© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
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 second of a multi-part feature.
“So, anyway, that was my modest beginning. All I did was practice 26 hours a day; I got thoroughly hooked on music. I went away to the Thousand Islands on a summer gig with a drummer, his name was Ray Chase and even his watch didn't keep time, you know what I mean? [MN laughs] He had a ratchet and gongs, and a big Chinese cymbal. And he'd have a couple of pops, and he'd want to play "The World is Waiting for a Sunrise" at what he thought was very fast. It was awful. But it was a summer gig and it paid for my—. That following year, I entered Manhattan School of Music as a clarinet major for a summer course.
[MN]: They didn't teach saxophone at the time, did they?
[PW1: No, no, no. Saxophone was not, no. It was the yeomen of the military bands, that's what the saxophone was, according to one of the orchestration books. "Yes, the saxophone, a yeomen of the military bands," I never forgot that. That's classic.
[MN]: I remember that.
[PW]: And then I transferred to Julliard. I didn't care for the Manhattan School, the clarinet teacher and I didn't hit it off. But I do remember being in the middle of Manhattan, going to Manhattan School of Music which was in East Harlem, in the Latin section, Puerto Rican section. I went to classes and I loved education. I loved just learning about music, man, it was all part of the same thing. I didn't want to learn bebop, I just wanted to be a musician. I remember getting a shaved ice on the street. You know, they shaved the ice and put some raspberry syrup or something on it. I'm standing in the middle of Lenox Avenue and I just yell, "Yaaayyyyy!" I'm in New York and I'm having a shaved ice and I'm learning music. I never forget that joyous feeling of music-making. To this day, I think that if it's not a joy, if it's not fun, I want no part of it. That's almost 70 years later, 65 at least, and I'm still a very joyful player. I love what I do, you know? I love it. It gets more precious the older I get.
[MN]: You're a very passionate player, too. How do you keep that passion?
[PW]: Well, because it gives me such joy! I love doing what I do. I'm the luckiest man in the world! I do what I love to do, and I'm a success at it. I fly business class all around the world; I eat well; I love good wine; I love women. I just love the joy of visiting new countries and getting used to different civilizations, different ways, different forms of government, and how people live. I just love the exploration that goes with the discovery of traveling. I always tell young students: if you ain't got the fire in the belly ... I mean, if you've got a choice between being a brain surgeon and a tenor man, I'd go with the brain surgery, man. I think music is only for those who don't have a choice. I didn't have a choice. Once I found that sax, I was hooked. I mean, in the good way. That was what I wanted to be virtually instantly, it depends a lot on your first teacher, and I had Mr. LaRose who brought me right into the American Songbook.
So, then I moved to Julliard and no, there was no saxophone major at Juilliard when I went there. I entered in 1949, I believe. I think Joe Allard came in in 1950. But when you're in a conservatory or a college or university, changing majors can be a problem. So I always stayed with the clarinet because the clarinet had access to more music. I went to the library and started with scores, started at A and went to Z, and learned about classical music. I heard the formation of the Juilliard String Quartet. I went to alt the rehearsals of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress." I heard one of the first performances of Charles Ives's "Concord Sonata." I saw John Cage lecture. I used to go to the composer's forums at Columbia College, where Vladimir Ussachevsky demonstrated the first taped musique concrete [music constructed by mixing recorded sounds, first developed by experimental composers in the 1940s], the abstract kind of music that was prevalent in those days.
One of the great things about American culture is that the military always carries music with it. In fact, the reason the French love jazz so much is because of James Reese Europe and the great New York Infantry Band. It was a black band and they played marches. They played them with a New Orleans-kind of beat. The French fell in love with that. I think the reason why some of the best music in the world comes from Japan and Germany and Italy and Venezuela is the international aspect of American music.
America's only original inventions are baseball, Mickey Mouse and jazz, you know? That's the only really original stuff that we've done.
We used to have the Voice of America all during the war. We seem
to love to make war, and we've always had a good band with us to entertain the soldiers and the officers. So, a lot of people around the world got to listen to the Voice of America with Willis Conover, which always played the latest jazz, I think from midnight to two o'clock in the morning. It traveled all over but especially in Russia and Iron Curtain countries. Even after the war there was always a propaganda Voice or America or Radio Liberty. There would be a lot of |azz because even at the seat of government they realized that jazz was an important thing. The only drawback was that we never had a Voice of America or Radio Liberty for Americans. We didn't educate our own people about the importance of jazz. That work is still going on.
[MN]: We're kind of paying for it now, aren't we?
