James Moody, a jazz saxophonist, composer, and band leader, has been recognized worldwide as one of the early innovators of bebop. He honored his birthplace with “Savannah Calling,” a blues song he composed and performed on his 1969 album, The Blues and Other Colors.
Moody was born partially deaf in Savannah to Ruby and James Moody on March 26, 1925, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He began playing music at the age of sixteen, after his uncle gave him an alto saxophone. Over the course of his career, Moody became an accomplished alto, tenor, and soprano saxophonist, as well as a flutist. In the early 1940s he served in the U.S. Air Force and played in an unofficial air force band. Near the end of his duty in 1946, Moody met Dizzy Gillespie and subsequently became a member of Gillespie’s big band. He later performed in Gillespie’s quintet in the 1960s and again in the 1990s.
Moody lived in Europe from 1948 to 1951. In 1948 he recorded his first album,James Moody and His Modernists, for Blue Note Records, and the following year, in Stockholm, Sweden, he recorded a well-received version of the standard “I’m in the Mood for Love.” In 1952 the jazz vocalist King Pleasure recorded a new version of the song, entitled “Moody’s Mood for Love,” in which he sang lyrics written by Eddie Jefferson. “Moody’s Mood for Love” became a best-selling record and is considered to be the breakthrough recording for vocalese, a style of jazz singing in which lyrics are sung to a melody originally composed as an instrumental solo.
Although he was one of the early bebop saxophonists, Moody spent seven years playing in the Las Vegas Hilton Orchestra in Nevada before returning to more traditional jazz in 1980. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental performance on the Manhattan Transfer’s album Vocalese in 1985. He was nominated for another Grammy in 1990 for his performance on Dizzy Gillespie’s Get the Booty.
In both 1996 and 2000 the mayor of Savannah declared a James Moody Day, an honor also bestowed by Newark, Jersey; New York City; and San Diego, California. Moody also had a bit part in the 1997 film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was set and shot in Savannah. He played Mr. Glover, who appears in a scene with a leash and collar, walking what appears to be an imaginary dog.
By 2007 Moody had recorded more than fifty albums, including tributes to Frank Sinatra and Henry Mancini. That year he received the Kennedy Center’s Living Jazz Legend Award, and his instrumental solo “Be-Bop” was nominated for a Grammy. He was nominated again in 2010 for his final album, Moody 4B.
Moody died of pancreatic cancer on December 9, 2010, in San Diego. Married three times, he was survived by three sons and one daughter.