This week’s Free Ride* muses on the lyrics of an Ellington masterpiece, In a Mellow Tone, as interpreted by one of the great jazz artists of the 20th century, James Moody, who passed away this Friday at the age of 85. One of the greatest privileges and signature moments of my life was meeting the sax legend in 2008, when he played at the Blue Note in New York City. I was going to NYC for a grantee meeting at the Ford Foundation, and when I read ahead of time that Moody was going to be playing at the Blue Note, I insisted that Kim accompany me on the trip. Moody’ Mood has been “our song” ever since we started dating 25 years ago, and I was thrilled at the possibility of us hearing it live. We got to the Blue Note early with our friends, Julie and David Fortney, and got a table right in front of the stage. Moody came out with his larger than life smile spread across his face, and started the set with the Ellington number, In a Mellow Tone, a song with lyrics that suited his disposition and demeanor to a tee:
He sang and played the sax with such a fancy free spirit and mellow abandon that you would think Duke’s lyricist Milt Gabler wrote the words with Moody in mind. I don’t know what James Moody was like in private, but in terms of his public persona, his last name was a misnomer, for he only showed one mood when on stage – pure joy. He had so much fun that night; his banter and playfulness was as entertaining as the music, which was stellar in itself, especially coming from an 83 year old. Kim and I delighted in hearing him sing “our song” and after the show was over, she took my picture with Moody. I asked if he would autograph the Blue Note post card I had bought just for that purpose. He said sure, but he was in a hurry to get upstairs to see some friends, so if I’d follow him he’d get me the autograph. I obliged, and when we got upstairs I followed him into a room which turned out to be the artists’ dressing room, and it was filled with old jazz peers of his who had listened to his show from upstairs. He scribbled his autograph, and when I saw Jon Hendricks sitting on the other side of the room, I asked Moody if it would be alright for me to work my way over there and get his autograph. He said sure. As I started squirming my way through, I heard Jon Faddis, the great trumpeter, say, “Hey, you know what I just realized, we missed Leonard’s birthday. He just turned 85 last week. Let’s give him a call.” He got out his cell phone and dialed, made some birthday wishes, and then said, “hey Moody, wish Lenny a happy birthday.” I didn’t know who Lenny was at the time, but later figured out they were talking to Herman Leonard, the famous photographer who took so many classic shots of jazz artists in the 50s and 60s. I listened in as Moody started reminiscing with Leonard, “hey Lenny, remember that time in St. Louis when you were riding with me and Dizzy and the cop pulled us over? You freaked Diz out when you handed him your joint – he said, man I don’t even smoke cigarettes, what you doing handing me that weed?” Raucous laughter. Story after story of life on the road followed, as person after person took Faddis’ phone and wished Leonard a happy birthday and then recounted some funny story. Jon Hendricks was in the middle of signing my post card when they handed him the phone, so I just sat there next to him for five minutes or so, listening to him laugh and share memories, until he handed the phone back and finished the autograph. I was about as out of place as anyone could have been in that room, but I tried to stay mellow and relish the moment, as the song says:
I know that many jazz artists of the bebop era were plagued with their demons and had tortured souls. They were anything but fancy free, but that’s what made some of their music so powerful. But James Moody was not among this group. He, Jon Hendricks, Dizzie Gillespie, and the Duke were among those whose music flowed out of the deepest and most profound spaces of joy. It is fitting to be paying tribute to Moody here on the eve of the third Sunday in Advent, when the focus is on joy. He lived out, at least as far as I could tell, the lines of the song he started the set out with there in the Blue Note:
If I can live my life with half the joy Moody demonstrated, and smile a smile half as big as his, I’ll consider myself blessed beyond measure.
*Free Ride is a Saturday blog that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear various versions of the song by different artists. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.