WBGO Blog
  • Long Live Moody! Part One: James Moody's Newark

    October 14, 2012. Posted by Tim Wilkins.

    As the first TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival gets underway in Newark this week, we will post a series of reflections on the tenor saxophonist and his legacy. First up: a look at the town where he grew up. Many thanks to Linda Moody for these photos, which are not to be republished without permission.

    Newark was the whole world to the young James Moody. The trailblazing bebop pioneer was born in Savannah, Georgia, yet came into his sense of himself as a man and as a musician in the Brick City.

    Photo courtesy of Linda Moody

    “Moody was truly proud of being from Newark,” says Linda Moody, the wife of the tenor saxophonist, who died in 2010. “That’s where his heart was, and where he always felt was his hometown.”

    Moody’s road to music was far from predictable. Born partially deaf in 1925 when his mother, Ruby, was only sixteen, Moody spent several years in a school for the developmentally disabled in Reading, Pennsylvania. Always devoted to her son, Ruby moved to Newark in 1933 to find better schools for her boy, and to be close to her brother Louis, who had a good job in city government.

    Pennington Court, 1944

    Louis helped Ruby obtain an apartment in the new Pennington Court housing development when it first opened in 1940. At Newark’s Newton Street School, Moody’s deafness was first diagnosed; he spent two years at the Bruce Street School for the Deaf, then moved on to Arts High School.

    Yet Moody always seemed to know that music – and the saxophone, in particular – was calling him. As a toddler, he danced to the vibrations of the family’s motorized washing machine. Ruby played records by Swing Era bandleaders at home, and the boy first heard saxophonists Don Byas and Buddy Tate with Count Basie’s band at the Adams Theater on Branford Place at around age twelve. That’s when he set his heart on one of the shiny saxophones he saw in the windows of the Dorn & Kirschner music store on Springfield Avenue.

    Yet even then, the world beyond Newark seemed impossibly large. “He stood at one end of Broadway and said to himself, ‘One day, I’m going to the very end of this street!’ That was his ambition,” recalls Linda.

    Uncle Louis had a trumpet at home, and tried to interest the boy in playing it. But he insisted on the saxophone. So when he turned sixteen, Louis bought him his first second-hand horn from the showcase at Dorn & Kirschner.

    1940s Dorn & Kirschner saxophone

    Moody did what he could to teach himself the instrument; if he heard a saxophone playing out of a window, he would find the house, knock on the door and ask for a lesson. Yet he could not read music, and did poorly in his classes at Arts High. He played well enough by ear to stay in the school band and graduate, but it was only after he was drafted into the Air Force and played in a band on his base in North Carolina that he learned the fundamentals of music.

    Moody-Airforce 18 years old

    When Moody returned to Newark in in 1946, he played well enough to get a job earning $7 a night at Lloyd’s Manor, a sprawling complex at 42 Beacon Street. The club, which had two cafés, a ballroom and a bowling alley, had become a gathering place for young musicians eager to play they new style of jazz called bebop; Moody answered the call and jumped right in.

    lloyds03

    Bebop favored complex harmonies and breakneck tempos over the lilting, danceable rhythms of the Swing Era. The style was forged at Harlem after-hours clubs during the war years by musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, who also traveled across the river to play at Lloyd’s. Gillespie took notice of Moody, and hired him to join a group he was forming to play the new “modern” jazz on 52nd Street in New York.

    gillespiemoody1

    Gillespie became Moody’s inseparable friend, mentor and musical foil for the next four decades. The pair shared a love for practical jokes and traveled the world together, starting in 1948, when they brought bebop to Europe. Seeking a respite from racism in the U.S., Moody settled for three years in Paris, where his uncle Louis worked as a procurement agent for the U.S. Army.

    It was in Europe that Moody almost accidentally scored one of his most enduring hits. Visiting Sweden in 1949, he recorded an improvisation on a borrowed alto saxophone to Jimmy McHugh and Deborah Fields' pop song, "I'm In the Mood for Love."

    moodylp1

    Young jazz musicians, who were just becoming aware of the bebop style, were dazzled by the saxophonist's inventive use of harmony and phrasing, and many memorized Moody’s solo note-for-note. Vocalist Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to his improvised line, creating a style he called vocalese. Retitled "Moody's Mood for Love," the song became a hit, which Moody only discovered when a fan asked him to play it one night at a Paris club, then scolded him for playing the pop tune instead of his bebop version of the melody.

