My first exposure to James Moody came on a street corner on Manhattan's Upper West Side. A street merchant selling used LPs displayed a tattered, dog-eared version of a Moody flute recording among a wide selection of needle-worn vinyl.
I bought the LP because I had never heard of Moody, and I thought the album might turn out to be a diamond in the rough.
Boy, was I right. Moody's flute playing reminded me a lot of John McGlaughlin's guitar playing: fiery and passionate. Moody held nothing back, putting every ounce of breath and soul into both his rapid-fire arpeggios, and his slower, more soulful melodic lines.
Moody was different than many jazz flutists I had heard before. He played with a certain edge that I didn't think possible with a flute. In my experience, most jazz flutists employ a softer, more rounded phrasing, in part due to the inherent nature of the instrument.
Great jazz flutists such as Herbie Mann take advantage of the flute's subtle attack, playing with beauty, soul and agility. But to my rock 'n' roll and blues-hardened ears, it always sounded a bit weak, almost passive.
Not so with Moody. His flute playing had a charismatic bite that you often find in other jazz woodwind players such as sax and clarinet, but then most of Moody's musical history has been written on the saxophone, which he played with some of the bebop era's biggest stars.
Born in Georgia and raised in New Jersey, Moody took up sax at the age of sixteen. Following his discharge from the Air Force in 1947, he joined the big band of Dizzy Gillespie, honing his bebop chops until striking out on his own a year later with the recording James Moody and his Bebop Men.
In 1949, he moved to Paris, recording "Moody's Mood for Love," which quickly became a big hit back home. After more recording and touring, including a stint backing up Dinah Washington in the James Moody Septet, he rejoined the Diz in the '60s. The '70s found him in Las Vegas showbands; the '80s produced a Grammy nomination for his work on Manhattan Transfer's Vocalese album. In the '90s, he once again worked with Gillespie, touring with the United Nations Orchestra, which itself earned a Grammy for a live recording at the Royal Festival Hall.
Proof of his near hallowed status in jazz circles was his concert last week at New York's Lincoln Center where Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra paid the now 75-year-old Moody a birthday salute.
Though I've never seen him play live, I've heard that Moody is still a dynamic stage performer who easily switch hits between flute, alto sax and tenor sax, entertaining the audience in between tunes with witty observations and self-effacing anecdotes.
At the time I found that ill-fated LP (it was soon lost in a, shall we say, "unexpected relocation" from my tiny Manhattan apartment), I thought I had discovered one of those forgotten, overlooked artists that make for interesting conversation with other music hounds. Boy, was I wrong. Though Moody's career has had its ups and downs, and he never achieved the kind of mainstream notice that would allow folks like me to recognize his name, he's maintained a vigorous and prolific career that's spanned more than a half a century.
If you're a jazz fan, then you've probably already cancelled your wedding, 50th anniversary dinner or whatever and purchased tickets to his show next week at the Fine Arts Center. If, like me a few years back, you've never heard of the dude, check out the show anyway. Though Moody is a virtuoso whose music is complex and challenging, the excitement of his playing is both contagious and accessible. Personally, I can't wait.