James Moody, a jazz saxophonist and flutist celebrated for his virtuosity, his versatility and his onstage ebullience, died on Thursday in San Diego. He was 85…
Mr. Moody, who began his career with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shortly after World War II and maintained it well into the 21st century, developed distinctive and equally fluent styles on both tenor and alto saxophone, a relatively rare accomplishment in jazz. He also played soprano saxophone, and in the mid-1950s he became one of the first significant jazz flutists, impressing the critics if not himself.
“I’m not a flute player,” he told one interviewer. “I’m a flute holder…”
The song he sang most often had a memorable name and an unusual history. Based on the harmonic structure of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” it began life as an instrumental when Mr. Moody recorded it in Stockholm in 1949, improvising an entirely new melody on a borrowed alto saxophone. Released as “I’m in the Mood for Love” (and credited to that song’s writers) even though his rendition bore only the faintest resemblance to the original tune, it was a modest hit for Mr. Moody in 1951. It became a much bigger hit shortly afterward when the singer Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Mr. Moody’s improvisation and another singer, King Pleasure, recorded it as “Moody’s Mood for Love…”
James Moody — he was always Moody, never James, Jim or Jimmy, to his friends and colleagues — was born in Savannah, Ga., on March 26, 1925, to James and Ruby Moody, and raised in Newark. Despite being hard of hearing, he gravitated toward music and began playing alto saxophone at 16, later switching to tenor. He played with an all-black Army Air Forces band during World War II. After being discharged in 1946, he auditioned for Gillespie, who led one of the first big bands to play the complex and challenging new form of jazz known as bebop. He failed that audition but passed a second one a few months later, and soon captured the attention of the jazz world with a brief but fiery solo on the band’s recording of the Gillespie composition “Emanon.”
For all his accomplishments, Mr. Moody always saw his musical education as a work in progress. “I’ve always wanted to be around people who know more than me,” he told The Hartford Courant in 2006, “because that way I keep learning.”
We miss you.