James Moody isn't usually associated with rhythm-and-blues, and yet, for a few years in the 1950s, he led a lively little band which was popular in places where people gathered to drink, dance, and have a good time rather than sit quietly and listen to sophisticated jazz. That Moody chose to earn a living in this way may well have persuaded some jazz fans that his records from that period are not to be taken too seriously, but nothing could be further from the truth and this short survey is an attempt to draw attention to some excellent music.
Moody was born in Savannah, Georgia, on 26th February, 1925, and first began to gain some notice in the musical world when he was active around New York in the mid-1940s. He recorded with bassist Ray Brown for Savoy in 1946, and was in a Howard McGhee group which cut some sides for Dial in 1947. But it was his work with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra in 1947/48 which gave him prestige amongst the boppers. Gillespie then had a brash outfit which mixed bop and novelty numbers, and Moody once recalled that he failed his first audition because, as musical director Walter 'Gil' Fuller told him, he didn't blow loud enough. When he was eventually hired he was given solo space on Oo-pop-ad a and Emanon and quickly demonstrated that he was capable of adapting to an atmosphere which could have unsettled a lesser musician. His sound was never overwhelmed by the shouting brass and wild rhythms. The hoarse scream which issues from his horn at one point during the studio recording of Oo-pop-a-da indicates that he was not averse to joining in the general exuberance. And a comparison of his solos on the studio and live recordings of Emanon shows that he loosened up even more when facing an audience.
It was while he was with Gillespie that Moody got the chance to record for Blue Note under his own name. There are hints of his 1950s style on Moody's All Frantic as he charges through his solo, at times almost honking in the Illinois Jacquet manner, and then turning to intricate bursts of improvisation. Technical prowess was always a Moody hallmark But he tended to be frantic only on the faster numbers and different recordings from this period suggest that he had picked up ideas from Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and other rhapsodic soloists. Interviews with Moody find him naming a variety of saxophonists, including Byas, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and Ben Webster, as possible influences.
Moody moved to Europe in the late-1940s, and soon began recording extensively in Paris and Stockholm. Most of his performances are cast in a fairly orthodox modern-jazz mould, though he did sometimes try to break out of the limitations this imposed by using strings or varying the front-line instrumentation with a vibraphone or bass-trumpet. As he once said, "you have to keep it changing and interesting. You don't want to get into a rut and become a corny old musician with only one way to go."
The European sides suggest that Moody wanted to reach beyond a pure jazz audience. He frequently recorded ballads and his September, 1949, version of I'm In The Mood for Love, on which he played alto, became something of a hit when released in the United States. It was around this time that recordings of saxophonists playing ballads were enjoying a fairly wide circulation through disc-jockey shows and jukeboxes. Rhythm-and-blues tenormen like Lynn Hope and Fats Noel waxed smoochy versions of Wish You Were Here, Tenderly, and other songs, and Gene Ammons produced a whole string of similar sides. Tab Smith's alto was put to good use in this way and Earl Bostic made the appropriate noises when required. It's interesting to note that Moody's alto could sometimes sound like an easy-going Bostic.
The success of I'm In The Mood for Love encouraged Moody to return home, and it was in 1951 that he formed the band which qualifies him for a place in the list of jazzmen who also worked the rhythm-and-blues circuit. As with many other saxophonist leaders he often used the band as a backcloth for his own solos, which were usually a mixture of florid ballads and flashy medium or up-tempo swingers, though he was rarely inclined to be as forceful as Illinois Jacquet or Arnett Cobb. He switched from tenor to alto with ease, sometimes within the space of the same number and hardly ever let his solos become too complex. He was a good jazzman but was also interested in making his music acceptable to a broad audience. As Mark Gardner put it, Moody tended to avoid using the word 'jazz' which was the kiss of death in the eyes of showbusiness at large," and instead concentrated on providing a rocking beat and straightforward arrangements.
It's true that he was a bit more adventurous in the recording studio, but not to the extent of ironing out the popular appeal of his music. He took the lion's share of the solo space, but he had some very capable musicians in his band and the records do have bright contributions from trumpeter Dave Burns and earthy baritone Numa 'Pee Wee' Moore. The band also carried a singer to provide variety. In the Mercury recording period of the early-1950s it was the colourful Babs Gonzalez, who had met Moody in Europe and returned to the USA with him, and his gruff voice can be heard on Hey Jim and The James Moody Story, the latter providing a mini-history of the leaders career. It was obvious what Moody intended with this little band. It employed solid rhythmic patterns, catchy themes and plenty of rifts, and something like Wiggle Waggle is only a groove away from rhythm-and-blues. On alto, Moody played tunes such as Poor Butterfly and Margie and made them into first-rate jukebox specialities. The aim was clearly to present a mixture of music that would highlight the leaders talents, provide a basis for dancing, and hold the audience's attention with easily-recognisable songs. Add a novelty or two and the programme was complete.
