James Moody, 1925-2010

We knew it was coming. That doesn’t make it easier. James Moody died this afternoon of the pancreatic cancer he had known about for nearly a year but did not make public until Moody at Mic.jpgNovember. He was 85. Moody was in hospice in San Diego, his hometown for many years. His wife Linda was by his side, as she was almost every moment since they met.
Moody became famous for his solo on “I’m In The Mood For Love,” a record he made when he was 24. His friend Eddie Jefferson put a lyric to it and it became “Moody’s Mood For Love.” The lengthy obituary by George Varga in The San Diego Union-Tribune contains a passage about Moody’s reaction to the fuss over the record. It captures the combination of modesty, confidence and kindness that endeared him to everyone with whom he came in contact.

“I don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” he said. “When I made that record, I was a tenor saxophonist playing alto for the first time on record and I was trying to find the right notes, to be truthful. People later said to me: ‘You must have been very inspired when you recorded that.’ And I said: ‘Yeah I was inspired to find the right notes!’ ”
He recorded “Moody’s Mood for Love” in Sweden in 1949, during a European visit that started as a three-week vacation and lasted several years. Being abroad was an eye-opening experience for Mr. Moody, who never forgot the racism he encountered here in his native country, both before and after his European sojourn.
“In America, I thought there was something wrong with me,” said Mr. Moody, who recalled how, as an Air Force private in North Carolina, he was not allowed to eat in the same restaurants where German prisoners of war dined.
“In Paris, they treated me like they treated each other, which was altogether different from how they treated me here. When I was in France, I said: `Ah, it isn’t me (that’s the problem in America), it’s them.’ I felt good, and now I know there’s no one in this world who’s better than me. By the same token, I’m not better than anyone else.”

Moody’s funeral will be in San Diego on December 18. Details are in the Union-Tribune obituary. Peter Keepnews’s obituary in The New York Times has an extensive review of Moody’s career from his earliest days with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the early 1940s. For previous Rifftides pieces about Moody, go here and here.
The last time we were together, we were in a roomful of friends enjoying dinner and one another’s company. During a round of toasts I caught Moody raising his glass of water with lemon just after he said, “To us. To life.”

Moody 2007.jpg
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  1. Jon Foley says

    I was lucky enough to hear Moody with Dizzy’s group for several nights of a weeklong engagement in about 1964, and to meet and spend a little time with him. A great musician and a very nice guy.
    I especially like the last paragraph of your tribute, and the picture. That’s the way I want to remember him.

  2. Greg Camphire says

    great photo of mr. moody.
    i’m especially inspired by his playing on dizzy gillespie’s 1964 film soundtrack, “the cool world.” pure soul, you can hear it in every note. RIP.

  3. Rich Juliano says

    Moody was magnetic. 25 years ago I heard him up close for the first time, with a local rhythm section at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Sitting just a few feet away, I was transfixed by his unparalleled level of musicianship, use of unlikely material, multi-instrumental prowess, self-deprecating personality and – yes – inimitable singing (“Moody’s Mood,” of course, and “Benny’s from Heaven,” another favorite). The best commentary is that I brought along a college friend that night who knew little of jazz, and Moody singlehandedly and permanently turned him on to the whole genre thereafter. On subsequent occasions some of my tenor-playing friends would engage him at the end of a set and Moody would put on a virtual master class. My favorite of his many words of wisdom: “If you’re supposed to be practicing, and you sound good, then you’re not really practicing.” He cannot be replaced, and we were given a gift to have had him among us for so long.

  4. Jim Brown says

    I was one of many who were lucky enough to experience Moody fairly often, thanks to Joe Segal’s good taste. And yes, he converted at least one of my friends into a lover of jazz. He was, in every way, a strong personality in the most positive sense — an immediately identifiable musical voice, and an outgoing, loving, and outspoken human being who never stopped growing. With only a few notes, especially on tenor, you knew it was him.
    About two years ago, pianist John Campbell, a wonderful player whose work I’ve always loved, called to tell me he had a gig with Moody at Yoshi’s in Oakland. My wife and I drove up and stayed for both sets, and at intermission, Moody gave me a copy of a favorite book about the silliness of racism. Clearly, it still bothered him.
    Musically, Moody was still challenging himself, staying fresh, respecting his audience. During the last set of the evening, he played one of Trane’s more challenging tunes, with the music in front of him. Needless to say, he played the hell out of it.
    Much love to you, James.

  5. Doug Zielke says

    “We knew it was coming. That doesn’t make it easier.”
    Indeed. I only met Mr. Moody once when he played in Seattle at Jazz Alley. He graciously autographed an album I’d brought along. A very kind gentleman. He sure could swing.