© 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 third of a multi-part feature.
[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.
[MN]: I speak for a lot of saxophone players. We're quite envious.
[PW]: Well, you should be, because that was the critical time. That was a pivotal era in American history, when the music had not quite changed so much. I mean, you still had to be able to play for fire-dancers and sword-swallowers and strippers, and wear a suit and tie, and belong to the union and work for scale. You had to cut a show, and be able to read. You had to know something to be a musician, to get a gig. It meant something.
I don't want to put anyone down but that all changed with the arrival of Bill Haley and the Comets and the Beatles, who I love. There came a period when the guitar became the thing, you know? It was discovered that by playing three chords badly you could make a million dollars and play in Yankee Stadium. Our dream was to maybe make fifty bucks a week playing for strippers six nights a week, and that was fine. There was no such thing as the kind of numbers that are now bandied about. Then the corporations jumped on it, and not only the small mom and pop grocery stores were wiped out by the corporations but the little record companies, the small ones where records were done with love, you know? There was a whole thing that got swallowed up when the numbers got so big. And now it's gotten exponentially worse, I think. They're aiming at younger and younger audiences and making more and more money, you know...
[MN]: Totally market driven.
[PW]: It's all market driven, thank you. Yes, exactly. We all know that but the music goes on.
[PW]: It will survive. I don't mean to be a downer about it but it does exist.
[MN]: You're a realist.
[PW]:... and young people have to deal with it. It's something I never had to deal with. There was still a market for what I did.
[MN]: After Charlie Parker, what about another important saxophone player in your life; a comrade and a friend, Gene Quill.
[PW]: Oh, Gene Quill, that was my man. Yeah.
[MN]: I love the stuff that you did with him.
[PW]: Yeah, well, we were brothers. We met at Teddy Charles's, Teddy Cohen his name was. He was from Springfield, Massachusetts. He played drums up there and was not a very good drummer. But he was the first guy to leave Springfield and come to New York. He went and the next thing we knew he was recording with Chubby Jackson, a tune called "Father Knickerbocker." He played the vibes solo on it and became very well known. Teddy's still living, he's still around. He used to have jam sessions at his loft on 50th Street, between Broadway and 7th Avenue, right at the subway stop there. I went to one of the jam sessions; I wanted to see what was going on. I was kind of a new kid in town. I couldn't give you the exact year but it was early fifties. I climbed up the stairs and I heard the introduction to "Robin's Nest." I said, "Hey, I know that," and I sat down. Teddy knew I was from Springfield so he was kind. He said, "Hey, you want to play?" I said, "No, I just want to check it out, see what's going on." I listened to everybody playing and started to feel a little more confident; maybe I'll play a little.
So I started to take my horn out when I heard this alto player. He said
[Phil mimics in an impatient, clipped cadence] "What do you want to play?" I said, "Uh, your choice, sir" And he said, ""Donna Lee,' fast." I said, "Kick it off, bro," you know? [Both laugh} He kicked it off and we hit the head and it sounded like one alto. That was Gene Quill. We immediately fell in love and played all night, had breakfast, and then went back to the bar. That's something that's always amazed me about jazz music. I think it's the only industry in the world where even if somebody plays better than you, you will nurture him and help him. Like when Cannonball came to town. Now, here was a guy who was messing with me and Jackie McLean's gig, and Gene's, but we never tried to dissuade him. That's a corporate mentality, you know. If somebody knows more than I do, well then, I won't let him compete with me, man. That's not good. But in jazz and music and the arts you help somebody. If they play better than you do, that's not a threat; that's something you can learn from, so help them. It helps everybody.
