James Moody, the outsized jazz saxophonist and flutist best known for his recorded performance of ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ died Friday, Dec. 10 following a battle with pancreatic cancer. According to the New York Times, the 85-year-old passed away in a hospice in San Diego.
Moody was one of the last in the lineage that can be traced back to the founding fathers of bebop. He was born in Georgia in 1925 and grew up in New Jersey. Despite significant hearing problems, he turned to music, picking up the saxophone at 16 and playing in the Air Force band during World War II. He joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band shortly after being discharged in 1946, and began a lifelong friendship with the famed trumpeter.
For several years Moody worked diligently to establish himself as a household name, releasing 11 records between 1955 and 1969. He only had limited success fronting his own bands, however, and in the ensuing decades he returned to collaborations, working with several luminaries including Gillespie and Kenny Barron. While his career path was at times tumultuous, delayed by bouts of drinking and years of working for hotel orchestras in Las Vegas, Moody — who was always known by his last name — was a consistently amiable personality always ready with a hug and a joke. He was a constant and versatile musical explorer who could play effortlessly in a seemingly innumerable amount of forms.
“Over the years, Moody has become so free — not in a random fashion, but a scientific freedom — that he can do anything he wants with the saxophone,” fellow saxophonist Jimmy Heath once told Downbeat magazine. “He has true knowledge. He is in complete control.”