’s a scene that’s been played out on countless bandstands over the years in all the far corners of the world. This time out the venue happens to be a makeshift stage in the lobby of the CuisinArt Resort in Anguilla, a small, idyllic territory in the British West Indies. And though it’s been raining for days, virtually washing out the first BET-sponsored Tranquility Jazz Festival, Moody is putting smiles back on the faces of disgruntled jazz fans who have seen their vacation dreams nearly drowned in monsoonlike conditions. He always touches audiences that way, conveying his contagious spirit to the back row, leaving them with wide smiles, patting feet and a warm inner glow. That’s been Moody’s legacy since 1946, when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band while moonlighting with Ray Brown’s Bebop Boys.

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