Moody’s Mood for Bop

Jazz saxophone legend James Moody talks about how racism shaped his early career, what a “hot flute” can do for a repertoire, and encouraging budding musicians.

“I’m especially happy tonight,” jazz legend James Moody told a full house of fans at New York City’s Rose Theater last month. “Only three more payments and this’ll be all mine,” he chuckled, hoisting his tenor saxophone in the air. Moody and an all-star cast took the audience back several decades at Bebop Lives!, a Jazz at Lincoln Center program that conveyed the explosive impact this groundbreaking style of music had on listeners when it emerged in the mid-1940s. Until then, music fans had been accustomed to the controlled arrangements of the Swing Era, and their ears were woefully unprepared for bebop’s mercurial convolutions and radical reinterpretations of standards that left only traces of familiar melodies. For nearly three hours, Moody ripped through a generous repertoire of hits by bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. At his side were Grammy-award winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove, acclaimed alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, and pitch-perfect chanteuse Roberta Gambarini, one of this year’s Grammy nominees for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Like the late, great jazz vocalist Eddie Jefferson, who often collaborated with Moody, Gambarini sometimes emulates famous horn solos with a mixture of scat and “vocalese,” in which the singer uses actual words to correspond with musical notes. Moody’s solos provide an ideal counterpoint to these techniques; it was, in fact, his playing on the Manhattan Transfer album Vocalese that earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance in 1985. At his Rose Theater concert in January, Moody’s exquisite yet dissonant textures complemented Gambarini’s astounding range, and his subtle forays into West Coast cool were mind-blowing on “Lover Man,” a classic ballad from the bebop era.

In an evening full of surprises, perhaps the most memorable moment was Moody’s vocals on “Moody’s Mood for Love,” his celebrated rendition of “I’m in the Mood for Love” that became more famous than the Jimmy McHugh original when it was released in 1949. Had Moody opted to sing his signature tune because he had grown tired of playing it for more than 50 years? I wasn’t sure. After all, James Moody isn’t just a brilliant instrumentalist. He’s also hilariously funny and his falsetto delivery of Jefferson’s lyrics had the audience in stitches. But when the band returned to the stage for Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” the musicians were all business. And it wasn’t just the front line that sparkled. Bassist Todd Coolman, drummer Adam Nussbaum, and pianist Renee Rosnes pushed the limitations normally imposed on a rhythm section by exploring the vast improvisational terrain of the bebop soundscape, the foundation for what is now known as modern jazz.


A couple of weeks earlier, I had met Moody in the lounge of the New York Hilton while he was in town for an International Association of Jazz Educators conference, where he performed and spoke on a wide variety of topics. We grabbed a table next to the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and although Moody had been giving interviews for much of the day, he still exhibited a tireless enthusiasm for conversation not unlike the energy he exudes during live performances. Everything was open to discussion—politics, history, art, popular culture—and Moody, a gifted storyteller, cleverly related his anecdotes back to music whenever he wanted to emphasize a point. The man is as ageless as his masterful playing. And his nearly 82 years have afforded him a wealth of knowledge and experience that he willingly shares. So where did it all start? When did he begin playing in a band?

“I was down at the Club St. Germain in Paris, and this woman requested ‘I’m In the Mood for Love.’ My version had become a hit in America and I didn’t even know it.”

“I joined the Air Force in 1943 and played in the Negro band because the troops were segregated. Three-quarters of the base was Caucasian and one quarter was Negro. I had a horn and wanted to play and that’s where I started learning. And then yesterday, they unveiled Ella Fitzgerald’s stamp at Lincoln Center and they had me stand up and say a few things because years ago, I was on tour with Ella and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. And I told everyone about the big dance halls down South, where they had a rope that ran down the middle of the room—on one side would be Negroes and on the other side, Caucasians. Ella would sing and we’d play for everyone. That’s the way it was.”

After Moody’s discharge from the service in 1946, he joined Gillespie’s bebop big band—a lineup that included Thelonious Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. According to Moody, Gillespie’s long-term interest in fusing Latin rhythms and modern jazz could be attributed to Pozo, who played congas on Moody’s 1948 debut album James Moody and his Bop Men. As one of the founders of Latin jazz, Pozo had a promising future. But he also had a short fuse, and an altercation in a New York City bar took Pozo’s life less than two months after he and Moody made their record.

The next year, Moody traveled to Europe. “I was scarred by racism,” he says. “And the only thing that saved me was going to visit my Uncle Louis in Paris. I went for two weeks and wound up staying three years. Before that, I had always thought something was wrong with me. And although I was treated well by the French people, the Arabs got the same treatment in France that I was getting over here in the United States.”

