Jazz musician James Moody, improviser of 'Moody's Mood for Love,' dies at 85

James Moody playing in 2008
James Moody playing in 2008 (Tom Ehrlich)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 7:30 PM

James Moody, 85, an exuberant presence in jazz for more than six decades whose improvised version of "I'm in the Mood for Love" became a surprise hit in the 1950s and launched a form of music called vocalese, died Dec. 9 at a hospice in San Diego. He had pancreatic cancer.

Mr. Moody, whose primary instrument was the tenor saxophone, began a long association with trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie in 1946 and was part of the vanguard of musicians who created a new, complex style of jazz known as bebop.

By October 1949, Mr. Moody had moved to Europe and was in Stockholm to make an album. When the producer asked for a final tune to complete the record, Mr. Moody suggested "I'm in the Mood for Love," a popular song from the 1930s written by Jimmy McHugh with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Mr. Moody played tenor saxophone exclusively at the time, but on this tune he borrowed a higher-pitched alto saxophone from a Swedish musician in the studio.

"We went ahead and did it, in one take, with me playing this beat-up alto saxophone," Mr. Moody told Leonard Feather of the Los Angeles Times in 1988. "Well, you know what happened."

What happened was that Mr. Moody improvised a sinuous, harmonically complex solo in which a quiet urgency animated the tune's romantic tone. By the time he returned to the United States in 1952, his recording had become a modest hit, much to his surprise. To satisfy public demand, Mr. Moody had to relearn his solo by practicing along with his own record.

Singer Eddie Jefferson was so taken with the bebop-flavored melody that he wrote lyrics to fit the contours of Mr. Moody's instrumental improvisation. This innovation in jazz singing and composing came to be known as vocalese.

The reconfigured tune, with its catchy opening line, "There I go, there I go, there I go, there I go," was called "Moody's Mood for Love" and was soon recorded by singer King Pleasure.

With backing vocals by Blossom Dearie, Pleasure's version of the song became a pop hit in 1954 and included a direct reference to Mr. Moody at the end: "James Moody, you can come on in, man, and you can blow now if you want to. We're through."

In the decades since its debut, "Moody's Mood" was recorded by such singers as Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse. Bill Cosby and Nancy Wilson sang it together in an episode of "The Cosby Show."

"Moody's Mood for Love," as critic Will Friedwald wrote in 2005, "was not a composition; it was purely an improvisation. Yet it has lingered in the public consciousness not because of King Pleasure, but because of the solo itself. Although nothing like an anthem, it has become one - a banner of modern jazz and African American culture."

James Moody was born March 26, 1925, in Savannah, Ga., and grew up in Reading, Pa., and Newark, N.J. Because of partial deafness in his left ear, he spent several years in schools for children with learning disabilities.

He began to play the saxophone at 16 and, within two years, was playing in a band in the Army Air Forces during World War II. He carried some emotional scars from his wartime experiences when he saw that German prisoners could eat in restaurants in the South when African American GI's could not.

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