I've always loved the sense of humor part of jazz. I loved Joe Venuti and what all those guys did. Quill would always say, "How's your career?" That's why I use that line, "How's your career?" [MN laughs] It's kind of silly in jazz but that was Quill's thing. Or, he'd be at a bar and there'd be a young guy drinking and Gene would say, "Well, what are you killing yourself over?" [Both laugh] Well, I had heard him play with Art Mooney's band up in Springfield, Massachusetts when I was a kid. He had a couple of years on me but he was very young then. I remember hearing him when I was just starting to play the alto. He played a solo on "Stars and Stripes Forever," like a jazz arrangement and I said, "Whoa." So, I sort of knew who he was but then we became tight. Anyway, I remember one time he played with the Johnny Richards band and he just played a blazing solo. I think it was on “Tappan Zee," one of his featured tunes; faster than hell, a brilliant solo. He could play fast, man; and a great clarinet player, too. As he came off the bandstand to go back to the dressing room, somebody at a table said, "Gene Quill, all you're doing is imitating Charlie Parker." Gene whipped around and handed him his horn, and said, "Here, you imitate Charlie Parker."
[MN]: Not so easy.
[PW]: Not so easy. That's all you're doing? Here, [chuckles] you want to try it?
[MN]: Especially back then.
[PW]: Yeah, especially back then. But Gene couldn't handle success; he burned himself out. He went back to Atlantic City and had a lot of health problems and didn't quite make it. But I think of him a lot, we were brothers.
[MN]: Phil, earlier we didn't get the name of your parents and your brother, just for the record.
[PW]: Oh yes. My mother's name was Clara Mary Markley Woods, and my father was Stanley Joseph. My brother was Stanley Joseph, Jr. My namesake uncle was Phil Markley, who was a representative up in Boston. He was a politician, a good man. He and my dad had a business together and were very close.
[MN]: Were you lucky enough to have your parents around for a long time?
[PW]: Yes, they both lived well into their eighties. They knew me when I was with Dizzy and they got to know Quincy and Dizzy. They were very proud of me. In fact, they came to see me when I was with Jimmy Raney, the guy who discovered me when I made that record for Prestige. Ira Gitler was the producer and Ira told Bob Weinstein to get Phil Woods, he's really good. Charlie Parker had just died, so every record label was looking for an alto player. Jackie McLean and I... we were both very close.
In fact, when I was working at the Nut Club playing for strippers, Jackie was on the scene playing down there. He was doing a play called The Connection. Bird had just died - we both loved Charlie Parker. Jackie and I were sort of next in line, you know? We loved Charlie Parker but we thought maybe we'd get some gigs and we could feed our kids.
One time, Jackie came to my gig and said, "Follow me, come with me." He took me to the Bohemia, Oscar Pettiford's band was there, and this fat alto player was sitting in. We're at the back of the stage and we're listening to this alto player play. We looked at each other and, without rehearsing, we just said, "Oh, sh-t," [Both laugh] because it was Julian "Cannonball" Adderley.
It's another one of those stories where, when someone better than you comes along, you nurture them. We just heard this guy and said, "Oh my god, so much for that [Laughs]; it looks like we're still in trouble," you know?
[MN]: There seemed to be plenty of work for everybody back then, though.
[PW]: Well, yes. Once again, everybody was dancing to the same beat, if you knew the songs, you know? I mean, Jackie, me, all the musicians of that era, we were walking Real Books [fake book - “fake” = uncopyrighted versions]. We didn't use Real Books-, there used to be little index cards. We knew all the songs. Harvey LaRose gave me the four Hit Parade songs of the week; those were all Harold Arlen, Duke. I knew every pop song; I knew every fake book. Very rarely do I find a song that I don't know and when I do, I learn it. That's half the fun. I'm still discovering some nuggets - being able to record a Wayne Shorter tune that he recorded once that nobody ever played, like "Infant Eyes," just for an example.
[MN]: You were telling the Gene Quill story ... "Here, you imitate Charlie Parker"... As jazz musicians, do we have to worry so much about getting our own voice? Doesn't it just happen if you work hard at it?
