James Moody is my hero, and he should be yours. At 84, the irrepressible saxophonist and flutist remains a ferociously creative musician, playing with passion, energy and a sense of wonder at the endless possibilities of music.
Moody believes his best work is ahead of him, and that’s saying something given how much sterling music is behind him.
He joined Dizzy Gillespie in 1946, when bebop was the newly minted vanguard of jazz. A few years later, Moody’s off-the-cuff improvisation on “I’m In the Mood for Love” became a jukebox hit, reaching even greater heights after Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Moody’s solo. The vocal version has been covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Amy Winehouse, and it remains a staple of Moody’s performances — he sings it himself, adding his inimitable shtick.
Most telling is that Moody kept elevating his game. Each decade brought a more imposing command of harmony and a greater sense of adventure. There were certainly troubles along the way. Most notably, he checked himself into a mental hospital in 1958 to deal with alcoholism. But to see today’s Moody charm the masses and then attack the music like a lion ripping into its prey is to marvel at his life force.
He spoke about his practice habits and philosophy from his home in Los Angeles.
Question: Backstage at the Detroit International Jazz Festival in 2008 I overheard you say to a student, “Practice, practice, practice, practice. And the more you practice, the more you’ll realize how much you don’t know.” You’ve lived by those words haven’t you?
Answer: I’ve tried to. When you don’t practice, you don’t even stay at the level where you are — you go down. I’m in competition with myself. I’d like to play better tomorrow than I did today. You have to find something — I don’t say “new,” because there’s nothing “new” — but you have to find something that’s unfamiliar to you. And if you look, you’ll find a whole lot.
Q: Have you always had that attitude, or grown into it?
A: I grew into it. I didn’t know. I thought you just improvised and that was it. But then it dawned on me that just because you know certain things on the horn, you still have to be able to put them in certain places in order to get something that’s successful.
When I was just back from Paris in the ‘50s, I was playing at the Showboat in Philadelphia. I was talking with a saxophone player and he told me another saxophonist had showed him something, so he wrote it down. I said, “You wrote it down?” He said, “Yeah, that’s what you do. You write things down and learn them and then try and incorporate them into your music.”
It was really an awakening. People would be improvising and I’d say, “Boy, how did they know to do that?” Well, they practiced it. No matter what the melody is — if you say (sings a curlicue phrase), then you should be able to play that off any tonality with proficiency. (He sings the phrase starting on several different pitches.)
Q: Do you practice every day?
A: I try to. If I don’t, I get a little cranky.
Q: You’ve had key teachers and mentors — Dizzy Gillespie, composer-arranger Tom McIntosh, composer-educator David Baker — who pushed you in new directions at various points.
A: I will never forget the first time I spoke with David Baker. I just called Indiana University and got him on the phone and I said, “Would you do me a favor and please help me. I’m just sick of what I’m trying to do, and I don’t know what I want to do because I don’t know.” And, boy, he sent me a lot of books and gave me a lot of good advice. ...
One day when I was with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, I looked at Dizzy and I said, “Diz, I wish I would have studied music.” He looked at me and said, “Moody, you ain’t dead.”
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m still trying to get a good flute sound. Everybody’s got this nice flute sound and I don’t. I got a flute all those years ago and right off I started making records and all I was really doing was spitting into it.
Q: It’s a hard instrument.
A: No, there aren’t any hard instruments — it’s what’s unfamiliar. A lot of times when I’m talking to kids I tell them, “Say ‘beow’ — like a dog says bow and a cat says meow.” I talk about different things and then I ask, “Does anyone here speak Chinese?” They say no. Then I say, “Well, what’s the word for ‘watch,’ a timepiece, in Chinese? It’s ‘beow’(‘biao’)! Now you’re familiar with it.” That principle is applicable to any profession.
Q: Are you surprised to be playing with so much energy at 84?
A: Not at all. In America people assume things like the lifespan is only 70 years old. But the lifespan is the lifespan. I work all the time. You play until you can’t wet your reed anymore.