“"There was a very specific reason why Phil played on nearly every album I've made since 1956, because he not only was the best jazz alto sax player there was, he was a truly beautiful person," said Quincy Jones, whose collaboration with Woods dates to a State Department jazz tour with the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra in 1956.
"It is an understatement to say Phil Woods was one of the greatest jazz alto-saxophone players to ever set foot on this planet."
Arriving on the jazz scene in the late '40s, Woods was captivated by the fast-paced sound of bebop and quickly became familiar with the piquant harmonies and surging, offbeat rhythms of the music that was fast replacing the easygoing sounds and familiar memories of the Swing era. Musically adventurous, Woods was drawn to the compelling new chordal textures and the inventive possibilities that bebop provided.”
- Don Heckman, Los Angeles Times, 10-2-2015
The following interview was first published in the October 1996 edition of JazzJournal.
Steve Voce was kind enough to allow JazzProfiles to feature it on these pages.
Phil Woods passed away on September 29, 2015 at the age of 83.
Phil claims that his career was made possible by being in the right place at the right time.
I think it has more to do with bassist Chuck Israels assertions that “... intensity and focus were an essential aspect of Phil's artistic personality, but it is also important to recognize the intelligence that accompanied this mania. Phil was aware enough of his own experience and of the world he inhabited to make informed and considered decisions about his artistic life. It is these decisions as well as his great skill and intensity that shaped his commitment to the pursuit of his musical potential. It is a compliment to his determination that that potential was so often realized.” [I changed Chuck’s tribute to past tense.]
Whatever the case - fortuitousness or fortitude - I’m just glad that I was in the right place at the right time to be able to enjoy Phil’s music for almost six decades.
“I heard the Phil Woods Big Band play at the Wigan Festival last month. Despite the fact that the band was exhausted by a savage tour schedule it played wonderfully, with Phil, Brian Lynch and the magnificent piano player Bill Charlap outstanding.
Phil and I had the conversation that follows a couple of years ago in Florida at one of Matt Domber’s jazz weekends, this one for Flip Phillips.
“I went to New York in I947 and studied at the Manhattan School of Music for the summer and in the fall enrolled at Juilliard. I did four years at Julliard. I was living on 93rd Street near the Hudson River, sharing the rent with Sal Salvador and Hal Serra. Our pad was in the same building where Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow lived. I remember John Collins, Johnny Smith, Chuck Wayne, Tal, Sal and Jimmy all jamming together late at night. I heard some incredible music. I wanted to join in so badly, but was told I wasn't ready. And I wasn't. Tal, Sal, Hal and I got on a kick of building model airplanes. We would stay up all night listening to the weekend live jazz shows on the radio, the main source of entertainment in Angelica.
We would take our flimsy ships to Central Park at first light and fly them. Sal's which were always the most sloppily built, flew the best. It was a time when the technological beast had not yet taken over our lives. We had 78 RPM records, big bands, 52nd Street and Birdland. Giants like Bean, Prez, Pops, Bird, Bud, Fats [Navarro] and Diz walked the earth.
While I was at Julliard I also played fourth tenor in Charlie Barnet's band for a while. The day of my final exam I was playing at the Apollo Theatre doing seven shows a day. I had to arrange to play my Mozart and my Brahms between shows. My clarinet was stolen that day, too! The reason I seemed to come up on the scene so suddenly in the fifties was because there were more bands and consequently more places to be heard. I got a lot of exposure playing at Birdland on Monday nights, which led to the Birdland All Stars tour and that drew Neat Hefti's attention to me and I joined his band.
That's where Quincy Jones beard me and recognised that I could play a little bit and he recommended me for the Dizzy Gillespie band. It all came of being at the right place at the right time. It was very much a golden age for big bands then, too. One of my first big gigs was when I took Jackie McLean's place in the George Wallington band. That was an important gig for me as for as name value was concerned.
Of course, Charlie Parker was around New York at the time and I played with him atsome jam sessions. I was playing at the Nut Club in Greenwich Village, playing for strippers and wondering about my saxophone and my mouthpiece the usual doubts a young man would have. Somebody said 'Bird's across the street jamming," and I went to Arthur’s which is still there, and Bird was playing on a baritone sax belonging to Harry Rivers, the painter. I said “Mr. Parker, perhaps you'd like to try my alto?” He said he would, so I ran back across
the road and got my saxophone. When he played I realised that my horn sounded real good. There was nothing wrong with it! He said "Now you play it!" So I did my feeble imitation of him and he said 'It sounds real good son,' So I went back across the street to work and played the heck out of Harlem Nocturne.
I first heard Gene Quill with Art Mooney's band in the late forties then I met him at a jam session with Teddy Charles' band. We hit it off right away. Gene asked me if I wanted to sit in and asked me what I wanted to play. Whatever suits you, I told him. 'Donna Lee fast!" he said. We hit the line and the unison was pretty good. We played all day and all night and then we went to the bar and from then on we were like brothers. We became the preferred sax section for a lot of the arrangers who worked in New York then, people like Quincy and Oliver Nelson, Gary McFarland, Bob Brookmeyer and Ralph Bums. The rest of the preferred section was Al Cohn, Zoot Sims and Sol Schlinger (who's here at Flip's party) or Danny Bank on baritone. We had a band that we called Phil And Quill. We never travelled. We worked the Vanguard and the Half Note and odd gigs.
The Birdland All Stars tour was 1956 and then in '57 I toured with Dizzy's big band. For the Mid East part we had Joe Gordon as first trumpet soloist, We played in Abadan, Iran, Beirut, and Damascus all of the trouble spots. I've often said they should have sent Dizzy a few more times. It might have been a much better world. When we did a tour of South America Joe Gordon left and Lee Morgan joined the band.
