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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.

And he still exudes that same upbeat vibe and youthful enthusiasm to this day.

“There’s an old philosophy, and it’s been said many times, but people don’t heed it,” Moody counsels between sets. “And that is simply this: ‘So a man thinketh, so it is.’ I think I’m young. My wife says I’m 78 going on 18, and that’s very true in a way. That’s how I feel.”

The perpetually ebullient Moody (he prefers being called that to James or Mr. Moody) personifies old-school showmanship in the grand tradition of his dear friend and mentor Gillespie. As Moody says of his main man, “Diz influenced me from every standpoint. He was a friend, a father, a confidante, just everything to me. I’m 78 years old and I’m still realizing how much he affected me. And man, a lot of times I’ll see something, and I’ll remember what Diz told me and I’ll go, ‘Ah, that’s what he meant!’ Diz, boy-he was just a nice guy, a good man. And he was a child, too; he never grew up. But he was a child like a fox. I’m just thankful to him every day for giving me a chance because he knew-he must’ve seen something in me to let me be in the band for a minute.” (He did. As Gillespie once said of his frontline partner, “Playing with James Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself.”)

One of the most beloved elders on the jazz scene today, Moody continues to demonstrate boundless heart and soul on the bandstand. He’s still an obsessive practicer, always pushing himself to reach for something new on his horn. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” says the swinging septuagenarian. “And that applies to everything-and when I say everything I mean everythang!” he adds with a wink.

Longtime record executive Steve Backer says, “I think that a lot of the respect that Moody gets is from his consistent evolution in terms of the music. He’s a grand master of the art form, and he keeps evolving harmonically. He consistently wants to move forward, and that attitude helps him stay young.”

Backer, who worked with Moody in the late ’80s with the RCA/Novus label, was at the helm of the saxophonist’s latest project for Savoy, Homage. “We’re paying homage to Moody because he’s so wonderful, because he’s probably the last great tenor player of that bebop era. But it really goes a lot deeper than that. He’s somebody who should be honored and rewarded for all of the joy and love that goes along with his musical deeds. And it should be paid back somehow.”

Produced by Bob Belden, Homage features the revered jazz icon cutting a wide stylistic swath on new compositions-commissioned especially for this project-by Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Kenny Barron, Horace Silver, David Hazeltine and Marc Copland. For the New York sessions, Belden relied on key members from his own regular working crew of the last two decades, including keyboardist Scott Kinsey, drummer Billy Kilson, reedmen Lawrence Feldman and Lou Marini and English horn and flutist Charles Pillow along with regular Moody sidemen: drummer Anthony Pinciotti, bassists Hans Glawischnig and Todd Coolman and pianist Hazeltine.

Moody rises to the occasion in their company with some inspired playing of his own on this new and challenging material.

“You have to approach records as works of art and not just commercial things,” Belden says, “so you can’t just take the attitude of ‘put it out because he’s a jazz legend.’ I mean, Moody could’ve gone in with his rhythm section and just played standards and people would’ve said, ‘Gee, it’s nice to hear Moody play the old chestnuts.’ But anybody could do that. The challenge here was to take a 78-year-old saxophone player and make him sound 20 years old. He has a legendary status, a marquee name, but he doesn’t want to be old-fashioned, and he hasn’t stopped growing. And on this particular recording he sounds more contemporary than guys half his age or less.

“I think everybody knows who Moody is but they really have no idea what he does,” Belden continues. “I don’t think they’re aware of his capabilities as a musician and as a thinking human being. To a lot of people, non-jazz musicians, he’s always going to be known for ‘Moody’s Mood for Love,’ and that’s a different kind of James Moody. It’s not really the jazz thing; it’s somebody who goes into a quasi-pop kind of persona. And I think that people use his humorous element to avoid digging deep into what he’s really all about. The fact is, Moody is probably one of the smartest musicians I’ve ever worked with, and for this project I wanted to give him what he as a musician, not as a personality, likes to deal with-hard changes, Coltrane kind of stuff, pop-oriented crossover stuff, anything with a groove. And everything I did shows his strengths. It’s not overarranged, it’s not overproduced, it’s not overdone-just real straightforward music with a nice flow to it.”

