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“Perhaps the professor emeritus of bebop saxophone, as it has endured from one century to the next. He got his start in his early teens, even taking a lesson or two from Lennie Tristano, before going to Juilliard in 1948. When he came out, he had already mastered a formidable bebop style on the alto saxophone: fast, lean, sweet-sour on ballads and with the blues always hovering in the background, it was a sound which soon drew parallels with Charlie Parker, although Woods's kind of emotion had nothing of Parker's tragic power.”
- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia
When alto master Phil Woods declares that he has "played with them all," it is a statement of justified pride.
He is approaching his 80th birthday in November of this year, and has spent more than 60 years as a working musician, achieving world-wide recognition as one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. The list of his idols, influences, mentors and colleagues is a "Who's Who" of jazz legends: Lenny Tristano, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Gene Quill, Clark Terry, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, to name only a few.
From his upbringing in Springfield, Massachusetts to his roots in the Delaware Water Gap region of Pennsylvania and all of his travels in between, the story of Phil Woods is a remarkable account of high personal achievement in performance, composition, recording and jazz education.
In 2007, Phil was awarded the coveted Jazz Master designation by the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest honor that our nation bestows on its jazz musicians. The Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program was established in 1992 by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and has documented to date the stories and experiences of more than 100 historically renowned jazz figures.
The following interview of Phil Woods was conducted on June 22-23, 2010 by Marty Nau and Ken Kimery of the Smithsonian Oral History Program (www.smithsonian.org). Phil passed away on September 29, 2015.
This is the first of a multi-part feature.
Marty Nau [MN]: Okay, this is Marty Nau here with the Smithsonian interviewing Phil Woods, a certain dream of mine come true. And Phil, for the national record ...
Phil Woods [PW]: Yes, sir.
[MN]: ... for the Smithsonian they'd like to have you state your full name.
[PW]: Gene Quill, [laughs] No, I'm Phil Woods. I was born in 1931, November the second, which means today I'm 78 but I'm very happy to say I have the body of a 77-year-old man.
[MN]: I noticed that immediately.
IPW]:I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. I had one brother, seven years older. Any other facts you'd like to have?
[MN]: Well, could you talk about your parents?
[PW]: My parents. Well, my dad was reported to be a violin player when he was a kid. Music was very important in our family. My mom loved music. There were four or five sisters; and on my father's side, there was an uncle who played saxophone. One of my mother's sister's husbands played saxophone, and I was given the sax in the will when he died. So, music was an integral part of our life in those days.
Of course, in those days, everybody was dancing to the same beat. We all knew who Irving Berlin was. I remember taking rides with my mom and dad. They loved the movies and when we'd go away on vacations and stuff we would sing songs. We knew the score to The Wizard of Oz, "Over the Rainbow" and "Blue Skies" and what have you. It wasn't like music has become, where the youngest kid is up here with his iPod listening to some kind of garbage music, and grandma's listening to Lawrence Welk, and mom and dad are listening to Dick Powell or Bing Crosby or something. Everybody was listening to the same sort of stuff. It was part of the woven fabric of American life. It was the American songwriters, you know, Irving Berlin. I mean, where would Charlie Parker be without Jerome Kern?
As the popular music progressed so did music, from the traditional Irving Berlin kind of basic harmony up to Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. It became more sophisticated. That was part of my life, although nobody played an instrument in my family. Mom and dad always nurtured the arts.
My mom subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club. I remember her reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom by D. H. Lawrence, and I remember she was reading Mein Kampf, you know, because he was very popular in those days. [MN laughs] I mean, others would say, "Oh, your mother read Mein Kampf'' and I would say, "Yeah!" It was part of history, you know? The culture was important but not overly. We were lower middle class. My dad was into advertising. He used to buy sides of farms up in New England and put ads on the side of the barn. I remember he was always into commercial advertising. When television first came out and we'd complain about the commercials, he'd say "Well, that's who's paying for the show, god darn it!" [MN chuckles] You know? So, he was aware of the fact that the dollar is important. As he got older he'd say, "Did you make a buck? Did you make a buck?" He was always concerned about that.
My parents were very supportive. My dad and mom said, "Do whatever you want" When I said I wanted to be a musician, they said, "Pursue whatever you want, but just do us a favor. Be good at it." Don't mess, don't jive. If you're serious, be serious. They never said [with a distasteful tone] "a musician," although at times, as life went on, they were maybe not quite so sure, with some of my peccadilloes. But they were always very supportive of what I did. I loved them very much. After my dad did the advertising thing, he had his own sign company. Then he was a fire commissioner in Springfield for 16 years. He was always helping people, I remember that. If a fire went beyond three alarms, they'd call my dad and he'd wake me up. So, I've always had an affinity for firemen. My older brother became a fireman when he got out of the Navy after the Second World War. I used to work very much in support of the local volunteer fire department, which made it ironic when my house burned down, [chuckles] The fire department said, "Oh, not Phil's house," you know? I still continue to support the firefighters. I think those are our heroes, as 9-11 certainly proved.
