© 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.
“Woods found his first models in the marvelously expressive sound of Johnny Hodges and in the subtler timbre and commanding logic of Benny Carter. Soon, like everyone else in New York and in jazz, Woods fell under the siren song of Charlie Parker. But like only a handful of other alto saxists, Woods learned to sing that song in his own voice. In fact, along with his contemporaries Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean, Woods's playing came to define the alto saxophone in jazz after Charlie Parker's death in 1955. His full-throated sound captured the brightness of Parker's tone; his improvisations displayed an ear perhaps as quick as Parker's; and given his technical wizardry, no tempo was safe from his assaults.”
- Neil Tesser, Jazz author & critic
[MN]: Well, fast forward to the seventies. We talked yesterday about all the stuff that you did, pop stuff and other things. But you started your own group in the early seventies ...
[MN]: ... in which two members are still on today. Did you ever think it would last that long?
[PW]: No, no, I never... no. We've been together for 35 years. Bill Goodwin, Steve Gilmore and I. In fact, Jim McNeely, who was my pianist at one point, said that if Phil Woods ever wanted to have a reunion of all the people that have worked for him he could do it in a single hotel room [laughs] I've only ever had three piano players. I had Harry Leahey, first, on guitar, then I added Tom Harrell on trumpet, and then Hal Crook on trombone, then Brian Lynch. That's been the front line. Bill and Steve have been with me through everything. And as far as piano players, first it was Mike Melillo, then Hal Galper, then Jim McNeely, and then Bill Charlap. So, only four pianists and three or four front line - it's only 10 people in 35 years, that's pretty remarkable, I think. [Bill Mays replaced Charlap in the piano chair in 2010].
I think we just passed the Modern Jazz Quartet as far as longevity is concerned. But we've had a change of personnel. They didn't have hardly any but that's when it was only a quartet. But yeah, I'm very proud of that - we're like an institution, you know? People say, "How do you keep a band together for 35 years?" The main thing is, well. Bill Goodwin has some bootleg film of me from a hotel room in Seattle, [both laugh] So, I can't fire anybody.
IPW]: No. I think the main ingredient of keeping a band together is to be fair. Many leaders pay the band a certain amount of money but then when they get a real plum that pays a lot of bread, they keep all the bread and pay the band the same amount of money they were getting when you didn't have money, you know what I mean? We've always shared the pie, as long as I got the leader's fee. We've always split it into sixths; I get two-sixths, and since my wife Jill takes care of the books, I couldn't steal if I wanted to. She's Bill's sister and a little nepotism keeps the books honest.
Also, we change the book. Many bands continue to play the same songs year after year and the leader will always play the same feature. It's like the leader is up front and the rhythm section is a backup band. I don't think you can operate that way in jazz. It's got to be a democratic thing; everybody has input to play together. It's a dialogue. You be fair, and change the book. I mean, when the rhythm section starts to sing the chorus along with you, it's time to get a new bag.
We're always adding new music. And we can sight-read a tune better than most bands sound when they've been rehearsing it. One of things I look for when I hire a player is a guy that can sight-read really well. And I always pass out concert parts that you have to be able to transpose. It calls for some severe musicianship to play with the Phil Woods group.
[MN]: Also, I think one of the successes of your group has been the arrangements. You played the material but you sounded like a band,
[PW]: Yeah, it's a band; it's not a jam session. There's always a role for each instrument and a certain thing we're looking for. I was looking for contrast in the sets; don't play two identical tempos, try to go into an exotic, a little eight-to-the-bar at certain points, and a swing and a jazz waltz. Play some obscure songs and keep it interesting. So that if you follow the band, and then you've been following me for 35 years, you know you're not going to hear something I played in the seventies in 2010. We have a whole new set.
