© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
In 2007, Phil Woods 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. To date, the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program has interviewed 212 jazz subjects, including most of the NEA Jazz Masters. Ken Kimery is Director of the Jazz Oral History Program at the Smithsonian Institution (www.smithsonian jazz.org), and provided the technical engineering for Phil's recorded interview, which was conducted on June 22-23, 2010 by saxophonist Marty Nau.
Marty Nau [MNJ: Well, here we are again with Phil Woods, June 23rd, 2010.
Phil Woods [PW]: Third day of summer.
[NM]: Yes, third day of summer ...
[NM]: 2010. Can you believe it?
[PW]: Time flies.
[NM]: Well, Phil, I wanted to go back to the sixties for maybe just one good story.
[NM]: In 1962, you went to Russia with Benny Goodman.
[PW]: Sixty-two, yeah. That was quite a tour. I was supposed to go when the World's Fair was in Brussels, which was in the late fifties, and I almost got on the Benny Goodman band at that point, but it didn't work out. But anyway, I was part of that Russia tour. I remember at one of the rehearsals the government people came, the people from the State Department, and they gave us a lecture about, you know, you're going to Russia, your rooms probably will be bugged, fraternization will be at a minimum, be on your toes. We all said, "What is this?" "Bug our rooms!" They wouldn't understand what Zoot and I are talking about anyway (Zoot was my roommate).
We began in Moscow, two weeks in Moscow, and we got there by way of Seattle. I mean, instead of flying from New York to Moscow, we took a bus. I guess Benny was testing us [both chuckle] to see how we were on a bus. I think we went to Chicago for a one-nighter and then we flew to Seattle. We did the Seattle World's Fair, with that big restaurant on top of the tower, and Zoot said, "This fair ain't fair" [both laugh] And then another one-nighter back to Kansas City and then we flew back to Idlewild Airport and got our plane to Moscow.
As I said, we did two weeks in Moscow, very dour. The food was awful. You'd order a salad and they'd throw you a cucumber; it was no lettuce, no greens. The food was absolutely disgusting. Then we went to Sochi on the Black Sea, which is known as a worker's vacation spot, very beautiful. After two weeks in Moscow, which was very dour and dark, Sochi was weird because we'd play the concert and as soon as we finished a cordon of police would come across the stage so that nobody could come up there. I mean, there was no fraternization whatsoever. In fact, we used to go on walks in Gorky Park and we used to call them the "talking bushes." The fans would be in the park but they weren't allowed to talk with us. So they'd yell out "Thelonious Monk" and you'd yell back "Dizzy Gillespie" That was our communication, you know, because we didn't speak Russian and they didn't speak English. But they knew about jazz.
We had brought some pretty good arrangements, by Tadd Dameron, by John Carisi, by Bob Prince. John Bunch wrote a bunch of stuff. But Benny was still playing the stuff from the thirties: "Muhlenberg Joys" and all the old Jimmy Lunceford charts. We weren't doing any of the modern stuff; "Mission to Moscow" was as modern as we got, which was Mel Powell.
For the first part of the tour, the first couple of weeks, it was rough. We wore bright red jackets. I remember opening night in Moscow; that was weird because Benny came out all caked up. I mean, he was obviously... I think he liked phenol-barbs or something but he was not well. I think he had trouble sleeping and I think he was still suffering from the effects of the sleeping pills. I mean, here we are with our bright red coats, which I thought were a real nice touch - to play Russia with bright red coats, you know what I mean? [both chuckle] He said, [whistles] "Heads up, boys," He had the clarinet under his arm, and then the longest stage wait in history, I mean, this is Russia, man, this is the first American jazz band in Russia. Come on, man. And, not a word: "Heads up." [whistles] He couldn't remember the tempo to the theme his orchestra had been playing since before Vaseline.
Finally, we started and played [sings daaa daaa da ] "Let's Dance," right? And [imitates clarinet notes, fast] bap, he stops, and then we're supposed to play. But it was silent, and then everybody looked up and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Premier, went [clap ... clap] and the place exploded. They were all waiting for the chairman, you know, the boss, to nod his approval. Then we were home free, and they loved it. But at many of the concerts, we did a lot for two weeks, they were all sold out. It used to drive Benny crazy because the audience would yell, "Zoot, Pheel,... ZootPheel!" They wanted to hear some bebop; they wanted to hear some of the modern music. But that reinforced Benny's thinking. "Oh, we're not going to play any of that stuff." [both laugh]
So, we finally get to Sochi, and, as I said, it's a resort. We all had rooms with balconies overlooking the Black Sea. Jimmy Knepper and Jerry Dodgion had a room together and they threw a party. We had a few nights off and we broke out the Vienna sausage and tuna fish and canned goods, canned ham, you know. We had all brought stuff to eat because we knew the food was not great and we needed a little touch of home. So we brought pickles and all kinds of weird stuff, ana a lot of vodka was drunk.
I remember I took a break and went out on the balcony and looked at the Black Sea. It was beautiful. The moon was out... man, it was a great night. And I was just - you know, I didn't like the leader. I didn't like what was going on. So I just yelled out at the top of my lungs, "Eff you. King." I'm just yelling at the sky, just venting a little youthful vigor, you know? And, at that very moment, on the balcony below me was Benny. He happened to be out getting a breath of air, and he recognized my voice.
