In the Mood for Jazz

by George Varga

Newark is surely not the only city to claim James Moody as its own, as demonstrated by the numerous proclamations from around the world that were presented to this timeless jazz saxophone icon, composer and band leader during his 60-year-plus career. But his former hometown is the ideal location to host the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, which takes place October 15th–21st at NJPAC.

Like few other artists, Moody both defined and transcended jazz, the music to which he devoted his life as a performer, teacher, mentor and tireless champion. In the process, he attracted multigenerational audiences with his sublime artistry, puckish humor and indomitable spirit. Moody also had a unique ability to touch even those listeners whose appreciation for jazz may not extend much past “Moody’s Mood for Love,” his timeless 1949 alto saxfueled reinvention of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” which longtime Moody friend Bill Cosby has hailed as “a national anthem.” Dozens of artists have since lovingly recorded their versions of “Moody’s Mood for Love,” including Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart, TD Moody Festival performer George Benson, and Newark native Queen Latifah.

“As a non-musician, one of the things I love about Moody—and the reason why we wanted to name a festival after him—is Moody’s sense of joy,” says John Schreiber, NJPAC’s President and CEO. “That joy, combined with his extraordinary talent, is what can take a civilian and turn that person into a jazz fan. We wanted to create a festival in his honor that would have a really authentic resonance with New Jersey and, especially, Newark.”

It was in Newark, the third oldest city in the U.S., that the Georgia-born Moody came of age as an aspiring musician. At the age of 16, he began playing alto sax, a gift from an uncle, while attending Newark Arts High School. It was also in Newark that the then-teenaged Moody first saw the Count Basie Orchestra perform at the nowdefunct Adams Theater. Hearing tenor sax stars Don Byas and Buddy Tate play in the Basie band was an epiphany for Moody, who soon switched from alto to tenor. Once his career was underway, he expanded his instrumental repertoire even further.

“Tenor was his greatest vehicle, but he was a wonderful flute player and he had a beautiful sound on alto,” says Dan Morgenstern, the recently retired director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “Whatever he picked up, he was great on and had his own personality.”

“One of the things I love about Moody—and the reason why we wanted to name a festival after him—is his sense of joy.

That joy, combined with his extraordinary talent, is what can take a civilian and turn that person into a jazz fan…” —John Schreiber, President & CEO, NJPAC

Moody’s ascent in the jazz world began in 1946. It was then that he joined bebop trumpet dynamo Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, which at the time featured such budding greats as Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Ray Brown. His first solo album, 1947’s James Moody and His Bebop Men on Blue Note Records, featured members of Gillespie’s band. A subsequent one-month visit to Europe lasted two years and, in 1949 in Sweden, saw Moody record the song that would become synonymous with his name. Never mind that he had never before done a recording session playing alto sax (he used a borrowed alto for the session). Moody’s recording was originally released as “I’m in the Mood for Love” and his remarkably earthy and eloquent performance later prompted Weather Report co-founder Joe Zawinul to declare: “The solo Moody played on that is one of the rare masterpieces in jazz.”

“Moody is one of the patron saints of Newark,” says Cephas Bowles, the longtime President and CEO of award-winning Newark jazz radio station WBGO-FM, a co-sponsor of the Moody Festival. “By virtue of his international celebrity, he showed Newark to be a great jazz incubator and a great jazz town.”

Moody’s discography includes more than 50 solo albums as a band leader, and he was featured on dozens more recordings alongside Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, and others. In 2001, his quintessential “Moody’s Mood for Love” recording received a 2001 Grammy Hall of Fame Award for “its lasting qualitative and historical significance.”

In 2011, Moody—who died in late 2010 at the age of 85—posthumously won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for 4B. It was a long-overdue accolade, but the oft-honored musician paid it little mind.

“My goal is that I want to play better tomorrow than I did today, because I’m not in competition with anyone else,” Moody said in a 2005 interview at the San Diego home he shared with his devoted wife, Linda. “If you try to compete, you’d better give up, because there’s always somebody, somewhere, who has more going on. And that’s what makes jazz so beautiful, that’s what makes the world beautiful.”

Yet, no matter how many times Moody traveled around the world, this ebullient music master never forgot the city in which he grew up.

“We went to Newark together many times,” says Linda Moody. “He was so happy to see that the city was coming back with new residences and buildings, a resurgence that for many people started with NJPAC. “At one point, Newark was his whole life. He’d stand at one end of Broadway in Newark as a kid, and say: ‘Someday, I’m going to go to the end of this street.’ It was a big deal for him. Little did he know he’d join the U.S. Air Force, then go all around the globe with Dizzy and many more times with his own band. At one point, going to the end of Broadway in Newark was the be-all and end-all for him.”

George Varga is the music critic for U-T San Diego (formerly The San Diego Union-Tribune) and a contributing writer at Jazz Times magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *