James Moody, the jazz saxophonist and flutist who balanced serious musicianship with a complete refusal to take himself too seriously, died Thursday at the age of 85.
Mr. Moody, who began his career with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shortly after World War II and maintained it well into the 21st century, developed distinctive and equally fluent styles on both tenor and alto saxophone, a relatively rare accomplishment in jazz. He also played soprano saxophone, and in the mid-1950s he became one of the first significant jazz flutists, impressing the critics if not himself.
“I’m not a flute player,” he told one interviewer. “I’m a flute holder.”
The self-effacing humor of that comment was characteristic of Mr. Moody, who took his music more seriously than he took himself. Musicians admired him for his dexterity, his unbridled imagination and his devotion to his craft, as did critics; reviewing a performance in 1980, Gary Giddins of The Village Voice praised Mr. Moody’s “unqualified directness of expression” and said his improvisations at their best were “mini-epics in which impassioned oracles, comic relief, suspense and song vie for chorus time.” But audiences were equally taken by his ability to entertain.
Defying the stereotype of the modern jazz musician as austere and humorless (and following the example of Gillespie, whom he considered his musical mentor and with whom he worked on and off for almost half a century), Mr. Moody told silly jokes, peppered his repertory with unlikely numbers like “Beer Barrel Polka” and the theme from “The Flintstones,” and often sang. His singing voice was unpolished but enthusiastic — and very distinctive, partly because he spoke and sang with a noticeable lisp, a result of having been born partly deaf.
The song he sang most often had a memorable name and an unusual history. Based on the harmonic structure of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” it began life as an instrumental when Mr. Moody recorded it in Stockholm in 1949, improvising an entirely new melody on a borrowed alto saxophone. Released as “I’m in the Mood for Love” (and credited to that song’s writers) even though his rendition bore only the faintest resemblance to the original tune, it was a modest hit for Mr. Moody in 1951. It became a much bigger hit shortly afterward when the singer Eddie Jefferson wrote lyrics to Mr. Moody’s improvisation and another singer, King Pleasure, recorded it as “Moody’s Mood for Love.”