THE POPULAR JAMES
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
for Moody by Ira Gitler, Down Beat, October 27,1960.
Versatile Virtuoso, an interview by Charles Suber, Down Beat, May25,
I Paid My
Dues by Babs Gonzales, Expubidence Publishing Corp., East Orange New Jersey,
Gonzales in Jazz People by Valerie Wilmer, Allison & Busby, London, 1970.
complete recordings for Mercury were issued on a Japanese Emarcy LP 195J-10104.
recordings can be found on three LPs, Prestige 7663, 7740, and 7853.