When Moody switched to recording for Prestige in 1954 he hired the smoother Eddie Jefferson as singer. Jefferson was a contemporary of King Pleasure, and like him had developed vocalese the practice of filling lyrics to well-known recorded jazz solos. Pleasure had, in fact, helped boost Moody's popularity when he came up with a vocalese version of I'm In The Mood For Love. And Jefferson's I've Got The Blues, which he recorded under his own name in 1954, was based on the saxophonist's 1949 Lester Leaps In. Singers specialising in vocalese were in fashion in the 1950s and Jefferson's presence must have been an added attraction when Moody was on tour. It's worth noting that Pleasure continued to highlight the melodic nature of Moody's improvising by adapting his solos on This Is Always and N.J.R (known as I'm Gone in the Pleasure version) for his vocal tricks.
From an instrumental point of view Moody's recordings for Prestige provide numerous examples of his desire to run a band that could work on a regular basis by emphasising entertaining music. Numbers such as Jack Raggs and The Strut dig in with a direct beat and hard-blown section work, and Mambo with Moody capitalises on the 1950s mambo craze. Moody also featured his alto and tenor on ballads like A Sinner Kissed An Angel, It Might as Well be Spring, and The Nearness of You, at all times holding to a mostly orthodox reading of the melody and embroidering it rather than indulging in fanciful improvisations. Whatever the format, ballad or bounce, the rhythm section held steady as if to stress that the music was for dancing as well as listening.
Moody's band toured throughout the early and mid-1950s, and the fact that it worked the same club circuit as rhythm-and-blues bands inclined some jazz purists to take the view that, as Ira Gitler wryly observed, the saxophonist was merely a "rhythm and blues performer on the periphery of jazz." It is to Gitler's credit that he, and a few other critics, continued to uphold Moody's qualities as a jazzman, and they rightly pointed to much of his Prestige output as evidence of his talents. Long tracks like Wall Moody Wall and Jammin' With James find him stretching out in a way which challenges any suggestion of limited imaginative resources as a soloist and they're comparable to the material recorded by Gene Ammons for Prestige in the mid-1950s.
The difficulties of extended touring, and of having to appear always energetic and enthusiastic, began to cause problems for Moody. He found it demanding to have to push himself into the limelight night after night. Alcohol was one way of boosting his confidence and by 1958 he was, in Eddie Jefferson's words, "to the point where he needed alcohol to face people." If this wasn't enough, he suffered a major setback when a fire destroyed the band's instruments, clothes, and charts. Mooney decided it was time he had a break and went to Overbrook Sanatorium in New Jersey for nine months of rest and rehabilitation. When he left Overbrook he formed another band, much along the lines of the earlier one but with Eddie Jefferson as singer and manager, and went on the road again. Reports at the time indicated that it was a versatile unit and that Moody featured his tenor on swingers and his alto on ballads. He was, it seems, hoping to pick up from where he had left off, but the changing musical fashions of the early-1960s were against him. He recorded fairly widely during the decade, but not in a context which could be said to be similar to his popular phase of the 1950s. The kind of tight little band he led then was no longer in demand for dances and club dates. Jazz fans may have taken a little more notice of him, as he recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and others, and made some first-rate sides under his own name, but the wider audiences soon forgot him, so much so that a 1972 Down Beat piece mentioned that few of the educators and students he encountered when he visited colleges and schools knew who he was.
I've concentrated on Moody's 1950s recordings because they seem to me to be those which brought him a degree of popular acclaim and took him at least partly into the rhythm-and-blues camp. And they're often neglected recordings, probably because they don't slot easily into one category or another. Rhythm-and-blues enthusiasts tell me they're too jazzy, and jazz fans think them a bit too close to rhythm-and-blues for comfort. But if you like good, straightforward music, without restrictive labels, they're fun to listen to.
New Mood for Moody by Ira Gitler, Down Beat, October 27,1960.
James Moody: Versatile Virtuoso, an interview by Charles Suber, Down Beat, May25, 1972.
I Paid My Dues by Babs Gonzales, Expubidence Publishing Corp., East Orange New Jersey, 1967.
Babs Gonzales in Jazz People by Valerie Wilmer, Allison & Busby, London, 1970.
Moody's complete recordings for Mercury were issued on a Japanese Emarcy LP 195J-10104.
The Prestige recordings can be found on three LPs, Prestige 7663, 7740, and 7853.