In conceptualizing and producing Homage, Belden says his aim was to make real music in real time and tap Moody’s full potential as a saxophone player while making him feel comfortable in the musical surroundings. “My job was to touch upon something that few other producers have done with Moody. The only other guy who did it was Orrin Keepnews, who really got something special out of Moody on a record from 1967 on Milestone called James Moody and the Brass Figures. It’s well organized, it’s well arranged and that was the record that I had to shoot for. I think Orrin saw his artistry whereas some of the other producers only saw the King Pleasure [playful vocalese] thing, and once that’s stuck in somebody’s mind it’s tough to get out. Consequently, a lot of the records that Moody made were not focused or they ignored certain parts of his personality. All the Cadet stuff-and I have about 20-something Cadet records-they’re pretty much just sessions. But James Moody and the Brass Figures was a really focused album that got a five-star review back then in Down Beat, and my job was to make a focused album in that same vain for Moody.”

The punchy opener to Homage, Zawinul’s “A Message to Moody,” is a Weather Report-ish track paced by Kilson’s heavy groove and colored by Kinsey’s synth work. Moody sounds right at home in this ultramodern setting, playing Wayne Shorter to Kinsey’s Zawinul. Moody opens up on Hancock’s Brazilian-flavored “Into the Shadows” and paints with darker hues on his own haunting ballad “Simplicity and Beauty.” Hazeltine’s ‘We All Love Moody” is a bright, brisk and earthy vehicle in a Les McCann-Eddie Harris vein (a la “Compared to What” or “Cold Duck Time”), while Corea’s “Moody Tune” is a more gentle Brazilian-tinged ballad. Barron brings out Moody’s bebop tendencies on “And Then Again” and Copland offers a Latin lilt on “Homage.” Silver’s “When Lucy Smiles” is a jauntily swinging hard-bop vehicle, and the collection closes on a decidedly contemporary note with the hip-hop coda “Love Was the Cause for All Good Things,” a collaboration between Moody-as the rapper-and producer Matthew Backer (aka The Kid Next Door).

“To have all these great musicians write these wonderful songs for me,” Moody says, “it was really nice, man. I was really touched. Now, I really would like ‘Love Was the Cause for All Good Things’ to really take off and become a hit, like ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ was, because the lyrics are very meaningful, especially for these times. Anyway, we’ll just wait and see.”

Born in Savannah, Ga., on March 26, 1925, Moody grew up in Newark, N.J., where he took up the alto saxophone at age 16. After a hitch in the Air Force, he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop big band in 1946 and remained for two years, appearing on several key recordings from that period, including “O.W.,” “Oop-Pop-a-Da” and “Two Bass Hit.” In 1946, Moody was also a member of the Bebop Boys, an all-star group led by Ray Brown and featuring Dizzy and Dave Burns on trumpets, John Brown on alto sax, Moody on tenor, Hank Jones on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes and Joe Harris on drums. (Moody’s first-ever recordings in the studio come from a September 25, 1946, session with the Bebop Boys, which also produced the blazing tenor feature “Moody Speaks”).

In 1948, Moody made his recording debut as a leader for the Blue Note label-James Moody and His Modernists, featuring arranger Gil Fuller and Art Blakey on drums along with such regular Gillespie sidemen as Ernie Henry on alto sax, Cecil Payne on baritone sax, Dave Burns and Elmon Wright on trumpets, Chano Pozo on bongos and vocals, Nelson Boyd on bass, James Forman on piano and Teddy Stewart on drums.

In 1949 Moody moved to Europe, and in Sweden that year he recorded his tour de force of improvisation on the Jimmy McHugh Tin Pan Alley tune “I’m in the Mood for Love” (which can be heard on James Moody & His Swedish Crowns on the Dragon label). Back in the States, pioneering vocalese artist Eddie Jefferson penned lyrics to Moody’s exact solo on that tune and dubbed it “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

Meanwhile, an unknown singer named Clarence Beeks-aka King Pleasure-heard Jefferson sing his vocalese version of Moody’s masterpiece at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati. Beeks promptly committed the performance and song to memory-the lyrics, phrasing and all of the nuances. In November 1951, Beeks sang Jefferson’s signature vocalese offering at the Apollo Theater Amateur Hour, winning first prize along with a contract to record the tune for Prestige. The 1952 release of King Pleasure’s debut recording, “Moody’s Mood for Love,” became an instant hit, to the utter surprise of Moody, who found himself an “overnight sensation” when he returned to the States that same year.

