There’s gotta be something that makes it a blue Christmas. Sometimes it something big, like a war, or a disaster, and sometimes it just a passing friend. James Moody had a lot of friends. He was just that kind of guy. And that makes for a lot of blue Christmases.
You can’t say it was really tragic, though, for Moody was one of those rare jazz icons whose music and life wasn’t streaked with bitterness, anger, regret. He was the guy that made you laugh. Made you feel good. He was the funny guy that played that gorgeous saxophone. Of course, we forget a lot. Moody, after all, “scarred by racism”, as he put it, split for Europe in the late forties for Europe. He’d had quite a young career—a long stint with Dizzy Gillespie, especially—and packed it up for overseas, where the ptomaine of the slave era racism didn’t poison almost everything it touched generations after Civil War and even a bright New Jersey kid like Moody felt suppressed by its dead hand. If you can’t beat ‘em, split, and he did. Abroad, in more ancient lands, he blossomed. He did great stuff there (look for the killer couple sessions with Frank Foster), but Moody’s Mood For Love was the most famous result. You all know it. You may not even know you do until you hear it. It’s so deeply built into jazz by now, worked its way into the jazz DNA. It’s more than a standard. Like Take Five or Kind of Blue, it’s the kind of thing you could tuck into a space capsule and shoot into space for some alien race to find a zillion years from now and listen to and get an idea of who we are. Or were. That tune was James Moody. And he was just beginning.
He wasn’t in Europe long, just long enough for him to shake out a lot of bad vibes and get tired of people not speaking English, and after a few years home and Prestige Records beckoned. This was New York City in the fifties and baby the jazz was happening in a big way, bigger than ever before or ever since. It was the music’s glory years, full of life and death and genius and fabulous, unbelievable jazz. Moody, a star now—“Mood For Love” had been big, radio big—did a whole string of classic sessions. If you know a jazz fan, they got some of these. We just pulled out a small stack of vinyl, putting something on at random. “Flute ‘N the Blues”—when was the last time you heard anyone play the flute so warm and so down to earth? And dig his “I Cover the Waterfront”, Eddie Jefferson on vocals. Oh Lord. There’s nothing like this anymore either. Not like that “Body and Soul” either. Sure, it’s two generations old, and things and jazz change with the years. But people don’t. And James Moody was that same kind of people his whole career. Listen to that horn. It’s a big huge warm alto sound. Nobody else has that. Nobody had Moody’s sense of humor, or just his way of talking to people, especially an audience. You paid good money to see James Moody, and he wanted to let you he knew that. He never turned his back to his fans. Not even now when he’s gone. Folks that knew him, remember him, the rest of us remember the music. That absolutely personal sound of his. How on alto he made jittery bebop warm and less scary. Or could blow some big bluesy tenor that wasn’t sad and doomed and drunk. How he played earthy breathy living flute, transforming a delicate European thing into something loamy and American. And we remember his voice most of all, a voice that could melt hearts when it wanted to, melt ‘em laughing. That sweet guy, James Moody.