[PW]: I think so but Dizzy used to always say, "Steal." He was into Roy Eldridge when he came up. I asked him once, "How did you get from that to Dizzy Gillespie?" He said "Steal." He said, "I came from Roy but then I absorbed it." He was really very humble about his contribution. He always used to defer to Yardbird and, well, in a way, he was correct. He always called Charlie Parker "Yard" We called him Bird but Dizzy always said "Yard." He said, "Yard gave us the vocabulary." You know, the way of talking, the vernacular as it was, the rhythmic thing. That's all Charlie Parker; Bird could turn the beat upside down. You'd think he'd be upside down but he wasn't. And the way of phrasing [sings to imitate a fast Parker solo] and all the chromaticism, because music prior to that was all diatonic, more or less. I mean, there was chromaticism, a little bit, but only to get from one note to another. But he really got into using all 12 tones, and being able to point out the ones that were the really important ones in the harmony and the ones that were not, the passing tones. But to make them part of the phrase, which the French composers and Stravinsky were also doing. Music kind of developed as our ears grew, you know?
But, to find your own voice, I think you have to listen to everybody. I'm still listening to everybody. What amazes me is how the music travels when I hear, like, the cats from Venezuela. What a rich country, but they've got their music education. Do you know, they have the best orchestras in the world? I mean, the kids. You've got to check that out. Venezuelan musical culture is the strongest in the world. The kids are given instruments when they're young and all through school. They have the best players in the world in Venezuela.
[PW]: People keep putting them down because of that weird boss they have but, man, their culture is [chuckles] a killer. Whenever we try to cut back on budgets, the arts are the first thing to go. It's just ridiculous...
[MN]: They should be the last things to go.
[PW]:... because the jury is back. If a kid learns a little bit about music and art, and learns a language, he's going to be better at whatever he decides to do. I don't think that everybody who takes up a saxophone is going to change the world, but it's going to make you a better citizen. I've always kind of envied people who don't have to play for a living, who play for the fun of it. That's a pretty nice thing to have as a hobby. That's a great thing, not to have to depend on it. There were times when I was envious of that; it's a nice luxury to just enjoy the music and not worry about having to make a living doing it.
[MN]: In the sixties, you became involved in the studio scene.
[PW]: I got very busy in the studios, yes, because all the arrangers were still in New York: Quincy, Billy Byers, Elliot Lawrence, Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Johnny Richards. The list of the writers is long; I'm leaving half of them out. Sauter, Finegan, Finkle ... most of the writers were in New York and a lot of the soundtracks went down there. All of the jingles were done there so I would be working all day and all night. I got so busy that Jerome Richardson finally said, "Why don't you get a flute, man. You don't have to get very good at it. You already can play the clarinet; you get another double, that another 25 percent. If you get three doubles, you're going to get your root pay plus seventy five percent" Twenty five for the first and 50 percent for your, whatever it is, you know, it almost doubles your bread. By that time I had a couple of kids so I bought some cheap flute. I forget what it was; it wasn't a Haynes, that I know. I took it home, put it together, blew a couple of notes, and I fell into a dead faint. [MN laughs] Ahhhhhhhh! Oh my god.
That's not what I took up the saxophone for. I loved playing the clarinet; I generally loved the two instruments. But I detested ... I said, this is obviously not for me, man; I was not a natural, you know? So I took the flute and paid my bar tab at Jim and Andy's with it. Jim Koulavaris gave it to his daughter, and to this day she's one of the great flute players in the world.
[MN]: No kidding?
[PW]: Yes, Annie Koulavaris.
[MN]: It wasn't meant to be.
[PW]: Yes. But, nevertheless, with one double I was busy, busy, busy, busy. In the sixties I was doing all kinds of stuff. But in jazz, I mean, me and Quill never went through the Lincoln Tunnel; we never got out of town. We were just a local band. We were hot but we never quite made it. We never got what Jay and Kai got as far as recognition. It was not bad but it came more after the fact than at the time. We were headliners at the Village Vanguard; we opened for Carmen McRae when she was new in town. Quill and Phil were still pretty hot, but only in the New York area, we didn't travel well. I remember doing a gig in Long Island somewhere; I think the Cork and Bib. The announcer gets up and says, "Here he is now, Phil Anqulll." [Both laugh]
[MN]: He put the two names together.