“It was amazing!” he recalls, “because I had no idea what a hit it was. So when I went to play a gig somewhere I’d be shocked at how packed the place would be. Suddenly I was being treated like a star or something. I never will forget the record company guy calling me up and asking, ‘You want a Cadillac? You want a Buick? Whatever you want, I’ll buy it for you.’ And when I told my mother that, she said, ‘Son, people do not give you anything for nothing. Watch out!’ And she was right. There were all kinds of come-ons in those days but my mother-God bless her, man-she hipped me to a lot of things.”

Today, Moody still includes “Moody’s Mood for Love” in every set he plays. “Yeah, and if I don’t, I might as well not come to the gig,” he laughs. “It’s like Tony Bennett with ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco.’ He still sings it and loves singing it, and I’m still singing ‘Moody’s Mood.'” (On a side note: After King Pleasure’s version of “Moody’s Mood for Love” became a smash hit, Jimmy McHugh sued for copyright infringement and won a partial victory in court, ultimately splitting proceeds with Moody on sales of any versions of the tune.)

Upon returning to the States in 1952, Moody worked with vocalist-hipster Babs Gonzales until they had a parting of the ways a year later. As Moody explains, “Babs was talking about ‘I want more bread,’ and I thought he was getting enough ‘bread,’ as he called it. So he said, ‘Well, then I’m leaving.’ And I said, ‘Bye.’ After Babs split we went to Cleveland and the word was out that I was looking for a singer to sing ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ with the band. And Eddie Jefferson came back and applied for the gig. I had no idea that he was the one who wrote the lyrics to ‘Moody’s Mood,’ so when I found out I said, ‘You got the job, man.’ And it was cool from then on. Everywhere we would go we’d have to do that tune two or three times a night. I’d have to play it, and Eddie would have to sing it. And it was wonderful.”

Jefferson remained a fixture in Moody’s group through 1962. In 1963, Moody rejoined Gillespie and performed in the trumpeter’s quintet for the remainder of the decade, but by the outset of the ’70s he had lost his enthusiasm for the road. As he recalls, “My daughter was born, and I wanted to see her grow up. I didn’t get to see my other children grow up since I was always away. So I finally just said, ‘Aw, the heck with this.’ That’s when I went to Las Vegas, and I stayed there for seven and a half years.”

Moody’s tenor-playing pal Harold Land is the one who hipped him to the steady gig opportunities in Las Vegas. During that lucrative period, from 1971 to 1978, Moody worked at the Flamingo Hilton, where he played shows with Leslie Uggams and Sandler & Young, and also at the bigger Las Vegas Hilton, where he played with a host of big-name entertainers including Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Liberace, Milton Berle, Bill Cosby, the Rockettes, Lou Rawls, Ike and Tina Turner, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Connie Stevens, the Everly Brothers, Steve and Eydie, Eddie Fisher and Bobbie Gentry.

He was back in New York by the early ’80s, and Moody’s career received a boost with a Grammy nomination in 1985 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance for his playing on Manhattan Transfer’s Vocalese. He then signed to RCA/Novus, and Moody’s 1986 debut for the label was the straightahead quartet date Something Special featuring pianist Kenny Barron. His follow-up was Moving Forward, and in 1989 he was reunited with his friend and mentor Dizzy Gillespie on “Con Alma” and “Get the Booty” on Sweet and Lovely.

On March 26, 1995, a 70th birthday celebration for Moody, hosted by Bill Cosby, was held at New York’s Blue Note club. Telarc recorded the show and released it as Moody’s Party: Live at the Blue Note. He followed that up with two tribute recordings for Warner Bros.: 1996’s Sinatra tribute Young at Heart and 1997’s Moody Plays Mancini. But while those tribute projects, both coproduced by Warner’s Matt Pierson with keyboardist-arranger Gil Goldstein, may have been well-received, Belden believes that Moody has a more deeply personal connection to Homage. “I don’t think he related to Henry Mancini or Frank Sinatra on a personal level,” Belden says. “I don’t think he had anything in common with those guys. But he’s got a lot in common with Zawinul, Herbie, Chick and Horace Silver, all great composers who greatly admire Moody, as well as with Kenny Barron, Marc Copland and David Hazeltine, all of whom played piano in Moody’s band at one time or another. So I think there was a natural affinity for him on this project, which helped make him feel comfortable a lot on the sessions.”

