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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
“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.”
© 2012 WBGO
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