IPW]: Yeah. So, I was getting a little bored. You must remember that in 1959, I went to Europe with the Quincy Jones band. There was a show called “Free and Easy.” We were in costume; it was a remake of “St. Louis Woman,”
with songs by Harold Arlen, score by Quincy Jones and Billy Byers. The show only lasted about six weeks, and then Quincy said, "The flight's going home Saturday if you want to go home with a failed show. If you want to stay in Europe, I'll try to book it." So, to a man, we all said, "Yeah, we'll stay" I'm trying to imagine if that would happen today. I mean, the first thing the cats would say today is, "How much is the pay?"
[PW]: We didn't say that. We had Clark Terry and Budd Johnson; these guys were established family men and all that and they were willing to stay in Europe with Quincy Jones because they wanted to play his music. Quincy took a bath. He lost a lot of money on that tour. People put him down today because he's so rich, you know, because he's doing so well. But I remember when he was nearly suicidal because he had lost so much bread. I remember living in Paris and I didn't have enough money to feed my kids. I called Quincy and said, "I'm busted, man. I don't have enough to get my kids' dinner" He said, "Come to town. I'll give you half of what I have." He had 300 francs and he gave me 150. You don't forget that kind of thing.
So, I got a chance to get familiar with the European thing. That band was very important. We opened for Basie's band at the Olympic Theatre in Paris, one of the primary venues for music - Jacques Brel, the "Little Sparrow," Edith Piaf. It was a famous music room. Basie was kidding, but a little serious, when he said, "Quincy, you're not bringing that band home, are you?" [Both laugh] Basie's band would say, "Man, these guys are good." We were good. We didn't use music stands; we didn't pull out a sheet. That's another thing. With Dizzy's band, we never pulled out the music. I remember doing a one-nighter up in Boston, at George Wein's famous jazz club, the name eludes me. I remember we had Al Haig playing piano at that time with Dizzy's band and we were hung up. We were all on the bus waiting to get up to go to Boston and Al was having union problems. Dizzy's waiting; we're waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally Dizzy sees Wynton Kelly walking by. He says, "Hey kid ..." He Shanghai’s him and puts him on the bus; it was "later" for Al Haig, man, we're off to go to Boston.
Anyway, the driver couldn't find Boston and we ended up in Providence. I mean, here you are with a major act like Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band and you can't find Boston, Massachusetts? We finally pulled up to the club at 9 o'clock. We were supposed to start at 8:30 or something, we were a half hour late. We just got off the bus, went and sat down, and started playing, [laughs] No music? What music? We had the book memorized from the Mideast tour and the South American tour plus a lot of gigs in between, Berlin and stuff like that. That's when you know you have a band. That's when you've got to take the Real Book and all of that written music and take it off the page. It's got to be an intrinsic part of your playing. You might want to glance at it as a reminder but you're not really reading it, you know it. You digest the intent and what the music's all about. That's kind of a lost art because nowadays there are not many ensembles that play that much together.
So, anyway, in the sixties I was selling beer and cigarettes and doing television. I did a Kraft TV show with Sal Mineo called The Drummer Man, and got a contract with Columbia Records, I think it was. That's where the Quill and Phil with the baritone, with Sol Schlinger...
[MN]: What, Altology?
[MN]: We were listening to that in the car on the way up. Great record.
[PW]: Three saxes, right?
[MN]: It sounded like four.
[MN]: It could have been three.
[PW]:I think it was just three, two altos and a bari. It was strange. We did a couple of Bill Potts pieces. Anyway, the studio scene was swinging and TV was swinging - the Steve Allen Show -and we'd do jingles and record dates.
