Even in Sickness

Jazz saxophonist James Moody died at the San Diego Hospice on the afternoon of December 9, a week and a day after receiving his fourth Grammy nomination. He was 85 and had battled pancreatic cancer for ten months. Moody 4B would prove to be his final album. Recorded in 2008, it was released this year and was nominated in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category.

Charles McPherson received a message from Moody in the weeks prior to his death. “A friend of his called to ask about a saxophone repairman in town, and who did I go to, and who would I recommend.” Best known perhaps for his work with Charles Mingus, McPherson is a Detroit-raised modern jazz saxist who relocated to San Diego in 1978. He and Moody were friends. He says the phone message confused him at first. Why hadn’t Moody called?

“With hindsight, now I know that he couldn’t call me himself. He was too weak. But he was still concerned about mundane things like the saxophone and it being fixed, and for what? He still wanted to play?” The answer was yes. “Even in sickness, the flame was still alive for him.” McPherson says he later asked Moody’s wife Linda about the odd request. “She was saying that what was wrong...he was too weak to really finger well. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that, and [Moody] was thinking it was something wrong with the horn.”

Moody may have lived out his final years in San Diego more or less under the radar, but out of town, it was a different story. In 1998 the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, and “Moody’s Mood for Love,” covered by the likes of Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse and many more, landed in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. Moody was also recognized by the International Jazz Hall of Fame.

“He was in on the very beginnings of the bebop era,” says McPherson of Moody’s 64-year career. “He was in one of Dizzy Gillespie’s big bands, which was probably the first bebop big band.”

James Moody was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925. Hard of hearing, he started on alto sax as a teenager and then later switched up to tenor, soprano and, during the 1950s, flute.

“Through the years,” says McPherson, “he stayed consistently marvelous on the saxophone.”

Moody is survived by his wife of 22 years, his children, grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

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