I thought something was wrong with me as a kid in Newark…I saw the way people of color were treated. Then I thought, Wait a minute. There’s nobody in the world that’s better than me. Nobody. And by the same token, I’m not better than anyone else.–James Moody
When James Moody died at 84 last week from pancreatic cancer, he left more than a musical legacy. We had mutual friends and I was honored to spend a number of evenings listening to his music and in his company (and that of his widow, Linda) when we both lived in Los Angeles. The saxophonist famous for “Moody’s Mood For Love” was one of the nicest gentleman you’d ever meet, a person who treated everyone equally no matter their place or race. But he was nobody’s fool and was outspoken about racism in our country.
It should be remembered that Moody (he was always Moody to everyone and insisted he be called by his last name) served in the Army Air Force during World War II and that he expatriated to Europe in 1948 to escape, as he later told us, the way black musicians were treated in the States. “Paris saved me,” he said the last time we talked. “I went there to stay two weeks with my uncle and ended up staying three years. All my cousins there were studying math and physics, making something of themselves. Back in Newark, I never had that chance.”
Our discussion in April of 2008 was ostensibly about jazz festivals, particularly his experiences at Hollywood’s Playboy Jazz Festival. He spent time telling stories of hanging out back stage with old friends and making new ones, playing with his long-time compadre Dizzy Gillespie in a quintet that followed Weather Report. “They were like pow!pow!pow!,” he yelled. ” And then the stage turned,” he says in a whisper, ” and we were all shh! shh!. It didn’t take the audience more than a moment to catch on.”
But the political season was well underway. Controversial Pastor Jerimiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, attended by candidate Obama, had just made an appearance on Bill Moyers Journal and his remarks were being used to smear the candidate. Moody was quick to point out that much of what the pastor had said was true. “If you heard the whole thing he told the truth for America. The truth hurts and I don’t care how people hear it but the truth will set you free. Much of what this country hears, about this and that, is a lie.”
He had words on Iraq: “First of all, you can’t take something from someone because you have bigger guns then get all moral about it while you treat them like dogs. Don’t give me that “God Bless America” stuff when you’re doing that. You don’t have to wear a flag to be a patriot.”
But most of what concerned him was the racism that the election had brought out. “Things are very different now, but I’m not saying there isn’t still racism. Look at the news. They’re saying Hillary will get the white vote but that has nothing to do with it. There’s no difference between people, even between people of different colors. My wife is blond yet we have the same blood type.
“I was in the service in Greensboro, North Carolina and German prisoners of war would come into places with military police that I couldn’t even get into. And I was an American soldier. In Newark, I’d go to the Savoy Theater and I had to sit in the balcony and not on the first floor. There were two separate societies, white and black, and they were not equal.
“And it still exists today. We were on tour with the Monterey Jazz All-Stars and my wife was on my shoulder and they’d say, ‘You two together?’ We’d eat and I ‘d hand them my platinum card and they’d return it to my wife. We’d be sitting together and they’d ask if we wanted separate checks. These things are more covered up in the north but they still happen.”
“What’s all this have to do with music? It has everything to do with music. The reason jazz was called the devil’s music is because it was done by colored people. That didn’t stop people from listening to it, from enjoying it. The music, the sound, is what makes people feel good. It’s what makes me feel good and that’s why I bring it to them.
Moody said he wouldn’t want to be president, but things would be different if he were. “If I were, we’d have to be honest about everything. No more of this pretending things aren’t like they are, no more being hoodwinked. Everything would be honest. For one thing we’d have to start paying teachers decent salaries. It’s disgusting all these professional athletes and business executives, the money they make. Let’s pay people who are doing something for the kids.”
Moody was wound up, but he returned to his two over-riding, optimistic themes; education of all types (he was always a great supporter of music education) and the fact that people’s differences were often less than they imagined…or were made to imagine. “In my administration, I’d get people to see things the way they are, be honest with them and get them to do the right thing. I’d get people to utilize the talents they have, whatever they are. I’d get people happy about things. Look at all the potential we have, everyone — Korean, Polish, African, Arab, Chinese, English — all these different people who really are the same. I’d get them to do what they do best. Then we could really sing.”–Cabbage Rabbit