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James Moody

by Bob Bernotas

James Moody (just Moody to his friends) is one of the great treasures of American Culture. He is still an extremely active player who is always stretching the envelope. He is one of the most unsung influences on all of the jazz saxophone world. His music has permeated the universe. He was a close associateof Dizzy Gillespie and was known as Diz' alter ego. They were musical and spiritual brothers. Thanks to Bob Bernotas, we have Moody's fine interview from the Saxophone Journal where he speaks not only of his personal history but his views on the current music scene, life and spirituality. The last time I caught him was at Yoshi's with Kenny Burrell. My wife Catey and I went there on my birthday (39th of course :) and I happened to mention this to Moody. Lo and behold he came out on the next set and sang Happy Birthday to me accapella. Needless to say, I was floored. What a birthday present! I'm proud to say here is another good friend of mine, that great humanitarian, saxophonist and flautist (actually flute holder) the truly great James Moody.


There aren't many of them left, the original bebop masters, those bold souls who followed Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and worked with them to create a fresh, modern musical dialect within the jazz language. You could count them on the fingers of one hand: drummer Max Roach, trombonist J.J. Johnson, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Ray Brown, and saxophonist James Moody.

Born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia ("only because my mother- she was living in Reading, Pennsylvania-went down to Savannah visiting"), and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Moody first made his mark in jazz when, after his discharge from the service in 1946, he joined Dizzy Gillespie's fabled bebop big band. It was the start of a close professional and personal association that would endure until Diz's death in 1993.

Moody spent the late 1940s and early 1950s living and performing in Europe. During that time he produced a genuine jazz classic, his unforgettable version of "I'm in the Mood for Love." It was the first of many such soulful, blues-inflected performances by an artist who, among his many gifts, deserves to be numbered among the premier ballad interpreters in all of jazz. When Eddie Jefferson fit a hip, stream-of-consciousness lyric to Moody's solo, and King Pleasure recorded it in 1952, "Moody's Mood," as it is known, became a surprise hit. Moody still gets requests for it and he always obliges, singing his famous solo in a charming, slightly off-center manner.

In 1997 Moody was selected for a much-deserved National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award. The honor was presented to him in January 1998 at the International Association of Jazz Educators convention, held in New York.

He also landed his first-ever acting role, appearing in Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of the long-time best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. "I played the part of `Mr. Glover,'" Moody explains, "a gentleman who walks an imaginary dog for 20 years in Savannah." Could this be the start of a whole new career for the youthful, over-70 saxophonist? "I never thought about it," he admits, "but then afterwards I said to myself, `I'd like to have a part in something.' You know, I can't be the romantic lead, but," he adds with a wink, "at home I am!"

When did you become interested in music?

As long as I could remember. My mother told me when I was a kid she had a washing machine outside of the house that would go "arookata-arookata." She said that I used to stand by and dance to the washing machine.

Then we moved to Newark, New Jersey. There was a music store around the corner called Dorn and Kirchner and in the window there was this saxophone and, boy, I used to go and press my nose up against that window and just look at those horns. I loved the way they looked. I had to play one.

And then finally I went to the theater one time. I went to see Lester Young with Count Basie, but he wasn't there, so it was Don Byas and Buddy Tate. I said, "That's what I want to do." So that's how I got started.

But even before that I always wanted to play a saxophone. My mother's uncle had a trumpet but it was in the closet. He said, "Here, play this." I didn't want to play that. I wanted a saxophone. Then my Uncle Louis bought me one. He and another one of my uncles contributed together and bought an old, beat-up silver alto.

Who were the saxophonists that you were listening to at that time?

The saxophone player I liked first was Jimmy Dorsey. It's funny how your ear progresses from the standpoint of listening to things. Jimmy Dorsey was my favorite and then I heard Charlie Barnet and he was playing "Cherokee," and I liked him better.

And then I went to the theater and I heard Artie Shaw and Georgie Auld was playing tenor with him and they had a string section, and boy, that knocked me out! Oh, man, I dug it! Georgie Auld played "Body and Soul." But when I heard Pres, I mean, that just took all that out. I said, "No, this is the way I want to play." Lester Young. That did it.

Then I heard Coleman Hawkins and I heard Ben Webster and I heard Chu Berry. But the funniest thing about it is that they didn't grab me like Pres did. Although if I had known something about music then, Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry, they would have grabbed me more.

What was it about Pres that attracted you?

His sound. Oh man, that gives you goosebumps. At least it did for me. And that was it. Then I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy. When I heard them I said, "Uh, uh. No. This is it. This is what I want to do."

