Jazz saxophonist-flautist James Moody, one of the last surviving greats of the bebop and post-bop era, died Dec. 9 in San Diego. He was 85, and had pancreatic cancer.
Born in Savannah, Ga., and raised in Newark, N.J., Moody took up the alto saxophone at 16, later switching to tenor. Owing to a hearing problem that cut off his high end, his playing favored a low register.
Originally inspired by such swing-era sax men as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, he moved into the bop camp during the ’40s, when he was a key member of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.
Hobbled by drug and alcohol problems, Moody moved to Paris to live with an uncle in 1948. He played and recorded in Europe until 1952. At a 1949 session in Sweden, he recorded his most famous track: “Moody’s Mood For Love,” a rococo showpiece built on the chords of the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields song “I’m in the Mood For Love.”
The recording, and Moody, became more widely known in 1952, when singer King Pleasure (Clarence Beeks) cut a vocalese version that set lyrics by singer Eddie Jefferson to the saxophonist’s improvisation. Critic Will Friedwald recently called the Pleasure version “one of the most enduring of all pop records.”
On his return to the U.S., Moody capitalized on the success of “Mood” with a run of funky, R&B-influenced albums for Prestige and Chess’ Argo and Cadet imprints.
In the late ’50s, he took up the flute after he bought an instrument off a man on the street for $30. He would demean his abilities and describe himself as a “flute holder” rather than a “flute player,” but he developed a distinctive voice on the axe.
After his recurring alcoholism culminated in a stint in a psychiatric facility (commemorated in his composition “Last Train From Overbrook”), Moody joined Gillespie’s small group for a long run as the trumpeter’s instrumental and comedic foil. He spent much of the ’70s playing in Las Vegas hotel pit bands.
He subsequently recorded prolifically as a leader, cutting two well-received albums for Warner Bros. in the ’90s. His last album, “Moody 4B,” was released this year by IPO, and just received a Grammy nomination as best jazz instrumental album.
Moody is survived by his wife and three sons.
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