For Moody, Homage was both a challenge and a joy, and it represents a kind of new beginning for the eternally youthful jazz veteran. “It seems like jazz musicians want to live a long time so they can learn how to get through all these changes,” he says. “I’ll never forget when I was 18 years old and I was so frustrated and kept saying, ‘Man, these changes! I gotta get these changes!’ And Dave Burns said to me, ‘You’re going to be 92 years old talkin’ ’bout you wanna get those changes.’ Here I am 78 years old and that’s what I’m still sayin’-I wanna get those changes! It’s a lifetime struggle. For the longest time I didn’t know the changes. I was playing strictly by ear. Now I know the changes, and I’m just trying to get better with them. So I feel like I really haven’t reached my peak yet.

“I have a goal in life, and my goal is to play better tomorrow than I did today,” Moody continues. “I’m not in competition with other musicians because there’s too much going on, you can’t be into that. So I’m in competition with myself. I just want to be able to play better tomorrow than I did today. And I’ve got to hurry up and play better because it seems like when I practice and I think I got something, I go outside and everybody else has got it and gone. So I’m still working at it because I haven’t found it yet. It’s a never-ending search. It’s the old thing of I’ll never get it but it’s worth trying.”

Sidebar: They All Love Moody

Moody’s new album, Homage, features tunes specially composed for the record by some of his friends. Here’s what a few of the composers had to say about Moody.

Kenny Barron: “He’s just an amazing person for so many reasons. Number one is just his boundless energy. Number two is his humility. He’s just a great musician and a really great guy. We spent four years together with Dizzy and what used to amaze me is that he would eat these chord changes up and then come back and say, ‘Man, does that sound OK?’ And I’d say, ‘Come on, Moody, are you kidding?’ He’s like the eternal student of music, and he keeps on getting better. The other thing I can say about Moody is I wanna be like him when I grow up. The piece I contributed was just a blues because that’s something that Moody excels at, and he can put any kind of twist on it-it could be very modern, it could be gutbucket, whatever it is, whatever it calls for. He’s just a real open-minded cat, and he brings so much to the music. He’s open to what the younger guys are doing, interested in finding out what it is and how they’re doing it. So I really take my hat off to him. And I really would like to be like that when I’m 78-always ready to learn.”

Marc Copland: “I found working with Moody to be a humbling and humanizing experience. This is the kindest person I ever worked for, and he became the godfather of my son. Here’s a man who played with the greats, yet he doesn’t carry an attitude or rest on his laurels. All he talks about sometimes is how much he needs to practice, how far he still has to go in this music. As a human being, he’s old enough to be my father, and over the years we’ve had a deep exchange of musical and personal ideas. He once said to me with a twinkle in his eye, ‘Marc, sometimes I’m the father, and sometimes you’re the father. I know!’ My personal homage to Moody is this: Every time I play, every time I travel, I hope to play with the same spirit that he does and hope to treat other musicians with the same kindness and respect that he does.”

Chick Corea: “James is a treasure of an artist and musician. He makes me smile every time I meet him and every time I hear him play. His work with Dizzy will remain unforgettable.”

David Hazeltine: “What’s amazing to me is that at his age, after all the music that Moody has performed and recorded, he remains a serious student of jazz, always looking for new ideas and interesting, innovative ways to articulate the chord changes.”

Joe Zawinul: “Moody for me is one of the great ones. He played in the first Dizzy Gillespie big band and I was always a big fan of his. He always tried to be stepping ahead and he always got better in what he was doing. Now I know that Moody is a good guy, a soulful guy, but one night we played with Weather Report at the Hollywood Bowl and also he played in an all-star band with Dizzy and many other great musicians. It was a great success, a superb concert. Afterwards I was standing backstage with Moody and he said to me, ‘Joe, for just a minute, watch my saxophone.’ So I said, ‘OK, no problem,’ while he went over to say hello to my wife and a few friends. And he didn’t come back for a while so I figured I would just take his saxophone case and go over to look for him. So I take the case and start walking with it and then all of a sudden I feel this warmth in my hand, and I look-and I was bleeding, man! Actually pretty severely. And when Moody found out he was really devastated. He was really feeling bad about that, because he forgot to tell me about his case. The deal was, in order for him to protect himself from somebody stealing his saxophone, he had put in razor blades into the handle where you pick it up, but if you turn it correctly-and only he knew how to do it-then you cover the blades and you just carry it like normal. And I, of course, didn’t know that and I was bleeding like a motherfucker! Razor blades in the handle-that’s some old school jazz musician shit, man!” Originally Published