When James Moody blows his horn, it’s obvious that he is a happy man. Though he is plenty serious about his music, he is one jazzman who thinks it should be fun, who wants the audience to have as good a time as he is.
Moody himself attributes much of his upbeat spirit to his wife Linda and his Baha’i faith. But it’s just possible that he picked up some of his fun-loving stage presence from his former employer and longtime friend, Dizzy Gillespie.
"I was stationed in Greensboro, North Carolina," he told me recently when I asked how he and Dizzy first met. "I was in the Air Force. They had a place there called the Big Top. Dizzy came down to play on the base, and that’s how I met him.
"We were talking to him, and he said he was going to disband the band when he got back to New York. We told him we were going to be discharged in a few months, and he said ‘come apply for the band.’ That’s how I met him and how I got in the band. I think I was about 19 years old."
Moody, who comes to the Ferguson Center for the Arts Thursday night for the final concert in the Port Folio Weekly Music Series of the Virginia Arts Festival, joined Gillespie’s band in 1946 after his military hitch was over. The two played together off and on and remained close friends until the trumpet legend’s death in 1993. Diz was Moody’s best man when he married Linda in 1989.
"I was with Dizzy when he passed," he added. "I saw him take his last breath."
But it wasn’t his work with Gillespie that imprinted James Moody’s name most indelibly in the jazz history books. It was the distinctive spin he put on a recording of "I’m in the Mood for Love" that would be forever immortalized as "Moody’s Mood for Love" when singer Eddie Jefferson wrote a new set of lyrics to the melody of Moody’s sax solo.
"I did that in Stockholm in 1949," he said. "I was living in Paris at the time, and a gentleman came to the club named Andrew Berman, a Swedish gentleman. He was a drummer but he also worked for the Metronome Record Company. We were at the Club St. Germain on the Left Bank in Paris, jamming. He heard me and said, ‘Would you like to make some sides, twelve sides?’ I said, ‘Yeh!’
"So they sent me a ticket and I went to Sweden and made eleven sides, and for the last one they said, ‘What would you like to do?’ And I said, ‘How about ‘I’m in the Mood for Love?’ The guy sketched it out real quick and we did it in one take. But the thing was, I was playing tenor on everything else but there was this beat-up silver alto there that belonged to Lars Gullin, the baritone player. (In those days you would play somebody else’s horn; you don’t do it now.) So I borrowed the horn and played it, and that was it.
"Eddie Jefferson heard it, he liked it, and he put lyrics to it. I didn’t know him at all. As a matter of fact, when I hired Eddie Jefferson as a singer, I had no idea he was the one that wrote it!"
It was a little remembered singer named King Pleasure who first recorded the vocal version with Jefferson’s lyrics in 1952. After that recording hit the charts, Moody returned to the States and hired Jefferson for his own band. Their work together led to the impression by many music listeners that Jefferson and Moody actually had the hit recording of the song. It’s one of those songs everybody recognizes from its opening line—"There I go, there I go, there I go" — even if they don’t know it by name, a song that’s had a lengthy half-life.
"Did you hear the kid on American Idol?" Moody asked me with characteristic enthusiasm. "He was eliminated a couple of nights ago, and he sang it again…and he’s gonna record it. Did you know Van Morrison did it? Van Morrison did it, Aretha Franklin did it, Quincy Jones did it twice, Smokey Robinson just did it, Queen Latifah did it, and George Benson!"
Moody sings it himself these days. Besides being a top flight saxophonist and flutist, he’s become something of a unique vocal stylist over the last twenty years:
"Babs Gonzales was singing with the group, Eddie Jefferson was singing with the group; as time went by I just said, ‘Well, hell, I’ll do it myself!’"
His recent albums have included superb instrumental performances and occasional vocals. He even rapped on his last album, Homage, and on his excellent 1997 outing, Moody Plays Mancini, he turned in a touchingly breathy vocal on "Moon River" and a memorable goodtime run through "(I Love You and) Don’t You Forget It" complete with scat accents in addition to a satisfying sax solo. I wondered if we’d get to hear that at the Ferguson.
"You know what?" he replied. "I haven’t done that since! ‘Moody’s Mood for Love’ I’ll do, ‘Pennies from Heaven,’ but I don’t do ‘(I Love You and) Don’t You Forget It.’"
At 81 years old, James Moody is in as much demand as he’s ever been. When we talked, he was in Bern, Switzerland, for a weeklong engagement fronting an all-star assemblage of longtime buddies at the Internationales Jazzfestival Bern.
His trip to Newport News is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters on Tour program. NEA Jazz Masters are chosen from nominations submitted by the public, with a panel of experts recommending recipients who "have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of jazz." He joined this select group in 1998 when he was picked along with Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. Last year, the Jazz Masters program was expanded with the addition of the "on Tour" component, and the Virginia Arts Festival got quite a plum, being chosen as the only presenter for the state.
Moody’s local stopover features a top-notch rhythm section — pianist Rene Rosnes, bassman Rufus Reid and drummer Adam Nussbaum. The evening promises to be a highlight of this year’s jazz calendar. And anything could happen.
"Who knows!?!" he laughed when I asked what we could expect. "I listen to everything. My goal in life is to play better tomorrow than I did today."
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.