"James Moody is the most beloved jazz musician in the world," reedman Paquito D'Rivera says.
These may be strong words, but D'Rivera is far from alone in his appreciation of the tenor saxophonist, who died in 2010. On the bandstand, Moody was universally admired for his musicality, his generosity — he gave away mouthpieces, saxophones and, once, even the coat off his back — and his ability to illuminate any room with his personal warmth.
"He always had this big smile on his face," pianist Kenny Barron says. "Whenever he saw you, you got a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. He was just always that way."
Barron and Moody played together over the course of 40 years, and it was Moody who persuaded Dizzy Gillespie to hire Barron for his first big gig in 1962, when he was only 19.
"Moody was so humble — he always felt like he needed to learn more," Barron says. "He'd say, 'Hey, can you play these chord changes for me? I'm not really getting it.' Of course, when you did, he'd eat 'em up!"
D'Rivera and Barron are just two of the dozens of Moody's famous friends, including Jimmy Heath, George Benson and the Manhattan Transfer, who perform Friday night in the "For Love of Moody" concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The event raises money for a scholarship fund bearing Moody's name, and is the keystone of the inaugural James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival — a weeklong celebration of the saxophonist's legacy in his hometown of Newark — which runs through Sunday.
"He was one of the most giving human beings," Heath says. "Everybody who knew Moody knew he was a beautiful person."
The musicians will perform round-robin style in a "living room" created on the stage of NJPAC's Prudential Hall. Jokes will be told and stories shared. Moody, who often played practical jokes to break the tension in any room he found too stuffy, would have liked this informality, Barron says.
"Moody just had that enthusiasm and lust for life, you know?" he said.
Here's a list of five recordings by artists playing Friday's concert. They all capture moments when the musicians shared the stage with Moody, or were inspired by him. For more coverage of the James Moody Democracy In Jazz Festival, visit the WBGO blog.