Every record date, whether it was a jazz date or a pop date, would use a big band; that was the ideal formation. You might have three or four reeds and just a couple of brass but it was always an ensemble. It wasn't done with three cretins with an EWI [laughs; EWI = electronic wind instrument]. You know what I mean? You had players playing instruments. The major singers, like Ella and Billy Eckstine, would have an orchestra and sometimes added strings. So, there was a lot of work, a lot of work, man. But by '68 it got to be kind of funny. In the sixties, I also had a school in New Hope, Pennsylvania called Ramblerny. It was a performing arts camp. Jose Limon was in charge of the music department. Lambertville [just across the Delaware River from New Hope in New Jersey] had the Lambertville Music Circus which on Monday nights would have jazz. New Hope was a pretty hip town, for writers more than musicians, but it was a very cultured town. I was there for about four or five years, between 1961 and '67, I think. The best year we had was when we had Richie Cole, Mike Brecker and Roger Rosenburg in the sax section, three of the greatest players ever. Unfortunately, Mike didn't last, but I remember Mike when he was a kid. I had a band there and I loved it. My kids got free tuition and Chan was teaching jazz singing and so I loved that. Every summer we'd have it; it was a two-month course.
[MN]: You were also a quarterback during this time, weren't you?
[PW]: Yes, I was a quarterback, me and Chris Swanson. Well, Manny Albam was an arranging teacher one year, and then Chris Swanson came on board; he lived in New Hope. So, yeah, we had teams. I used to be able to throw a pretty good ball. I still love football.
[MN]: You tell a story where you threw a bomb to Michael Brecker.
[PW]: To Michael Brecker, yes, and he caught it and broke his finger.
[PW]: One of the most picture-perfect passes and it was to win the game. Mike reaches up and misses it.
You know, it was like the movies.
[MN]: Now, how many people know that story?
[PW]: Not many. Mike broke his finger but he came to work the next morning for rehearsal. He had a splint on but he still played. It didn't slow him down, man. [laughs] We said, "Oh my god, our ace tenor man is messed up." He said, "Nah, I'm here. Pops, I'm with you." [laughs]
[MN]: That's great.
[PW]: We did a lot of gigs; we were pretty hot. And all the ballet dancers loved to hang out where we rehearsed, at what we called "The Bird's Nest." It was the perfect thing for young jazz musicians, being in a performing arts camp. You'd learn that that little girl practicing her ballet steps at the bar, and this person doing musical comedy, they're all just as good as you are. You're not special because you're a musician. They got used to the allied arts as part of being a well-bred, cultured human being. We're all in it together; as a young artist, don't be a snob. All too often we think we're great.
But, as I say, there's nothing wrong with having all the chicks hanging out at rehearsals, [both laugh] Guys always play better.
That school went belly up after a few years. Joe Roccisano was there. Joe was from my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. He got the Phil Woods Scholarship at the same high school I went to. Technical High School. He was married to Joe Lopes's daughter. And Joe Lopes was the guy who prepared me for Julliard, because he was a clarinet player. Springfield had a lot of good musicians, and Joe Lopes was one of them. We just lost Joe not too long ago. Joe Roccisano died at the 42th Street subway station going home. He had a band called Rock Bop in New York and they used to work at the Blue Note every Sunday afternoon. He always had a little problem with his heart and he just dropped, man. He had just fallen in love and was going to get married but died at the 42nd Street subway station. It was so sudden; it just broke everybody's heart. Bill Charlap had to go identify the body and all. It was very sad. It ain't all fun, you know, and it ain't all fair either. He was a great alto player; I want to make sure people remember him.
So, anyway, the business was getting weird. Quincy left, and everybody was moving to the West Coast because that was where the gigs were. The record business had changed completely. It was now, you know, the three cretins with an EWI, and a lot of guitars. It changed and the gigs were falling apart. I remember, I said to Chan, "Let's go to Europe; let's go back," because we spent that year in '59 and '60 in Europe and we loved being based in Paris. I said, "I can't make the studio scene anymore. I want to play jazz" So, we packed up our matching luggage and our 24 cardboard cartons and moved to Europe.”
To be continued in Part 4.