[PW]: Yes, we are, we are; of course we're paying for it. We always will because it's all mixed up with race. Anything that the blacks did has got to be inferior. There's still that racism going on. But we're a very young country, you know. Other countries have gotten over all that nonsense to a degree. Yeah, [chuckles] we're paying for it.
[MN]: Now, if I could ... there's a lot to chew on from when you first started talking to now, and it seemed to all start from kind of a non-interest in the saxophone until it actually got in your hands and you took that first lesson.
[PW]: No, I would play clarinet all day long and then at night I played the saxophone all night. I'd do my exercises and I'd listen to Charlie Parker. No, 1 knew that I was basically a saxophone player. But I was at the conservatory level, I'm competing with—, I didn't think I was worthy, you know? I was twelfth in line for the training orchestra, but that was fine. I found after a couple of years in New York ... I mean, I was raised a Roman Catholic, and all of a sudden I find out there's no God. I was shocked but I got over it, you know what I mean? The sophistication of all my friends in New York; discovering how to drink and smoke and carry on, and all that. But the sax was the primary. I did a lot of gigs that put me through school, but after my second year I realized I was not going to be a clarinet player, no way, although I was a good one. But I knew I'd never make a living at it. It could be a nice double, and it always was. But no, sax was still primary.
[MN]: But, at the very beginning, when your uncle left it, it was something that you ...
[PW]: Oh no, I was going to melt it down. It was just a thing to please mom. No, without Harvey LaRose and that first couple of lessons ... But it was relatively quick, within a couple of months. I mean, I loved doing it. When I was a kid, 12,13 years old, I used to march around the dining room table doing long tones and scales, arpeggios. I'd count 50 laps then I'd take a break.
[MN]: Is that right?
[PW]: I'd do 50 laps of long tones and I'd do 50 laps of scales and 50 laps of arpeggios. Then I'd put the records on and transcribe all the heads and analyze the solos. I'd work on those. I had a piano and I'd go to the piano and figure out what the chords were. And I learned -I taught myself Debussy, "Maid with the Flaxen Hair," and I got the Bartok "Micro Cosmos." I mean, I worked at being a musician. I didn't want to be a clone. I was no Charlie Parker but I wanted to be a good musician. And I always wrote. I wrote charts for my high school band. I wrote charts for a band called Carmen Ravosa and his Rhythmaires. We used to rehearse at Carmen's house. His brother later became mayor of Springfield. I mean they were highly placed. I remember when I had my first record by Charlie Parker, "Koko," and I brought it to rehearsal. I said, "Wait 'til you guys hear this!" I put it on and they said, "Oooo, that's terrible, you like that?" I remember I quit the band and I went home in tears saying, "You're wrong! This is the greatest music in the world!" And I was right and they were wrong.
But I knew it as soon as I heard the first notes; I knew that Bird was great, that this was the new music, t was perched historically at that great period
when jazz was still relatively new. It came from the dance bands, the big bands. There were plenty of gigs; everybody was dancing to the same beat. But I knew there was more to it, and the exploration and the education took a lifetime. I'm still working on it. But that's the passion I think you hear. I'm still making discoveries about music; I don't think you ever really know music, or know anything about art. It's the voyage; it's the journey, the getting there. There's always some stuff somebody has found out, and it's up to you to pry it out, get it into your psyche, and turn it into your thing. I'm still discovering a lot of stuff that I didn't know.
[MN]: So, you're easily inspired, aren't you?
IPWJ: Yes, I am. I work at it though. I work at inspiration. I think it's 90 percent perspiration and a little inspiration. I do all my writing at the computer. I mean, I work at the keyboard to get the ideas and all that but then I go right to the computer and orchestrate. I find it a great convenience to be able to hear it while I'm writing. I don't think you can create at the computer but for orchestration, it's great.
[MN]: Did Johnny Hodges instill in you that if you don't have a sound you don't have anything?
[PW]: Oh yeah, but Benny Carter, too. You know that whole early tradition of the alto saxophone. I mean, if you go to the movies and you hear an alto, somebody's kissing or somebody's dying. [Both laugh] It's a very romantic or perilous instrument, you know what I mean? But it always signifies something very deep, especially the alto.
[MN]: Now, you're in New York City. Do you have a memory of a big gig or a big break that maybe started the ball rolling more?