But then as I grew older, I stared saying, "Well, wait a minute, now. Coleman Hawkins, man." He was playing the hell out of the changes. So was Chu Berry. But I didn't find that out until later. Well, then naturally the thing to do would be to combine Pres and Hawk together. I mean, really get into them. Anyway, that's what I'm still trying to do.

You grew up with a hearing loss, didn't you?

I was born partially deaf.

How were you able to become a musician?

Well, I hear what I hear. I can hear low pitches but I can't hear high pitches. That's why I don't play high on the flute and I don't play piccolo. I can't hear them. I have to really listen for the high notes.

And that's why I sound like I have a lisp. But I don't have a lisp, I mean a speech impediment. It's 'cause I don't hear S's. I can't hear them.

How about playing in a band? Is it easy for you to hear the other musicians?

You know what? I can stand here and the band can play and I can hear every instrument. I can hear every part.

Did you get to play any music while you were in the Air Force?

You see, people have a misconception about where I was in the Air Force. For me, I was in a segregated service, it was all separate. Like, the only thing we had was Caucasian officers. You know, the German prisoners used to do KP for everyone except us.

And there was a "Negro" band. Don't forget, it wasn't an authorized band because there were no authorized Negro Air Force bands. I mean they had the Air Force band. But a quarter of the base was black and they wanted to form a band. So anyway, it was an unauthorized band, but I learned there. I mean, I learned a lot.

You met Dizzy Gillespie while you were still in the Air Force.

I met Dizzy in Greensboro, North Carolina, when he played at a place called the Big Top, on the base. That's where we used to have our entertainment, at the Big Top. So Diz came down with his band. And [trumpeter] Dave Burns and I were talking to him and we told him we were going to be discharged quite soon and he said, "Well, when you do come try out for the band in New York."

Did you sit in with him at that time?

No, no. We were just there to hear him and we were talking and somehow or other it came up that we were going to be discharged, Dave Burns and myself, and he said, "I'm gonna disband." You know, "I'm gonna disband dis band, and you can come try out." So that's what we did, here in New York.

That was some incredible band Dizzy had.

Wasn't it?

When you look at it now, it's really an all-star band. But of course at the time it was just a bunch of new guys who were coming on the scene.

Yeah. Right. And people always say, "How did you feel then, knowing that you were in such good company?" Hey, when you're doing something, you don't know. I've told a lot of people-my wife has heard me say this over and over-"If I'd have known what it was, I probably would have fainted with all that stuff." 'Cause when I joined the band, [Thelonious] Monk was the piano player and Klook was the drummer, Kenny Clarke, and Bags [Milt Jackson] was there, too.

There's a photo of that band. If you look at the trumpet section, there was a guy, "Spider," then Miles Davis, then Dave Burns, then Elmon Wright. Then [in the saxophone section] you see Cecil Payne, me, Cap [Howard Johnson], John Brown, and [bassist] Ray Brown and [drummer] Joe Harris. And John Lewis was on piano then.

I joined the band at the Spotlite on 52nd Street. That was really something, to be sitting there and look up and see Coleman Hawkins at the bar and Don Byas, Ben Webster, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman.

You spent a few years in Europe during the late '40s and early '50s. Why did you go there?

Well, I had a bout with alcohol and I had a bout with benzedrine. My uncle was living in Paris. He was working for the government. He had a position where he found housing for the military. And so, my mother wrote to him and said she was concerned about me. And my uncle said, "Well, Sis, send him over here for a couple of weeks," just for a vacation or something. So I went over there for a couple of weeks and stayed three years.

And that's where you recorded your famous version of "I'm in the Mood for Love."

Right. In Sweden.

I was going to ask if you get tired of talking about it. You're probably even tired of being asked if you're tired.

No, not at all, because it meant so much to me. It's done a lot for me. And not only then. It's really a compliment to me when people ask about that, to do it.

There's a story behind it, isn't there?

Yes. First of all, I was living in Paris and [drummer] Anders Burman, he happened to come down to the Club St. Germain. I was down there and I was jamming that night. He sat in and played with us and he sounded good, man. So he said, "Would you like to come to Sweden and make some records with us?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Well, I'll send you a plane ticket." I said, "No, I don't want to fly." So they sent me a train ticket.

So I went and when I got there we made the records. We had the arrangements done by [pianist] Gosta Theselius. Then they wanted one more tune. So I said, "How about `I'm in the Mood for Love?'" And he says, "OK."