We just did a week at Dizzy's. We've been off for a while; we haven't been working too much. I mean, after 35 years we've been around the block so we've got to make some serious bread before we take the horns out of the cases. But we did a sound check and we rehearsed four new tunes and we played them on the first set. Not many bands are going to do that. Brian Lynch has been writing. I always get the music from the band, you know, input from the players themselves. Jim McNeely always contributed something, Mike Melillo contributed a lot of tunes, Hal Crook contributed a lot of music when he was in the band. I always get it from the guys that are part of the family. It keeps it fresh.
[MN]: I think about Sonny Stitt who spent most of his life traveling the world playing with rhythm sections just playing standards. You didn't want to do that, did you?
[PW]: No, no, I didn't want to do that. No, I wanted a band.
[MN]: I mean "Stella By Starlight" and "Perdido" every night. I heard you say one time that that doesn't appeal to you.
[PW]: No, no it does not. Or "Scrapple," you know. I mean, once in a while it's really neat to play "Stella" but not if it becomes like a workhorse, because you're lazy. You know, lazy, you've been running these changes for... you know, at least take it up a half a step, [chuckles] Keep it interesting.
[MN]: So, in the seventies, you won a Grammy for Images, and you won a Grammy for Live At The Showboat ...
[MN]: ... You had a group that was steadily working. Were you doing what you wanted to do?
[MN]: Could you call the shots a lot more than you ever had in your career?
[PW]: Oh, yeah, that was a great period, especially the band with Tom Harrell and Hal Galper. Well, I think they've all been good bands but I really liked that period. We were all in our prime, I think. I hadn't been hit with my pulmonary problems, the lungs were still good, I still had my original teeth, so I felt really good about playing. It gets a little harder as you get older. But I think that's really some good stuff when I listen to it. I like most of the stuff we played. I think it retains a certain level of expertise. I'm not ashamed of any of the music we've recorded.
[MN]: So, you've got this band, and in other words, you can kind of pick and choose. Your popularity is going up pretty good.
[PW]: We were busy, very busy. We could call our own shots, yes.
[MN]: Now, some other nice things are starting to happen. Because I've always been a fan of yours, I've followed your career. Down Beat awards start to kind of pile up. They're nice to get, aren't they?
[PW]: Yes, sure.
[MN]: I mean, it means the people are listening. The people are voting for you.
[PW]: Yes, especially in the popular poll, and the critics poll, too. It's all part and parcel -I mean, if it keeps the band together I'm all for it. But I also subscribe to what Charles Ives said. He said, "Prizes are for children." I mean, pay me and I'll play, and go buy the records. I don't believe in being subsidized. I believe that if you can't bring enough people into the club who pay their admission ... I'm against the guest policies. I mean, I will leave a pass for really old-time guests who haven't got any bread but usually I don't. If you really love me, reach into your pocket, pay for a ticket, and come see me. If you're a good friend, you don't ask me, because you're asking because you might be my friend. If you're my friend, as I say, pay! You're asking the boss to give up a couple of tables in his club. I mean, I'm asking a certain figure that the band's gotta make to pay the nut, and we'd like not to have you give away seats. That's money out of the boss's pocket.
It makes it harder for him to pay the band, and that makes it harder for us to make it as part of our yearly circuit. People don't realize that when they do it. I mean, if you're really on your ass and you've got no bread and I know you, I'll say, "Yeah, okay, come on." But in general, I'm against guest policy, especially people that I don't see all year, you know, and then they go to New York and I get a call: "Hi, Phil?" [MN chuckles] "Yeah?" "Can you get me on the comp list?" I don't dig that, I'm not for it. If my band wants to do it, that's different. But as the leader, I'm agin it. At Dizzy's club, which is the most civilized club, every band member (and there's no problem with it) is entitled to two guests per night, which is pretty good. They feed the band and all that. But I still have been pretty selective about who I'll put on the guest list. Usually the band has their own guests and I make my friends pay. [both chuckle].
[MN]: You keep honest friends that way.
[PW]: Well, yeah, you know, it's just a policy.
[MN]: You mentioned Charles Ives. It makes me think ... jazz musicians should listen to other jazz musicians but what else should a jazz musician do if they really want to ...