[PW]: Well, I started to work Monday nights at Birdland with Jimmy Chapin. His son became a very successful pop singer [Harry Chapin]... The dad was a great drummer and he had a Jazz band. Billy Byers was the trombone player, I was the alto player, Don Stratton was the trumpet player. We used to work Monday nights. I moved to Brooklyn which is where the Goodsteins, the people who owned Birdland, were from and they kind of took me under their wing. They used to bring me food and stuff like that, as a kid trying to make my way. I was hired to do the Birdland All-Stars in 1956. But, you know, I actually did my first recording in 1954, with Jimmy Raney. Ira Gitler sort of discovered me. Oh, Jimmy discovered me at a gig in Brooklyn at a place called the Pink Elephant in Brighton Beach. Prior to that, I worked at Tony's Bar on Flatbush Avenue with a guy named Chasey Dean, who was at Juilliard with me. He would always get the gig and he'd always use me. He was a good tenor player, and a very good clarinet player. So, I was starting to get a reputation in New York.
My first band was with Charlie Barnet. Charlie Barnet had the first mixed band: six alcoholics, six junkies, and six potheads. [Both laugh] I played fourth tenor on the band. We did a tour of tobacco warehouses, and then the next year a tour, and a few months later he toured again and I was put on lead alto. You see, he liked what I did on alto. So, some of that journeyman work led to my getting a good reputation in New York, and it led to getting the Monday nights at Birdland. I remember playing with Neal Hefti on a weekly basis. I remember Pee Wee Marquette coming up to me saying, "Give me a quarter." I said, "Whaddya mean, give you a quarter. Why?" He said, "Because I make you look so pretty on your ballad feature" I said, "Get out of here," you know? So, I go back to work and then I stand up to play my ballad and all the lights go off and the microphone is dead.
[MN laughs] I said, "Here's a dollar." [Both laugh] Yeah, the reality of show biz.
Birdland would do a tour every year of the best players in jazz, and there was always a young band on the tour also. I played with Kenny Dorham, Conti Candoli and Al Conn; we played with Sarah Vaughan's rhythm section. The tour also included Count Basie's band, Lester Young, the Bud Powell trio, Al Hibbler, Sarah Vaughan and her trio. I remember showing up in front of Charlie's Tavern. He said, "You know, the bus is going to leave at 9 o'clock for the tour." I show up and, man, there are all my heroes. Oh my god, you know? What do I do? Where do I sit on the bus? If you sit on the wrong seat, somebody from Count Basie's band is going to pull a leg out of your ass. I mean, there was a certain pecking order. I heard a voice from the back of the bus say, "Back here, Phil!" It was Al Cohn. He had a seat over the wheel in the next to the last row, the bank head in the back and then the last two seats. We sat right behind Lester Young and Bud Powell on that tour.
Now, it's the middle of March, I believe and we get through the Lincoln Tunnel and we're going through Jersey. I don't know where we're going but it seemed like we're driving for hours, and I said, "Gee, Al, I've got to go to the bathroom, man." He said, "You have to go?" "Yeah," I said, "I have to go real bad." He said, "Well, go up to the driver. I wouldn't say 'I have to go the bathroom,' that's a little Massachusetts Catholic, you know what I mean? Tell him you have to make a pee stop." I said, "Pee stop? Okay." So, I went up to the driver and said, "Puh-puh-pardon me, sir. Uh, are we going to be making a pee stop?" He said, "You have to go to the bathroom?" [Both laugh] I said yeah so he opened the door. It's the middle of March; snow and sleet are pouring in; I'm trying to hold onto my Johnson, and holding onto the door, and the pee is hitting me in the face and, man. But I got good at it. I learned how to do that.
[MN]: They don't teach you that in school.
[PW]: They don't teach you that at school; not at Julliard, no, or Berklee for that matter. Even a jazz school doesn't have that course. But, I mean, these cats ... Basie's band would get their itinerary and it could be a six-week tour, eight- week tour. They'd go out for a while, you know? This tour was a long tour; we went everywhere. Basie's band could tell you where they were going to be eating, where they were going to be sleeping, who they were going to be sleeping with, where they were going to get the best chicken dinner, how much it was going to cost. I mean, in every town they had it covered. Talk about an overview; I mean, the itinerary in their life was clear. They knew exactly where they were going to be [chuckles] and not only on this continent but when they went to Europe, too. After years and years of travelling you get your chops. That amazed me in those days.
So, that was my big break. Quincy Jones heard me on that tour and hired me for the Dizzy Gillespie band that was going to the Mideast on a State Department tour. I was invited because they couldn't send an all-black band as a representation of America. I mean, even though that was the reality, they had to get some white faces ... so I was hired to play alto. There were a few of us: Frank Rehak, Marty Flax and myself, the three white guys on the Dizzy band, a result of tokenism. But, man, it was the chance to play with the world's greatest players, you know?