And [baritone saxophonist] Lars Gullen had this beat-up alto sitting by him. I said, "You mind if I look at that?" He said, "No. Go ahead." So I picked up the alto and Gosta Theselius said, "Well, let me go in the restroom." So he goes to the toilet and he jots down the harmonies to "I'm in the Mood for Love" while he's there. And he comes out and we do it in one take.

And the reason why it starts that way [he sings the "There I go, there I go" beginning of the solo], I'm hesitating because I didn't play alto then, I played tenor. So when it started, I'm just trying to find the notes. And people said, "You must have been inspired." My inspiration was coming from trying to find the right notes! That's what it was. That was in 1949.

So after that you started playing more alto.

After that, when I came back to the United States, I had to play alto. It was a hit and people wanted to hear it exactly like it was played on the record. So I played that over and over again.

Let's talk some more about Diz. There's this image that so many musicians talk about-Diz sitting at a piano somewhere working out harmonies, figuring out chord changes, showing other musicians what is possible. It seems like he was always thinking about music.

Oh listen, if we'd walk into a place and there was a piano anywhere, Dizzy would walk in and usually that was the first place he'd go. And he'd sit down and he'd start playing one of his things. I heard a lot of his compositions like that before they were made. "Brother K." and "Tin Tin Deo," I heard those songs before they were put on records because I heard them when he started. And he used to look at me and point to the keyboard and say, "Moody, this is where everything is-right there."

And Diz told me that he and Monk spoke a lot about the minor seven-flat five. He said Monk was the one who showed him that. So if he saw a Cm7b5, he would think of an Ebm6, rather than a Cm7b5. He said, "That way I can deal with chord better." And then when I started looking at it I said, "Oh, that's right." Listen to "Woody 'n You." All those are minor seven-flat fives. [He sings the intervals in the chord changes]. See?

That's another thing. The kids nowadays, especially going to school, they come up, they learn the changes. When I was coming up, man, I didn't learn changes until late. So I still haven't reached my peak yet, really, playing because I'm still learning how to connect changes.

So what I want to do now is get back with the changes because a lot of times people just play off the melody. But then in order to get into the meatier stuff, you've got to be able to play those changes. Yeah.

After you played with Dizzy's quintet in the 1960s you moved to Vegas and worked there for a number of years. Why?

The reason I went to Las Vegas was because I was married and I had a daughter and I wanted to grow up with my kid. I was married before and I didn't grow up with the kids. So I said, "I'm going to really be a father." I did much better with this one because at least I stayed until my daughter was 12 years old.

And that's why I worked Vegas, because I could stay in one spot. You know, when you're doing one-nighters, you're leaving, coming back. This way I could play and come back home.

What was the gig like? I know it wasn't jazz.

No. I started at the Flamingo and my first show was Sandler and Young and Leslie Uggams. And then we did Tony Bennett. And then they brought me over to the Hilton and over there I did Liberace, Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, the Osmonds, Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, Milton Berle, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Ike and Tina Turner, Connie Stevens, Jack Carter, Paul Anka.

Was it frustrating for you, not playing jazz?

Well, my mother always told me to take something and turn it into an asset. You know, learn something from it if you've got to do it. So I said, "Well, I'll play this music and it'll help me play the horn better and I'll be able to learn to read and all that." And I was trying to learn the clarinet, 'cause you've got to play clarinet, too, there. You've got to double. So that's what I did. Inside I really wanted to play jazz, but you can't do both things. So what I did was I tried to turn it into an asset. And you know what? All that helped me now.

Were there other jazz musician working in Vegas at that time?

[Trumpeter] Red Rodney was there and [trombonist] Carl Fontana was there, yeah. We were in the same band at one time. And [trombonist] Tommy Turk was there, too.

So how did you get back into the jazz scene?

Well, what happened was, when I got a divorce I drove back to Newark and stayed at my mother's house until I got an apartment in Newark. And [pianist] Mike Longo got me some gigs. There was this woman who was booking, so she booked me with the Mike Longo trio and that's how I got back on the scene.

Are you encouraged by the current music scene?

Well, there are many, many wonderful jazz players, so jazz is in good hands as far as the players are concerned. But there is a saying, and it's old hat: "Blessed are those that run around in circles, for they shall be called Big Wheels." They should be presenting jazz so that people would be able to listen to it and know this is good music and it will make you grow, but they don't do that. They're not interested in the music. They're interested in money.

And it's a fool that does that because with something that's profound, as profound as jazz is, if it were played so people can really hear it and know what it's all about, the company would grow immensely. In more ways than one.

