James Moody, the veteran jazz saxophinist, flutist, and sometime singer, is ill with cancer, and his wife Linda, who has acted as his manager for years, made public this week Moody's decision to have no further treatment. With a new sense of the preciousness of Moody's presence, I've been listening to his music and asking myself why I've always been reluctant to take it more seriously.
I've seen Moody perform dozens of times over the years—as a leader of small bebop groups (featuring, often, the vastly underappreciated Renee Rosnes on piano), with the trumpeter Jon Faddis in various configurations of ensembles devoted to the music of their late friend, Dizzy Gillespie; and in a floating group of elders called the Statesmen of Jazz. Moody has been consistently wonderful. He employs the bebop vocabulary, masterfully, with the spirit of an adventurer, not a preservationist. He always sounds like a kid.
My problem with Moody—rather, the problem with the way I've always thought of Moody—is that I've given in to the irresistible temptation to infantilize him and his music, because he and it are so much fun. Moody, who is small and round-faced, has looked boyish into his eighties, and his speaking voice has a hint of the sound of Elmer Fudd. More significantly, his music is definable by its lightheartedness—its unremitting, unapologetic lightness of spirit. Moody's music—"Moody's Mood for Love" is the best known case, of course, along with "Moody's Bounce," his "Indiana," and countless other pieces he recorded since the late ’40s—has a joy so robust, so effusive, that it's easy to conflate with the happiness that grown-ups associate with childhood once they're grown up.
Moody's music is complex and informed by deep intelligence. However light of heart, it suggests no lightness of mind. It calls for careful listening and rewards it. That is not to say, exactly, that it should be taken more seriously, at least not by the terms of the hoary trope that fun is serious or the hoarier trope that jazz is axiomatically an expression of discontent. The joy in Moody's music stands as proof that joyfulness is a kind of fullness, a value complete in itself.