So, the next morning, nine o'clock, "Rehearsal!" Oh my god, you know? I couldn't even, I mean, I was very hung over. I drank really too much vodka. The rehearsal was not in a rehearsal hall, it was at the gig which was outdoors and it was, like, 110 degrees in the shade. It looked like something out of Beau Geste, you know, some foreign legion movie. Even at nine-thirty in the morning, it was hot as hell. Benny said, "Alright, just 'Blue Skies,' just the saxes" and then he said, "Alright, you play your part alone," and he stuck the clarinet in my ear. He said, "Play your part alone," and I said "Okay" I'm having trouble getting the mouthpiece in my mouth, and he said, "No, no. Play with me." Then Benny started to play along with me, playing the melody. Then he said, "You know, I'm sick and tired of you thinking you're the only one who can swing in this band" And I said, "I don't remember saying that," and as I looked around, there's Zoot, there's Willie Dennis, there's Joe Wilder, there's Joe Newman, you know, Teddy Wilson. I mean, he was on me and he just kept digging and digging and digging and digging. Finally, Zoot spoke up. He said, "Hey, lighten up, Benny. Lighten up. Pops." Benny said, "What's it to you?" And Zoot said, in his remarkable flare for languages, "He's my roomski," [both laugh] and Benny chilled out.
But, man, I was walking around like this for a week, you know? I mean, what do you do in Russia? You don't quit, you'll end up in a gulag somewhere in Siberia, you know? Just recently I got a hold of the State Department report on the tour, and Benny did want to send me home, but he couldn't get a sub rapidly. I was going to get fired right after the first two weeks because of that, instead of him just calling me out, talking to me the next day and saying, "I heard you last night." I would have apologized and said I didn't mean anything by it. I was ripped and it was just youthful ignorance. "I'm sorry," you know, and forget it. But he put the whole band through that nonsense. It was really uncalled for. It was a typical Goodman move.
They once asked Zoot what it was like to tour Russia with Benny Goodman, and Zoot's reply was, "Any tour with Benny is like being in Russia."
[MM]: That is a funny line.
[PW]: We then went on to Tbilisi and Kiev and Leningrad. Leningrad was the best. We had a jam session at the Leningrad University. Gennady Goldstein was the young alto player and we started to hang out a bit. He came to my hotel and I wanted to give him something nice. I had a brand new bathrobe that I never wore, and he said, "I'd love it but if I leave the hotel with a gift from you, the police will take it away," because everybody was watched, you know? Our rooms were always bugged, and the concierge was on every floor. It was pretty uptight, but it was very interesting. I mean, the music outed. We finally got to the hipper stuff in the band and then some funny stuff happened.
We went back to Moscow for the last gig of the tour. We hadn't gotten paid in a while, and so-. The band didn't exactly go on strike, but we wanted to get paid. They made us wait until we were getting on stage - as we went through the curtain we were handed a check. Now, we had Life magazine and the Associated Press, all the press services, European press, it was very embarrassing. It made kind of a scandal in the States, about the Benny Goodman band being on strike. We weren't really on strike; we just wanted to get paid, and Benny made us wait until the very last concert.
But the Russians got even with him, because Benny was supposed to play, I don't know, the Brahms or some other classical piece, I don't remember what it was. The Moscow Symphony had been rehearsing it for months; they wanted to make sure it was right. But when he got to Moscow, Benny changed his mind. He wanted to play something else. He would do things like that - just impossible.
We were invited to go to the Hermitage, one of the great museums of French modern painting - the Degas, and Van Gogh, and Modigliani - but he never told the band. Benny went to the museum but he did not invite us along. I mean, you know, "The savages will not be appreciated." He was a very difficult man to work for, so it was great to get home.
As soon as we got off the plane, [Colpix record producer] Jack Lewis met us and we did an album called Mission to Moscow, with all the charts by Al Cohn. It sounded like we were all let out of a cage at that point, or let out of jail, I should say. But, yeah, it was a rough tour. Johnny Frosk called Jerry Dodgion a couple of years later and said, "I've got some good news and some bad news." Jerry said, "Well, what's the good news?" Johnny said, "Well, the good news is that Benny Goodman died last night." And Jerry said, "Well, what's the bad news?" Johnny said, "Well, the bad news is he died in his sleep." [MN laughs] So, we really loved him.
He was a great player, don't get me wrong, a great contributor to the American music. But especially towards the end as he got older, he just was very mean to musicians, mean to everybody. I saw him slap a cigarette out of Teddy Wilson's hand, and he was always giving Mel Lewis a hard time. He never messed with Zoot. But he told Joe Wilder, "Bring a camera, I want you to document the tour." So Joe brought a lot of film and a bunch of cameras and had to ship it all underneath the plane. When we got our final paycheck as we went through the curtain, Joe Wilder looked at his check: Benny had charged him for all the overweight. That's the only time I heard Joe Wilder swear, [laughs] I mean, he cussed Benny Goodman out. When you can make Joe Wilder swear, you know the leader has not been kind.
At the moment there's a German film crew that is working on a documentary of that '62 tour. I think it's going to be out in Europe. It's going to be shown on German TV and hopefully it will get worldwide release eventually. They've gotten a hold of a lot of Russian films that nobody has ever seen ...
[MN]: Oh, nice.
[PW]:... and they interviewed a few survivors. Joe Wilder, John Bunch, Jerry Dodgion, Johnny Frosk and I were interviewed for the final film. I can't wait to see it.
To be continued in Part 6.