Look, you've got all these people on the stage last night. I'm talking about the American Music Awards. What music? I mean, there was no music at all. And when it comes to rap, to me "rap" is "to talk," OK? And to me, rhythm isn't music. Music is harmony, melody, and rhythm combined, together. So what they do is, they make money off this and they think it's something new, called rap.

But you see, the devil has the world in his hands right now and the only way people are going to survive is to go spiritually, with God. My wife, Linda, and I, we're Baha'is and Baha'is believe that there's one country and mankind is one. That's what we believe. All this other stuff about different races and your kind and my kind, that's bullshit.

And the reason I'm saying that is because there's no other way to describe that. You can take all the best words you can say with the most profound, eloquent speakers, but there's no way to say what I said except saying it's a bunch of shit. That's what it is.

And jazz is gold, platinum, diamond. Jazz is wonderful. You go to a jazz concert, do you see anybody want to kill someone or shoot someone or start a riot? That's because, first of all, music is supposed to express beauty. But the music that they play now, you feel like you want to kill somebody when you hear it.

And you have all these people in the high positions, and the low ones, too, that could really elevate everyone if they put something on that was decent. And when I say decent, I mean some decent music. And that's what jazz is. But the majority of the people, what they listen to today is a bunch of shit, and I'd like for you to put it exactly like that because there's no other way for me to say it. It doesn't sound like "doo doo," it sounds like shit.

People think that they're hip and wise and aware and they know what's happening, and they don't know from a hill of beans. You know why? When a magician is doing his tricks he lets you see one hand. That hand is moving and it takes your eye off, while the other hand does whatever it does.

Well, in music what is it that makes people think that the louder something is, the better it is? What is it that makes people think that smoke going all over the stage and chicks shaking their butts or guys with their pants pulled up to their crotches makes the music better?

And why is it that when someone plays a note and holds it for nine hours-one note-people think it's great? And why is it when drummers are banging on a drum set, people are going wild for that stuff, waving their hands up in the air like, "Oh, boy, this is it"? That's a bunch of crap. None of that is any good. Buddy Rich was right when he said, "All that music, rock and roll and that stuff, is played by morons for imbeciles."

Every jazz musician that we know, man, spends just as much time studying, or even more, than a doctor or a lawyer. I mean, he's practicing. And then some guy comes along, "Like, I think I'll buy a guitar and I'll be a star next month." And that's what it is. Turn the electricity up loud and bang, there it is.

What do you practice? What kinds of things are you working on?

Things I don't know. And what is it I don't know? There's many things. I don't know scales, I don't know chords. Yeah, I know C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, or B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B. I know to play them from every degree of the scale. But you could look to eternity, man, and you'll never find everything that there is to play on those things.

But whatever the bridge is at hand that I have, I try to cross that and do what I have to do for that and then go back to the regular things, because I've had a saxophone for over 50 years and still can't play it. You know what I'm saying? I mean, as long as you have the instrument you try to play it. Some days I wake up and I say, "Hello," and the saxophone says, "I don't know you." And what you have to do is you have to persevere. And a lot of times you say, "Oh, man, I'm playing and nothing's happening," and then a month later you say, "Wait a minute, I couldn't play that before!" So it's a challenge constantly.

Do you like your own playing? Do you like your own recordings?

No, not particularly. No. If I do something I say, "Oh, that was nice, but I wish I could do better. Much, much better."

Do you work on sound as well?

Oh yeah, yeah. I work on everything. I work on sound, execution, technique, endurance, 'cause all that goes with playing music.

What do you recommend for sound?

Long tones. And you know what else? Like right now I'm looking at "26-2" [by John Coltrane]. So I would advise a musician if you're playing something like that, play it legato. Because there you're holding the notes and you're going over the different keys and you're getting flexibility and you're getting endurance and you're getting your strength in your lip.

When you're playing that thing legato and slow, not only does it give you the execution-because in order to execute fast you've got to play slow-and endurance, but it's good for ear training. You see? And I would advise anyone that plays anything to be able to sing whatever it is you play.

And anything I play, I also play backwards. No matter what it is I play, I play it backwards. It does something for your ear.

How did you start playing the flute?

Yusef Lateef said to me one time, "Moody, why don't you play flute?" I picked up his flute and I really didn't enjoy it. I didn't dig it. Then somehow or other a couple of years later I acquired a flute in Chicago. I wasn't particular about the instrument and it wasn't that good a flute. I would go to the hotel room and fool around with it, just for the heck of it. I did that for about a month and then I made a record on it.