    Moody returned to the U.S. in 1951 as a conquering musical hero and star in his own right. He led his own band and recorded a series of popular records which were among the first to combine bebop harmonies with rhythm-and-blues, before rejoining Gillespie’s group in 1962.

    moodypublicity1

    Among musicians, Moody became known for his unstinting generosity – he would literally give you the coat off his back – and encouragement of younger musicians, like nineteen-year-old pianist Kenny Barron, whom he persuaded Gillespie to hire for the group.

    “Moody was so humble – he always felt like he needed to learn more,” says Barron, who played with him and Gillespie for four years. “He’d say, ‘hey, can you play these chord changes for me? I’m not really getting it.’ Of course, when you did, he’d eat ‘em up!”

    When he wasn’t on the road, he stayed close to Newark, and to Ruby. He shared a house with her for a time on Carnegie Avenue, then moved to the Mies van der Rohe-designed Collonade Apartments. Even after he moved to the West Coast, first to Las Vegas in 1973 then to San Diego when he married Linda in 1989, he always returned to the city, even after his mother’s death in 1994.

    Many of Moody’s musical friends gathered to celebrate his 85th birthday in a concert at Carnegie Hall in June of 2010. While the saxophonist himself was too weak to attend – he had contracted the pancreatic cancer which took his life that December – he chose not to burden his friends with the news of his illness, so that they could better share the celebration.

    james-moody-column

    “He had the most beautiful spirit,” recalls Linda. “Whatever he had, he would give it to you, no matter what it was. He was just a gorgeous, gorgeous person.”

  • WBGO part of Endless Arts Month in Newark

    October 1, 2012. Posted by Brandy Wood.

    Did you know that WBGO is Newark Public Radio? It's not just the station's corporate name, it is part of everything we do. We are proud to be the community radio station for New Jersey's largest city.

    This month, WBGO and other Newark arts organizations are teaming up to showcase the amazing cultural richness that exists in Newark. This effort, spearheaded by the Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau is called Endless Arts October.

    WBGO activities during Endless Arts October include our partnership with the TD James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival, The WBGO Kids Jazz Concert Series, Too Heavy for Words, a gallery exhibit at the station featuring works by four New Jersey photographers, which will be part of Newark Art's Open Doors celebration, and of course, our ongoing, award-winning jazz and news programming.

    Take a look at the Endless Arts October guide below and start planning your visit to WBGO's hometown!

  • Toots90: Thielemans at Jazz at Lincoln Center Tonight and Tomorrow

    September 28, 2012. Posted by Becca Pulliam.

    Add new comment | Filed under: Jazz Alive

    Stack of Toots booksIf it's not too late, get a ticket!

    Not long ago, it seemed to me that  Toots Thielemans might have made his last trip to the United States. In March, 2011, we recorded him for JazzSet at the Kennedy Center.

    Listen to the JazzSet here

    After that, he was scheduled for the Blue Note, but due to fatigue, canceled some of those shows.

    Then a year later (May, 2012)  for his 90th birthday, he made an multi-city tour of his home country, Belgium. I was lucky to visit Dinant and Brussels for the national celebration of Toots.  In the bookstore at the museum of musical instruments, I saw this stack of commemorative books.

    I came home and wrote about The Harmonica-Playing Baron of Belgium and the Toots90 concert in Brussels for NPR's A Blog Supreme:

    ". . . four of Toots' first five tunes were recorded by Miles Davis in a short span: 'On Green Dolphin Street' (1958), 'All Blues' (early 1959), 'I Loves You, Porgy' and 'Summertime' (both 1958, for Porgy and Bess). 'Days of Wine and Roses' was the other number. . . .  [T]hough he's streamlined his playing, 30 years later he still sounds tuneful, optimistic, willing to soar.

    "When [pianist Kenny]Werner and [guitarist Oscar] Castro-Neves came to the stage — excitement! embraces! — they brought shades of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Hollywood as they played 'How High the Moon' (a samba, thanks to Castro-Neves), 'All the Way' (Werner on synthesizer, interpolating 'My Way'), and the theme to Midnight Cowboy, an eight-note melody that circles and haunts. Indeed, Thielemans played it on the soundtrack [to the movie]."

    That was the Brussels concert. Tonight and tomorrow in New York, the Brazilians Eliane Elias and Dori Caymmi will be onstage, along with Herbie Hancock, Kenny Werner, Oscar Castro-Neves, and the center of attention, the heart of the matter -- the wonderfully resilient, determined, most musical nonagenarian, Toots Thielemans.