[PW]: Oh, read a book, [laughs] Go to a museum. Learn a language. Visit other cultures - understand how other societies work. Don't be so myopic about your musical tastes. Listen to music that you don't even like. If you don't like something, listen to it and find out why you don't like it. You might end up liking it, you know? Stretch your ears, don't get in that comfort zone.
A lot of jazz musicians are lazy, you know? They get into a bag and some
musicians say, "Oh, I don't want to read, it'll spoil my art form.” It will also cut you off from the rest of all the music that has been written. You'll never be able to learn it, because you can't just all of a sudden play Beethoven's Ninth by ear. It's nice to look at the score and be able to listen to it. Be a musician. Benny Carter taught me that, and Dizzy. I mean, there's this false belief about the "noble savage," you know, that they don't know anything, they just do it by ear. That's the pure jazz. Well, Benny Carter went to Wilberforce Academy; Dizzy Gillespie studied music all his life. I mean, "noble savage" -I don't think so. A musician is a musician, but Europe kind of does that thing, you know, that white people can't play, and that if jazz musicians are reading music it's not pure and all that. Music is music. I mean, whether you're green or purple, the rules of music apply to everybody.
You have to be able to read a little bit. Learn some keyboard; learn some keyboard harmony. Be able to write a little tune, understand fugal techniques, understand the Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. I mean, if you're going to play bebop. I think Bach is to fugal technique what Bird is to articulated bebop. That's the epitome. So you've got to, and you can equate the two. Bach and Bird have a lot in common, I think, rhythmically and the contrast and the way the stuff swings. Bach swings like crazy. And Beethoven, there's nothing more monumental or majestic or inspiring to me than Beethoven's music. Talk about a man rising above - he was a curmudgeon and he was deaf but boy the guy could write beautiful music. Brahms is one of my favorites, I love Brahms. Brahms touches me deeply. But I also loved Robert Schumann. Mendelssohn kills me, kills me, and his songs - his lieder is exquisite.
Listen to pygmy music. Pygmy music is very close to jazz. Nuevo flamenco, what the young Spanish musicians are doing, is of great interest - the children of Astor Piazzolla, who was the Charlie Parker of the tango. Some of the new music coming out of Buenos Aires is truly astounding. And, of course, Brazil, which is one of the most musical countries in the world, as is Venezuela. And the Cubans, the whole Latin thing that Dizzy turned us on to, you know, the idea of the fusion of the afro rhythms, the Brazilian thing and jazz. It all works, the harmonic stuff that he was doing. Bill Evans's harmonic sense - Jobim was extremely touched by what Bill Evans was doing, and Bill Evans was extremely touched by what Debussy and Ravel were doing. It's all part and parcel of the world's music, which really makes us all the same. I mean, it kind of unifies us with what we're hearing and what we're feeling. We all have the same emotions, you know? We're human beings and it's nice to see what other human beings listen to. And now, with the communications, everybody knows, right? You go to the internet and you can listen to everything. It kind of helps unify us and makes us a better planet, I'd like to think.
[MN]: It is revealing to know what people listen to.
[MN]: You have a story I've read, about Charlie Parker, where you discovered that he listened to Charles Ives.
[PW]: No, he listened to Schoenberg, "Pierrot Lunaire" Yeah, when I was a kid. Bird listened to Bartok; he liked Bartok and Schoenberg. So, I remember going to the library and getting some records. Stravinsky was not quite so deep and Bartok was sort of in the pocket. But I think back to when my parents heard me listening to "Pierrot Lunaire," the early 12-tone stuff, which is really "out" [makes weird noises to demonstrate], you know, [laughs] wild intervals. I think my parents were quite ready to accept my hanging out with Stravinsky and Bartok. They said, "That's okay, [laughs] the kid's okay, but what is he listening to now?" [laughs] They must have had their doubts: "That's not jazz, is it?"
To be continued in Part 7.