I went away to New York to study with Lennie Tristano right after high school. I graduated from high school when I was 15; I skipped a grade. I discovered the saxophone when I was 12 years old. I've got to talk about my first teacher, which was Harvey LaRose. I had this uncle, Norman Cook was his name, and there were rumors about him of nefarious dealings with Amazon tribes and digging gold in Alaska and the Klondike and prospecting for oil. I mean, he was into all kinds of stuff.
[PW]: But he had a saxophone and at the time he was very sick. In fact, he was dying of cancer. He lived downstairs from where I lived with my mom and dad. He lived downstairs with my grandmother and my mother's sister. He was the husband of my mother's sister, Phyllis. I discovered this case underneath my grandmother's wicker chair in the living room. So I opened it up and, man, there was a shiny gold saxophone. I said, "Whoa" you know, because at that time, it was during the Second World War, and I was into making toy soldiers. You know, melting lead and all that, and making them and painting them and doing all that. I think when I saw the saxophone my first instinct was to melt the sucker down, you know, [MN chuckles] and make a golden horde of warriors.
My nefarious intent was misunderstood to mean I had an interest in music. So when this cat died I was given the saxophone, which I proceeded to put back in the closet and go about melting lead. I couldn't melt the saxophone at that point, you know. my mother would have killed me. So, after about three, four, five, six weeks my mother said, "Well, Phillip, what are you going to do with this saxophone?" I said, "I don't know. Mom." She said, "Well, you know, your uncle went through a great deal of trouble to leave it to you" And even at that tender age of 12, I realized that dying could be construed as a great deal of trouble, which is one of the reasons I'm saving it for last.
[MN]: [chuckles] Yes.
[PW]: So, okay, I got the Yellow Pages, and I go to "Drum Shop - Saxophone Lessons - Mr. Harvey LaRose." I called the drum shop and I said, "Can I speak to the saxophone teacher, please? Mr. LaRose?" I said, "Hello Mr. LaRose, I'm ..." you know, I made an appointment for a lesson. And Mr. LaRose said, "You got it?" And I said, "Yes. Should I bring the saxophone?" And I could hear this kind of thing, a sigh, a yawn of disgust. He said to himself, "Oh, I've got a live one here." He said, "Young man, it would be a good idea to bring the saxophone to your first saxophone lesson."
[MN]: That would be nice.
[PW]: I didn't know! I had no idea. I thought you had to be anointed. I thought you had to learn to read music. I didn't know that you could just start playing it. So, I went and started playing it. He would give me the first lesson, but I was just pleasing mom. Okay, great, and I put the horn back in the case and went about my business. I'd put it back in the closet, and then I'd go for a lesson a week later. To make a long story short, as they say, I could play the lesson without even trying. I didn't think it was any big deal. And if I had gotten a teacher, one of those straight-laced cats who would say, "Hey, how dare you? You're playing by ear." Mr. LaRose recognized the fact that I must have a fair amount of retention, and I had a good sound. I always had a good tone. I mean, I was built—. That's what I'm here for. I finally decided that was my Kismet -I was meant to be a saxophone player. At that time I didn't know, but I had a teacher that recognized the fact that I could play without even trying. If I tried I could really be something. He didn't yell at me, and within a year I was hooked, man.
He started to give me the four pop songs of the week. You know, in those days they used to have a little three-page thing, you would have four songs from the Hit Parade that week. Now they're all standards, mostly good tunes. There would be an E flat part, a B flat part, a concert part, and then a bass clef part and piano accompaniment. Mr. LaRose played alto and clarinet, primarily - no flute - violin, guitar, piano. He arranged. He taught all of those instruments and arranging, and played with all the big bands. He was not an improviser but what a teacher, man. I'd say within a year, a year-and-a-half, I'd get these four pop songs of the week and I would play the songs and Harvey would accompany me at the piano. Gradually he'd tell me, well, this is a G-seventh here, and here's what you can do; here's a scale, you can play on that. You don't have to play the melody. He'd say, "It's good to play the melody but you can enhance it, you can decorate," and eventually I got into improvisation.
The first jazz pieces I ever played were Benny Carter transcribed solos, and he would accompany me. He would teach me the chords of all of Benny Carter's oeuvre. They were only transcriptions of his solos but they had piano accompaniment and he wrote out the chords for me again. This was getting a little more complex than just playing a song. These were jazz solos by "The King." One week, he gave me a Duke Ellington song called "Mood To Be Wooed." That was Johnny Hodges's feature for that season; you know, every year the book would change because Duke was always writing new music.
There were a bunch of us kids in Springfield; they used to call us The Springfield Rifles. There was Hal Serra on piano, who is still around in New York, I just had lunch with him. Sal Salvador was on guitar, he later went with Stan Kenton. Joe Morello was our drummer. I think everybody knows who Joe Morello was but, in case you were asleep, he played with Dave Brubeck and did the first drum solo in "Take Five," Paul Desmond's song. And Chuck Andrus was on bass. Chuck later played with the Woody Herman band with Nat Pierce. So, that was our kid band, we were pretty good. Hal played piano and he lived right up the street from me, and I used to look over his shoulder. I was into Kenton and big band stuff and he taught me about Artie Shaw and the Gramercy Five and the Benny Goodman Sextet. I got to learn about small group stuff. And then we heard our first Charlie Parker records, and that's all she wrote, pun intended. That really reinforced it. I mean, I knew when I heard Bird that there was some stuff happening.
