James Moody: "One of the last great living figures from the bebop era"

by Tom Lee

Journalist, critic, scholar, producer and champion of jazz, Fernando González is currently collaborating with legendary saxophonist and bandleader James Moody on Moody’s autobiography. Moody has been named Harvard's 2010 Jazz Master, and although his health prevents him from attending the Harvard Jazz Bands concert in his honor on April 10, his extraordinary musicianship will be celebrated by guest artist Bill Pierce, saxophone, with a special appearance by Moody's contemporary, saxophonist-composer Jimmy Heath.

We asked the Miami-based González about the maestro’s enduring impact and what our students and audience members can look forward to when his music is performed at the concert.

What are James Moody's most significant contributions to jazz literature and performance?

The most obvious one is his classic solo on his 1949 version of "I’m In the Mood for Love." It’s one of the great solos in the history of jazz—right alongside Coleman Hawkins’ immortal take on "Body and Soul"—and one of the finest examples of improvisation-as-instant-composition. In fact, the solo, with lyrics by Eddie Jefferson, became a hit song. It has been interpreted by a long list of performers, from King Pleasure and Van Morrison to Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse. But what sometimes gets lost in discussions about Moody, perhaps because of his close association with Dizzy Gillespie and his showmanship on stage, is that he is truly a master saxophonist and an exceptional jazz flutist. Also early on, Moody was one of the first players to translate bebop to the tenor sax (until then because of the influence of Charlie Parker and Gillespie, a province of the alto and the trumpet). Later on, as he developed his own career, in his music and with his own groups Moody became a nexus between bebop and R&B, suggesting a sophisticated form of soul jazz.

How influential was Dizzy Gillespie in terms of shaping Moody's future as a composer and player?

Without a doubt, Dizzy was the most influential figure in Moody’s musical life. They were like brothers, and Dizzy is still today present every day in Moody’s life and work. No exaggeration. Conversely, Dizzy once said, "Playing with Moody is like playing with a continuation of myself."

What is your favorite Moody recording, and why?

"Last Train form Overbrook" (Chess, 1958). It’s the album Moody recorded after spending eight months at Overbrook, a mental institution where he checked himself in to deal with his alcoholism. The power, the clarity, and the sheer determination in Moody’s playing and his music is almost palpable. As producer Dave Usher wrote in the notes: "[‘Last Train from Overbrook’] will always symbolize a ride from despair to personal resurrection."

While working with Moody on the book about his life and work, what is the most surprising thing you've learned about him?

As a plain fact, that he was born deaf in one ear. That he could become such a master musician and develop such a career while saddled with that challenge is mindboggling. In a larger sense, and just talking about professionally, I am struck by his honesty, curiosity and dedication. He is a walking rebuttal to the notion of the jazz genius (think his old peers Parker, Gillespie, et al) as little more than "noble savages," blessed with natural talent. A lot of thinking, studying and practicing went into that genius. Moody still practices every day. Also, Moody is never afraid, or too proud, to go up to a musician and ask questions about a certain scale he heard on a solo or certain way he or she approached a chord sequence. And Moody will even ask some young players who could be his grandsons or granddaughters. "You can learn from everybody," he says. And at 85, he wants to get better. Finally, I had heard only good things about Moody—and you need just to hang out a few minutes with him backstage to see how other jazz musicians, a tough breed to please, react to him. Still, I am taken by his kindness, generosity, and thoughtfulness. He truly is a gentleman.

What might Harvard students expect when they rehearse and play Moody's music?

This will be an extraordinary opportunity for Harvard students. Moody is one of the last great living figures from the bebop era and as such, a walking repository of more than half a century of the history of jazz.

Fernando González is a contributing editor to The International Review of Music, a music blog, and writes for The Miami Herald and Jazz Times magazine. His career as a music journalist and critic includes stints as correspondent for The Washington Post (2000- 2004), and staff music critic for The Miami Herald (1993-99) and The Boston Globe (1988-93). He has also contributed to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and several national publications.

[Caption: James Moody in 2008 PHOTO: Nick Ruechel]

[Caption: Fernando Gonzalez]