The Quincy Jones band was formed specifically for Europe in 1959, it never appeared in New York. It was put together to play the show "Free And Easy", Harold Aden's remake of his "St. Louis Woman" show. It was a great band with Clark Terry, Benny Bailey, Ake Persson, Budd Johnson, Porter Kilbert, Jerome Richardson, the list is long. We were a year in Europe. We opened in Amsterdam. The band was in costume on stage with the music having been memorised. It was quite an accomplishment. The show folded in Paris after about two months. We managed to keep the big band intact with five saxes for ten months until we went back to the States. The economic reality of the States was such that we cut down to four reeds. I think we lasted about a month. It's amazing that we managed ten months in Europe, but we couldn't make it for more than a couple of weeks in New York City.
Quincy lost a lot of money on that trip. He did all the booking and everything. People told him he was crazy and that he couldn't keep a big band in Europe and that episode more or less forced him into the production end of the business.
One of my first big projects was "The Rights Of Swing" for Candid Records in 1961. Nat Hentoff was the producer for Candid and he was given what for those days was a whole lot of money. He had a real budget to commission writing and stuff and he said 'Do me an album,’ and that was the first commission I ever got. I bet the money up front to write the piece (a five part suite that ran for 40 minutes, Candid 9016). Quincy conducted and I had a good band. We used some of the guys from Quincy's tour Benny Bailey, Julius Watkins, Sahib Shihab and Buddy Catlett along with Curtis Fuller, Willie Dennis and the drummers Osie Johnson and Granville Roker. I used the whole of my musical experience when I was writing the piece. For example there's a direct quote from the first piece I wrote, Back and Blow, which was for the first date I ever made for a Jimmy Raney album. I used ideas from Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring' in the final part. I'd studied that work over the years, taken it apart, analysed it and enjoyed it. So when I thought of the title for my album it was really a doff of the hat to Mr. Stravinsky. I love both sides of the coin, jazz and symphony music.
I loved it when I had the chance to play Manny Albam’s 'Concerto For Jazz Alto Sax” with the full orchestra. I was trained as a classical clarinetist, so I'm fairly comfortable with an orchestra and I can read pretty good, you know. Gary McFarland and Oliver Nelson used to specifically write clarinet parts in to their pieces for me, because I was about the only guy in the section who didn't play flute.
In 1962 I joined Benny Goodman for his tour of Russia. He wasn't the greatest human being that I've ever met, but what a great artist! That's all we really care about, the great art. But he was tough on his musicians and nobody really understands why. He had his set ways. He wanted us to sound like his 1938 band. It was unusual for a man who did so much to revolutionise the music to be caught up in the past like that. If any of us caught the audience too much for him he'd reduce our solo space. It was very perverse I don't think he had always been like that though, I think it was something that caught him in later years. That was the only time I ever worked for him. We'd had quite enough of each other.
The only time I saw him again was years later in 1978. I won a Grammy for work on Michel Le Grand's Images which won the Best Big Band Album category. Benny Goodman was presenting the awards. He said "I wondered what had happened to you, kid!" I said 'I've been thinking about you, too, Benny.’
When Benny died John Frosk called Jerry Dodgion and he said 'I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that Benny died last night. The bad news is that he died in his sleep.’
I spent a lot of time teaching between 1964 and 1967 and then in March 1968 I moved with my family to Paris. The jazz opportunities in Europe were good at that time. I formed the European Rhythm Machine almost as soon as I arrived. with George Gruntz on piano, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair. Later Gordon Beck took over on piano. We stayed together for four years. It was an experimental group and an innovative part of my life.
As you say there were some periods of my life when I felt more creative than others. The ebb and flow of any evolutionary part of living is like that. You can't always be full out with the Creative thing.
You have to have time sometimes to ponder just where you're at. I hadn't recorded or played any jazz for years and suddenly I was in Europe and had a band and I was playing major festivals. I was even invited to play Newport.
I had the first Varitone electric attachment and [Gordon] Beck was using electric piano and we were early into fusion. I make no bones about liking what Miles Davis did at that time. Whatever Miles did I copied. I liked his musical direction. As he would change, I would change, too. He was the path finder for those things and I found him intriguing so that I experimented in my own way using his techniques.
The Varitone negates your own tone, so I tried a woodwind amp. I also got a wah wah pedal. Well, that really takes your tone away. I also used an Oberheim ring modulator. You throw a wah wah and a ring modulator on the horn, boy, and you've got some nasty stuff! I remember Leonard Feather came to hear the electronic band I put together in California in I972. That was a more experimental band than the European Rhythm Machine had been. But I was leaning towards that in the Paris days, and when that ran out and I moved to California I was still pursuing it and exploring more of the electric gadgets. In fact we had arranged an audition with Elektra Asylum. They were trying to find a group to cover for Weather Report, which was hot. The week of our audition David Geffen took over [running] the company and all appointments were cancelled. There was a complete change of policy, so we never got the chance to be heard. I often wonder what would have happened if a big company had got behind that band.
Lately I've been doing a lot of writing. I like to play melody. I'm a melody man. I like to play a song and I like form and responsibility. I don't think I'll be doing too much experimentation. I'm not going to be getting into twelve tone and I don't think I'll be changing the course of Western music. I sure have fun playing the theme and variation form which I love.
I don't overvalue the polls. I've been fortunate enough to win many of them for many years now, and it has enabled me to keep a quintet going. The publicity that goes with it makes it an important adjunct. That is, until I lose! Mosaic has just come out with a 20 year retrospective covering the quartets and quintets.. All the way back to the band with Harry Leahy and the first quartet with Mike Melillo, Bill Goodwin and Steve Gilmore. There's some stuff from Japan with Zoot as our guest, right up to the present with Brian Lynch and Jim McNeely.”