Meanwhile, Mr. LaRose had given me this solo on "Mood To Be Wooed," and we went to hear Duke's band. Johnny Hodges stepped forward, and all the lights went down to blue, and Johnny came on and played "Mood To Be Wooed," and I said, "Ah, that's how it goes!" That also reinforced; to see someone play live, there's nothing like that. And then our first Charlie Parker records, of course. We all got hooked on bebop. Hal started to take lessons with Lennie Tristano, the great guru from Chicago, the blind pianist who recorded the first "free jazz" He did the first completely improvised music; he was the first cat, as far as I know. In fact, I'm pretty sure, historically, that it would bear me out, that he played the first what they call "free jazz." I like to play expensive jazz, [MN laughs] but that's another story, [chuckles]
So, we'd go to New York City from Springfield, Massachusetts. It's about a three-hour bus ride, and then we'd take a subway out to Long Island, I couldn't tell you exactly where. We'd take a bus to Mr. Tristano's house - he was always Mister, of course, in those days - and take a lesson. It was only for a summer; I took about six or seven lessons and I realized that I had a lot to learn. I wasn't quite ready for what Lennie was putting down because it was pretty advanced stuff. But I took his lessons to heart. A lot of it was playing the piano, and I've always played the piano. From watching Hal play, I'd go home and try it out. I think any musician worth his salt has to come to terms with a keyboard.
You also have to come to terms with the "Big City," and going to New York from Springfield to take a lesson with Tristano was a chance to come to terms with the big city. New York was the center of jazz at that point; it still is as far as I'm concerned. After the lesson we would go to Romeo's on Broadway for some spaghetti, and you knew it was fresh because it was sitting in a big silver 18-gallon pot in the window. Al dente was not in our vocabulary at that time. Then we'd go to Main Stem Records and buy the latest shellac - the latest Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie - whatever was hot, we bought it. Then, if we still had a dollar left, we'd go to 52nd Street and you could get a Coca-Cola for a buck and we'd sit there all night. Our bus went back to Springfield at four o'clock in the morning. We'd be the first ones in line for the Three Deuces or the Spotlight, or whatever. That whole 52nd Street scene was nothing but clubs. At four a.m. we'd get on our bus and go back home. When I hear kids at school say, "We're going out on a field trip," I say you don't know what a field trip is, man, until you've had a lesson with Tristano, had spaghetti at Romeo's, and went to Main Stem to buy Charlie Parker records and then went to 52nd Street, you know? I mean, wow! At 15,I said, "Whoa, this is great."
We went for a lesson one time at Mr. Tristano's house and he said, "Are you kids going down to 52nd Street tonight?" We said, "Yes, why do you ask?" He said, "Well, I'm opening for Charlie Parker and I thought maybe you'd like to meet him." And, you know, to myself I said, "Yeah, I've always wanted to meet God!" This time we held back on the records, we held back on the pasta so we'd have two dollars; we could buy two Coca-Colas and really relish the evening. Tristano's trio opened up the evening's festivities. Somebody had to come get us because Lennie was blind. I think it was Arnold Fishkin, who was the bass player, who came and got us and took us behind the curtain. I mean the 52nd Street clubs were just speakeasies. They were just narrow little cellars; there was no backstage, no dressing rooms, nothing like that.
We came around the back of the bandstand and there was Bird sitting on the floor. The great Charlie Parker, the man who was changing the planet. He had a big cherry pie, and he said "Hi, kids! Would you like a piece of cherry pie?" And I said, "Oh, Mr. Parker, cherry's my favorite flavor." [Both laugh] And it is! But I didn't know what else to say! He said, "Well, you sit down here, boy, and I'll cut you a big slice." He took out his switchblade - bing boom bang - and handed me a big piece of cherry pie. I said, "Oh my God, I'm in heaven." I mean, he was so kind, I never forgot that. That was one of the most important lessons, along with coming to terms with the city and with the new music and getting the latest shellac which I would take home and transcribe all of the heads and analyze the solos. But the kindness; I mean, here was one of the greatest musicians in the world. Accessibility. There was no presidium. There was no, "We're mere mortals and you're ...," you know? "Want a piece of pie?" I always remember that.
That's something that I've always tried to be, kind, even in my curmudgeonly way. I try to share what I know with a young musician, and not dissuade him. I might give him a hard time, of course. But if he can't get beyond my hard time he'll never make it in the biz, so, you know, you give him some reality. But I only saw the good part of Bird. Of course, with the journalists, the only thing that made the headlines was the bad news. You never heard about the sharing part.
So, anyway, that was my modest beginning."
To be continued in Part 2.