Flute 'n the Blues.
Right. That's it. I really never studied the flute, although I had help from many beautiful people. Anybody that played flute, I'd ask them to help me-Hubert Laws, Joe Farrell, Herbie Mann, Brother Yusef. And I still don't have the sound like flute players have, but the more I play, my sound becomes a little bigger and better.

So I just got a flute and started "spittin'" into it not knowing what I was doing. The fingerings, some of them, seemed similar to saxophone, and I just blew like that and that's how I started. But I think whenever you start a new instrument, you should immediately get a competent teacher. Get a teacher and learn.

So you don't consider yourself a serious flute player?

No, no. Hell no. I don't consider myself a flute player. Man, I'm a flute holder. I am a saxophone player who also plays the flute. I play flute, but I don't play flute, I'll put it that way. That's the way I feel about it.

Do you have any advice for saxophonists who want to double on flute?

Play as many different scales as you can and play them as best as you can. Play them over and over, because repetition is the thing that really gives you familiarity with an instrument.

When I say scales, I'm not just saying "C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C." Play them forward, backward, from each degree of the scale going up, each degree coming back. Whatever note you might start the scale on, go through that scale and connect it with another scale. And I mean minor scales, modes, the pentatonic, the minor seventh-flat five-every scale that you can think of-and then synthetic scales that you make up yourself. Practice them!

The flute embouchure is different from the saxophone, but that's not a problem. The first thing I tell anybody is if you're going to play something, go ahead and do it. Get a teacher and do it. But don't start by thinking about the problems, because if you think there's a problem, there'll be problems.

It's the same thing with the smaller size of the flute. If you want to play an instrument and you pick it up and the keys are where they are, learn how to play it that way. You've got to get the feel of a new instrument. But you can't start by saying, "The keys are so close together," or, "The embouchure isn't the same." Repetition brings familiarity.

And as far as intonation in concerned, I think it's what you hear. If you do have a problem with intonation, it's because you don't listen to other people. You're supposed to listen to who you're playing with.

You occasionally use synthesizer on your recordings.

Yeah. Crazy about synthesizer. As a matter of fact, Marc Copeland used to play synthesizer with me. He made some records on it with me, and they were good ones, too. Then it pissed me off because the producer was telling me that people don't like synthesizers. I said, "People don't, huh?"

Well, it's like anything, if it's used well, people like it.

Can I tell you something? How do you know when it's used well? Do they think that I would have someone play a synthesizer with me who wouldn't use it well? See what I mean? And he used it well. You know what? They still didn't like it. And you know why? They wanted me sound like I sounded 50 years ago. "Yeah, we want something straight ahead." Just because you're a certain age, they want you to be like that.

Like a lot of times, I play and they put me with a lot of old people. Just because I'm old doesn't it mean I think that way. I want to grow, too. When you stop growing, you're finished. But you know, and it's all those people, people that don't know, that are always telling me this. Like producers.

Is there anything that you haven't done in your 50 plus years in music that you would like to do?

Yeah. Play really, really good. I'm serious. I want to really play really, really good. And I would like to be able to have a group that I could work with all the time, just over and over. Because a lot of times, you work this club, that club, then you go do some gigs with different people, you pick up a group here, there, there, and it's not the same. You can't grow. I mean, you grow, but it's not the same.

When it's this guy and that guy, you don't know what it's going to sound like. And a lot of times you go somewhere and work, and they'll put you with people who they think will work together. That doesn't go. You know, playing music is like a marriage. Can't nobody pick a wife for you or a husband for you. You've got to do it yourself. You know what you like, man.

Any final thoughts?

Jazz is a spiritual music, and anything that's spiritual can't go along with what the devil does, OK? And for me, that hard metal rock and that stuff, that's the devil's music. And Baha'i believes that when you play music, you're praying.

There's so many good musicians out there. Every musician I hear can play, and play well, too. And I just hope that all musicians that are playing now will let God take over and be more spiritual rather than going along with the things that drive you towards the devil. Because the world is really screwed up everywhere.

And most of all, learn to love yourself. Then when you love you and you tell me you love me, I'll believe you. If you hate you and then you tell me you love me, you're lying.

I wish everybody well. And most of all, study, practice. Just because you learned something and think you know it, I mean, you don't really know it. I don't care what you play as well as you play it, it could be played a thousand times better. So strive for that.

© Bob Bernotas, 1998; revised 1999. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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