We flew from Idlewild to Dublin to Rome; we picked up Dizzy in Rome. Quincy rehearsed the band in New York, but Dizzy was on tour with Norman Granz' "Jazz at the Philharmonic" tour so he never met the band. We picked him up at Rome airport, Fiumicino. I remember we were sitting on the plane while they're refueling it and we're smoking. The plane was off on the tarmac, we're not at the terminal. It was in the middle of the night and it was hot. So they opened the plane doors, and we heard a trumpet [Phil sings] "I just found joy, I'm as happy as a baby boy ...", "Sweet Lorraine," which was Dizzy's wife's name. And here comes Dizzy on a baggage cart. They threw down a rope ladder and he clambered up and off we went. Our first stop was in Baghdad for gas. Our first gig was in Abadan, Iran, where they do all the oil. I mean, in Iran we could hear them shooting at each other, at Iraq, right across the river, even then back in '56. We went to Beirut; we went to Damascus in Syria; we went to East and West Pakistan, before Bangladesh, Karachi and Dakar; we went to Istanbul and Ankara in Turkey; we went to Athens, Greece.
[MN] A lot of hot spots.
[PW] Pretty much all of the trouble spots, yeah. But, I thought it was great.
I mean, what a great thing, to send jazz to kind of cool down the hotspots, you know what I mean? And it worked. That's when I discovered the power of American music. People were listening to the radio, the older people that had radios; not so much in the Mideast but in Greece and in Turkey and the more enlightened locations. Beirut was the most pristine; a beautiful, a duty-free port, a wonderful city, great. And they paid so many dues in the past it was incredible. But, yeah ...the power of the State Department. Then the following year we went to South America.
[MN]: In 1958?
[PW]: '57. It was part of the same tour, same year. In 1958, I had left the band. [In 1957] We went off to Guayaquil, Quito, Ecuador, where you could buy a shrunken head in the hotel lobby gift shop. They were not real, but... [MN laughs] Now, where else did we go? We went to Rio; I remember Rio and meeting Jobim. He was in the front row. Milton Nascimento was just a little kid. And they remember that, because Dizzy was the first cat to kind of get into the Latin crossover thing, with Chano Pozo.
He was the best leader; everybody knew who was in charge when Dizzy was around. He became a dear friend. I loved him and I think he loved me. We got along very, very well. I worked with him for years and years. We'd hang out. I remember the first time in Abadan, Iran. We no sooner landed than Frank Rehak, who was a pretty wild guy, got right to the opium den. He came back with some of the best smoke I've ever, ever... I didn't know that much about it but they said it was good, you know? So, it's the first rehearsal; I'd never met Dizzy, and we're rehearsing in Abadan, Iran. It's outdoors; there are no dressing rooms, just a little stage. Frank brought some of his "goodies" and we're underneath the stage and a pipe is being passed around. All of a sudden everybody disappears. I'm holding the pipe, and here comes Dizzy. He said, "What have you got there?" I said, "It's not my pipe." Yeah, that's good, that's a good line, Phil. That'll get you off the hook. He said, "Young man, do you realize this is a State Department tour?" I said, "Yyyyyyyeah." He said, "You could be jeopardizing my gig, and every man on the band. I mean, it could be the end of detente, the end of world peace." He had me going. I knew I was going to get sent home. He gave me like about 10 minutes of this tirade. I mean, "You gotta be kidding ... jeopardize every man ... blah blah blah"Then he said, "Is it any good?" I said, "Birks, I'm no expert but it's the best grass I ever smoked." And he said, "Then give me some before I fire your white ass." [Both laugh] But that's the kind, I mean
[MN]: He was fun.
[PW]:... He was fun. He wasn't a drug addict. I mean, he'd smoke a little bit, but that was about it. He was just messing with me, man, you know? But I never forgot that. He liked to laugh, too. I said, "You son of a gun, you really got me that time." And he continued to do that.
[MN]: You learned a lot from him, didn't you?
[PW]: Yes, I learned a lot. School is always open with people like Dizzy. Let's say the plane is late; we're stuck at the airport for an hour. Well, we'd all be around the bass and Dizzy would say, "Do this [Phil taps out a rhythm] and I'd say, "I can't do that, I'm a white guy," and he'd say, "Yeah, you can do it, you can do it," you know? I remember Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey kidnapping me one time a few years later. I'm playing for strippers, you know? I'm working downtown, and, I mean, I'm not making any progress; I'm playing at weddings. I had graduated from Juilliard. I didn't get my diploma but I did my four years, let me put it that way. I didn't make my final exam but that's a long other story. So,... they kidnapped me because I was in a maudlin groove. I was drinking too much; I was not content with my existence; I was not making any progress. They threw me in a cab and took me to Dizzy's house. They said, "What's your problem?" I said, "Oh man, I'm just not getting anywhere." And they said, "Well, if you clean up your act a little bit, stop drinking so much, you might be somebody" I said, "You think I can play?" They said, "Yes you can play, but you've been behaving like an asshole" I said, "Yeah, but I'm a white guy" And Dizzy said, "Time out, BIG time out here." He said, "Woods, Charlie Parker didn't play this music for black people or for red people or for green people. He played it for everybody. If you can hear it, you can have it"
[MN]: That's a great thing.
