James Moody (1925-2010)

by Joe Alterman, 12/9/2010

One of my heroes, jazz legend James Moody passed away earlier today. Besides being one of the warmest and kindest people I've ever met, he was also one of the wisest. 

I wanted to share with you what he said to me when, as an intern at the Blue Note Jazz Club, I had the chance to interview Moody for a video we were making. We asked him if there was a moment in his life when he knew that he wanted to be a jazz musician.

"No," he said. "I was born that way. I always wanted to be a musician as far as I know. And, when I was coming up there weren’t that many [records]…there was one record like every six months or year. Now, there’s a record every five minutes or something, you know…

"My thing is listening to other musicians and trying to be better than I am tomorrow than I am today. And I would like to advise the younger musicians to stay with what they’re doing, to have good teachers, study, and don’t be in competition with anyone else except yourself. Because -like my goal in life is to play better tomorrow than I did today- if you put yourself in competition with everyone else, you’ll be in for trouble. Because I don’t care who you are, where you are, there’s always someone that’s a little more enlightened than you are. Always. And maybe not one, two, or three, but many…Just try to enlighten yourself. Don’t be [saying], ‘Well I want to be the top man,’ you know. Because you might be for a second, but there’s always someone climbing behind you. 

Like Satchel Paige; you remember him? He said that he never did look back because you never know what’s gaining on you. So…

"And," in that classic Moody Donald Duck voice..."Pwatice, pwactice, pwactice!" 

The last time I saw Moody was this past January, at the National Endowment For The Arts Jazz Masters Award Ceremony, where I was helping out. 

Moody was talking with me and some friends when the legendary Gerald Wilson came over to join the conversation. After a minute of Moody and Wilson reminiscing, Moody asked us how old we all were. Then he asked me. 

“21,” I said.

Then he looked at Gerald Wilson. “How old are you?”

“92,” Wilson replied. 

Then Moody looked me in the eyes and said, “Boy, you may be 21 today but you’ll be 92 tomorrow. Make it count.” 

I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. 

I've thought about it many times since and many, many times today since hearing of his passing. I was playing a gig earlier this afternoon when a friend called "I'm In The Mood For Love," Moody's signature song. It was the second tune in our set, a set which started promptly at 4PM. Therefore, we must have been into our second tune, "I'm In The Mood For Love," no later than 4:05. We played "I'm In The Mood For Love" for at least five minutes. 

A few hours later, I came home and found out about Moody's death through an online article. The article said that he died at 1:07PM, west coast time. It took me a minute to put two and two together, but when I did, a chill ran up my spine...because, after all, 1:07 on the west coast is 4:07 on the east coast...We must have been mid-song. 

To one of my favorite people, the ever-inspiring James Moody - you certainly made it count!

(A well-wisher on Moody's facebook page wrote something tonight that really struck me. He, working at the Blue Note many years ago, confessed to having smoked weed with Dizzy Gillespie on the roof of the club. While on the roof, the man asked Dizzy how much he missed his friend Charlie Parker. Dizzy responded simply that he'll miss his friend Moody even more. A video of the two has been posted on Moody's website. The caption above it says: "Moody and Dizzy - Together Again!")