One of the champions of Dizzy Gillespie's music, James Moody was an accomplished musician on the tenor and alto saxophones, as well as the flute, despite being born partially deaf. In addition to his instrumental prowess, Moody was an engaging entertainer, captivating audiences with his personal charm and wit.
Although born in Savannah, he was raised in Newark, New Jersey. His interest in jazz was sparked by a trumpet-playing father who gigged in the Tiny Bradshaw band. Moody took up the alto sax, a gift from his uncle, at the age of 16, and received his first musical training in the Air Force. After leaving the service in 1946, he joined the Dizzy Gillespie big band, staying until 1948. Gillespie became his musical mentor. In 1949, Moody moved to Paris for three years, often playing with visiting American musicians, including the Tadd Dameron-Miles Davis band.
In Sweden he recorded his famous improvisation on "I'm in the Mood For Love" in 1949, playing on an alto saxophone instead of his usual tenor. His solo was later set to lyrics by Eddie Jefferson and recorded by King Pleasure. Known as "Moody's Mood for Love," it became a surprise hit in 1952. Throughout the rest of his career, Moody was better known for the vocal version of the song, and obliged requests for the song by singing his famous solo.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, he led his own bands, and worked alongside other saxophonists, notably Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, with whom he co-led a three-tenor sax band. In 1963 he returned to the Dizzy Gillespie small group, where he largely remained until 1971. In 1975, he moved to Las Vegas and worked numerous hotel and casino shows with singers and comics, picking up the clarinet along the way. In 1979, he left Las Vegas and moved back to New York to lead his own quintet.
Then in 1989 he moved to San Diego, working as a consummate soloist and member of all-star touring units. In the 1990s, he teamed up again with his lifelong friend Dizzy Gillespie to tour Europe and the United States as a member of the United Nations Orchestra. He continually experimented with his music, sometimes including synthesizers and strings on his recordings. Demand for his musicianship extended to college and university campuses for master classes, workshops, and lectures, and he received honorary doctoral degrees from the Florida Memorial College and the Berklee College of Music. In 1997, he played an acting role in the Clint Eastwood film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In 2010, he was honored with the Jazz Journalists Award for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz.
James Moody and His Swedish Crowns, Dragon, 1949
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