[PW]:I thought that was a great... And he said, "You know, you can't steal a gift. Bird gave it to us. You can't steal a gift" I never forgot that night.
[MN]: There's a whole lot in that statement: "If you can hear it, you can have it."
[PW]: A whoooole lot in that and it changed my life. I stopped drinking in excess. I mean, I didn't become perfect but I went up another notch. If these guys think I'm pretty good, okay, bring it on. Let me get into it and stop messing around. I got back on track; I went back to work. I was working at a place called the Nut Club in the Village, but I was still not all the way there. I'm not happy with the reed, and the mouthpiece, and the horn. I'm at that stage of the saxophone, "Oh this goddamn horn is kicking my..." you know? I've got to get a new horn, a new reed, a new mouthpiece, a new ligature, a new strap. And I'm playing "Harlem Nocturne'' and "Night Train" every night, man, three shows for strippers, with Nick Stabulus and Teddy Kotick. Gil Evans used to come to sit in. We played jazz in between shows but during the shows you'd play for the sword-swallower and the fire-eater and all that. As they walked in the door, the customers were given a wooden hammer to beat the crap out of the table for their favorite
stripper. I worked there for six months, and it was really not quite what I had in mind. I'm playing a little jazz but it's becoming too much like a job.
Then somebody said, "Hey Phil, Bird's across the street jamming." I said, "Oh, really." So, man, I ran across Sheridan Square to a joint called Arthur's Tavern, it's still there. And there was the great Charlie Parker, on a bandstand that was about as big as three or four card tables, a little teeny stage. And there was a piano player playing on a little teeny piano; he was about 90 years old and his father was on drums. His father had a couple of pie plates and a little snare drum. And there's Charlie Parker and he's playing on a baritone sax. I later found out it belonged to Larry Rivers, who was a great painter, one of the guys, but not a very good saxophone player. I don't know what Bird was doing with it but there he was. I said, "Mr. Parker, perhaps you'd like to play my horn" He remembered me from the cherry pie days. I mean, he knew who I was; he knew who all the young guys were. He said, "That'd be good, Phil, this horn is kicking my butt, man"
So, I ran across Sheridan Square back to my gig, my "Harlem Nocturne"-10-times-a-night gig, and my horn that I didn't think was working, and my mouthpiece I didn't like, and all that. I grabbed it and came back and sat right next to Bird. I handed him the horn and he played "Long Ago And Far Away." I'm listening to him play my horn and it occurs to me there's nothing really wrong with this saxophone, you know? [MN chuckles] It seems to sound pretty darn good. The reed's working, the mouthpiece is working, even the strap sounded good, man. [Both laugh] Then Bird said, "Now you play," and I said, "Oh my god."
You know, when I run across young students and I ask them to play something, they say, "Oh, I'm too shy." And I always say, "Shy is the enemy, man, you've got to get over it. When you get an opportunity, when the door knocks, man, you've got to answer it in full regalia and give it your all" I mean, I was young but I knew that. So, when Bird said, "Now you play," I gave it my best shot because I'd been around the block a little bit. He leaned over and said, "Sounds real good, Phil" [Phil pats his chest] "Be still my heart... be still my heart!" I mean, between what Dizzy said to me about "Get your act together," "You can't steal a gift," and when Bird said, "Sounds real good” ... two giants that changed the whole planet and they thought I was worthy. So now I've got to really get my act together. That was a great lesson. But those lessons are no longer available. You don't get that on the college level. I mean, you might meet a great teacher, don't get me wrong, but not a person of that caliber: a poll winner and a guy who's changing the world of music, you know what I mean?
[MNJ: Those were two important seeds which were planted in you.
[PW]: Yes. Bird and Diz are the yin and the yang of modern music, and they were friends that took time out to nurture my talents. I never forgot that. I think of them a lot when I teach or when I play. How lucky I am to have known these men, and people like Quincy. I mean, I knew everybody -I know everybody - and I played with them all.
To be continued in Part 3.