James Moody: In the Mood to Celebrate

Classic Arts Features   James Moody: In the Mood to Celebrate
Bob Golden chats with legendary saxophonist-flutist-bandleader-composer James Moody, who will celebrate his 85th birthday with a Carnegie Hall performance. Originally scheduled for April, the event will now be held June 23.


Since the dawn of the modern jazz era, Moody continues to be among the most influential and honored musicians of the genre. An unceasingly active octogenarian and an in-demand headliner at major nightclubs, concert venues, and music festivals the world-over, Moody celebrates his 85th birthday with an all-star lineup at Zankel Hall.

Recently, Moody shared his thoughts with music industry veteran Bob Golden, reminiscing about his past, his passions, and his ongoing career.

Bob Golden: The jazz world first took notice when you were barely out of your teens: when you were also the tenor saxophone soloist with the trail-blazing 1946 Dizzy Gillespie big band. What was that like?

James Moody: Playing with Dizzy was many things. It was exciting, fun, and a lot like being in school. Looking back at it, the whole experience was a pretty amazing time.

BG: Who else was in that incredible band?

JM: Kenny Clarke at the drums, Ray Brown on bass, Milt Jackson at the vibes, Cecil Payne on baritone, Dave Burns on trumpet, and many others came and went. Even Miles [Davis] was in that band for a hot minute. The first night I got to the club, Thelonious Monk was the piano player. Then a few nights later, he was gone and John Lewis was in his place. But you have to remember that we were all very young and they were not who they were to become ... yet.

BG: Your personal and musical relationship with Dizzy Gillespie grew from that time ...

JM: Dizzy once said that, "Playing with James Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself." I felt the same way about him. He was my mentor, teacher, my best friend, and my brother. Jimmy Heath wrote a composition for Dizzy called, "Without You, No Me." That can certainly apply to me, too. We played together off and on for 47 years until he was too sick to perform any more. He gave me my first job at the age of 21, he was best man in my wedding, and I was with him when he died.

BG: What made Dizzy so inspirational?

JM: His musical awareness was so beyond that of everyone else. Dizzy was everyone's musical father. To this day, sometimes I pause and remember something Dizzy told me 40 years ago and it will be like another lightbulb turning on.

BG: On a 1949 tour in Sweden and with a borrowed alto saxophone, you recorded an improvisation on the harmonies of the standard "I'm in the Mood for Love." Retitled "Moody's Mood for Love," it became a hit single in the US, your signature and most famous composition. Two years later, singer Eddie Jefferson added words to the notes of your improvised solo and created the celebrated jazz genre of vocalese. How did you and Eddie first meet?

JM: I hired him in Cleveland to sing with my septet, not knowing that he wrote the lyrics to "Moody's Moody for Love." Eddie was a creative genius. He would get in bed wearing his bathrobe and eat a quart of ice cream, turn on his Victrola, and write lyrics.

BG: How did it come about that "Moody's Mood for Love" was included in the Jersey Boys musical score?

JM: Frankie Valli grew up in the same neighborhood as I did in Newark, New Jersey. He told me that he used to sit in my mother's kitchen and talk to her for hours. He used to sing "Moody's Moody for Love" around Newark in small clubs when he was starting out in his career.

BG: Among some rather interesting collaborations for a jazz musician, you acted in a Clint Eastwood movie.

JM: When I was asked to audition for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I was thrilled beyond words. The story takes place in Savannah, Georgia, where I was born. I played Mr. Glover, a man who walked an invisible dog named Patrick twice a day.

BG: What was it like working with Eastwood?

JM: Because I was born partially deaf and Clint is a very low key guy, when he said "cut," I couldn't hear him. So I kept on walking and Clint had to station someone at the other end of the park to give me the signal to stop. Each day when I came on the set, Clint would start singing "There I go, there I go, there I go": the beginning of "Moody's Mood for Love."

BG: Which of your numerous collaborations is most important to you?

JM: Personally, the most important collaboration of my life was marrying my wife, Linda. There is nothing more important than my family. The music comes second to all of that.

BG: In a still-continuing and achievement-laden career, which accomplishments are you proudest of?

JM: The ones I haven't accomplished yet. I never look back. I never take anything for granted and I am grateful for my wonderful life, my family and special friends, and my music.

BG: And after all these years, how do you keep music fresh for yourself?

JM: By practicing. And practicing what I don't know. It doesn't matter what you know, you can still improve upon it a billion times. Haven't you heard that old saying? "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" By practicing!


James Moody's 85th Birthday Party is June 23 at 8:30 PM in Zankel Hall. Joining in the celebration is Renee Rosnes, piano; Todd Coolman, bass; Adam Nussbaum, drums; and special guests Randy Brecker, Paquito D'Rivera, and Roberta Gambarini.

Visit Carnegie Hall for tickets.

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