While he was in Europe, Moody recorded “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which was later covered by George Benson, Tito Puente and a long list of other artists. In 2004, rapper Queen Latifah released her own splendid interpretation of the song on The Dana Owens Album, which featured Moody on alto saxophone. “Before I did ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ in 1949, most of the material I had recorded was on tenor sax. But I borrowed an alto from a baritone player who happened to be sitting in with us and played my version of ‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’ We did it in one take. And I’ll never forget when I was down at the Club St. Germain in Paris, and this woman requested ‘I’m In the Mood for Love.’ I started playing [the original McHugh version] and she said ‘No, no, that’s not what I mean.’ I didn’t know what she was talking about. My version had become a hit in America and I didn’t even know it.”

Moody was content to remain in Europe, but a friend, vocalese artist Babs Gonzalez, convinced him to return to the United States in 1952 and make the most of his newfound success. A series of remarkable albums followed, with more emphasis on blues and ballads, particularly on his 1955 release Hi Fi Party, which includes “Disappointed,” with Jefferson on vocals. In 1956 Moody released Flute ‘n’ the Blues, an ambitious approach to the blues with an instrument not commonly associated with the genre. “Darben the Redd Foxx,” one of Moody’s best-known flute compositions, later appeared on his self-titled 1959 album James Moody. But these songs might never have seen fruition if someone hadn’t sold him a flute one night outside a club. It wasn’t until later that Moody realized he had purchased a stolen instrument.

Credit: Patrick Ambrose

“I bought a hot flute in Chicago,” he says. “I will never do that again. Three weeks later I made Flute ‘n’ the Blues, but I didn’t know anything about the flute. That’s why it sounds like I’m spitting into it. I taught myself the fingerings, which are similar to the saxophone in the lower register, but even nowadays, I’m still working on my playing.”

Throughout the ‘60s, Moody toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s quintet and made a series of records that highlighted his versatility as an improviser on alto, tenor, and soprano saxophone, as well as the flute. Though most notable musicians define their sound with a single instrument, Moody continually sought uncharted sonic terrain with multiple instruments and a willingness to fuse his unique melodic phrasing with brass and string arrangements. During the ‘70s, as a member of the Las Vegas Hilton Orchestra, Moody even played clarinet while accompanying entertainers as diverse as Glen Campbell, Liberace, and Elvis Presley.

In 1997, Moody returned to his birthplace, Savannah, Ga., as an actor in Clint Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” He played the role of Mr. Glover, a dapper man who takes a nonexistent dog on daily strolls through town.

“Did you know I’m partially deaf?” Moody asks me. “And when we’d be ready to shoot, Clint would say ‘Action’ and I’d start walking. But when the scene was over, and he said ‘Cut,’ I wouldn’t hear him. Finally, they had to put someone way out in front of me to motion that the scene was over, otherwise I would’ve kept on walking!”

In 1998, Moody received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award and was honored with a White House reception given by President Clinton. He returned to the White House in 2004 for President Bush’s celebration of Moody’s accomplishments. As an NEA Jazz Master, Moody adheres to an intense schedule of performances, educational initiatives, and speaking engagements to enhance the public’s appreciation for the art form.

Almost an hour has passed and Linda, Moody’s wife, stops by to remind her husband about the evening’s itinerary. Moody has been hustling from one event to another all week, and Linda has been with him every step of the way. “Did you guys talk about the James Moody Scholarship fund?” she asks. Moody smiles broadly. “Why don’t you tell him, honey?” he suggests.

In 2004, the Moodys established the James Moody Scholarship Endowment Fund at SUNY-Purchase to help talented young jazz musicians obtain a college education. The award goes to a gifted college sophomore who demonstrates academic excellence, musical aptitude, and a commitment to community service. That same year, Moody released Homage, which includes work by some of jazz fusion’s most revered artists. Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and others wrote tribute songs for Moody, which he plays on the record—an elegant collection that would appeal to a wide range of listeners, even those who are new to jazz.

“They might insist that there’s no so-called ‘song,’ but there is still something there, because they’re thinking as they play.”

As we’re saying our goodbyes, I have to ask Moody for his perspective on free jazz—the work of musicians who eschew fixed harmonies and melodic structure in favor of unrestrained, free-form improvisation. He gives me a skeptical look.

“First of all, complete freedom can only exist if there’s no gravity,” he says. “And a musician might not want to play chords, but the point is that they’re still playing some type of a melody. And they say that they’re playing free? Bullshit. They might insist that there’s no so-called ‘song,’ but there is still something there, because they’re thinking as they play. What it boils down to is saying something like ‘morning, jump, dog, cat, rat, hat, building, ocean, chair.’ It doesn’t make sense, but we know what those things are.

“It’s not my kind of music,” Moody adds. “But then, look at what people call ‘music.’ And 25,000 people calling an automobile a television doesn’t make it one.”


James Moody will celebrate his 82nd birthday with a performance at B.B. King’s Blues Club and Grill on March 26th. All proceeds from the event will go to the James Moody Scholarship Endowment Fund.