© 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.
“To me, Phil Woods is very much like any fine actor who must periodically return to the stage in order to re-establish his craft.”
- Norman Schwartz, Phil’s friend and producer
[MN]: Is there anything that you're listening to right now that perhaps fans could say, "Hey, I want to go check that out because Phil Woods is checking it out."
[PW]: Well, I love what the Spanish are doing, the Nuevo Flamenco. But,
anything special? No. I'm just listening to everything, everything I can. I mean, I've done all the research I could possibly do. My life is no longer a chemistry set. I'm not looking to experiment. I'm doing more writing, composing. I like staying home and writing and listening to music. Anything? No, nothing comes to mind.
[MN]: So sometimes there's a time to just be? We can search so much and find ...
[PW]: Well, I think you've got to find out who you are eventually, and find out what your strong suit is and stick with it. My strong suit is still playing songs. I still love songs. There is a set of two records out now of my songs and my lyrics, songs that I've composed over the past 50 years. That appeals to me. I'm doing more composing and doing lyrics, as Benny Carter did. Benny Carter wrote songs and did his own lyrics. I'm reminded of when Cole Porter and Irving Berlin had dinner together. They both said, "Imagine, it takes two people to write a song." [both laugh] I mean Irving and Mr. Porter both did both the music and lyrics, you know. I'm trying to do that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Dave Frishberg does it real well; Bob Dorough does it real well. There are a few.
[MN]: What do you like to do when it's time to do something other than music?
[PW]: At the moment I like to watch the World Cup. I'm a big soccer fan from living in Europe for five years. I like American football but, of course, it wasn't happening in Europe. I kind of fell in love with the game of soccer. I started to go to games and I really enjoyed that. I think it's a great game. It's about the only sport I follow. I like to cook a little bit; I'm a pretty decent cook. My French is not too bad, my Italian is okay, my Spanish is a little bit .... I can order food and drink in most European languages. My German is weak but I can tell them my room is cold and ask if you've got a big wiener schnitzel, you know?
I think you have to be able to travel. I love traveling, and that's not easy to say in the present day. It's getting more and more difficult. It used to be fun. I remember when people used to get dressed up to travel. Now, it looks like they're going fishing.
[MN]: Getting on a plane used to be an experience.
[PW]: Yes, it used to mean something. It was an adventure. And now it's just like cattle. It's like you're getting on a glorified bus. But I still love it. I love getting there because it gets harder. I like the newer planes because the recycled air is not quite so bad. Some of the older planes, I have trouble breathing and it really tires me out. I have to leave a couple of days early to get ready to play. I can't just fly and then get on the bandstand like I used to. But very few old people can. I'm going to be 79, that's a long time to be out there.
[MN]: Well, now more than ever, your saying, "You pay me to get there," really comes into ...
[PW]: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll play for free but you've got to get me on the plane, you've got to give me a lot of bread. Yes, that's the gig, getting there. The gig is easy. I mean, you've got to fly for two days to play an hour. God, what a strange way to make a living. But, as I say, you don't pay me to play, you pay me to get there and play. But I'm not complaining. I'm glad to be considered able to play that good that you're willing to fly me in and pay me to play for an hour. I'm not against the principle of playing for my supper but I hate giving the airlines more money than I make, you know? [laughs] That's when it starts to hurt. The ticket costs so much and you're only making, you know, it's a little unbalanced. But it's the way it is and I accept it.
I consider myself very fortunate that I can continue. I mean, I've got a few gigs coming up. I go to the North Sea, then I go to Paris, then I go to Geneva, then I have a few days off, then I go to Barcelona, and I go to Belgium, and then I go to Rome. I'm booked up until after Labor Day when I'll take a vacation. And we'll have our festival here in the Poconos which
will be our 33rd year and that occupies a great deal of time, so ...
[MN]: That's a great festival, by the way.
[PW] Yes, it is. It's the only festival in the world that was begun by jazz musicians and continues. But we're having a little trouble. Grants have been cut back. We used to get money from the state but that no longer applies, but we'll make it.
[MN]: This is a little "inside baseball," but when I was asking you what else you like to do, you said you like to cook. Aren't you also a carpenter of sorts?
[MN]: I thought I heard that, because you had something ...
[PW]: Well, I used to be a hack. I'm not a very good carpenter, I'm a butcher, but... My brother was a good carpenter, my dad was a good carpenter. I'm not so good. I used to build stuff, but, I mean, only when I'm broke. I could put up a shelf and, you know, make basic, simple cabinets and stuff like that. But not anymore - I'm afraid of power tools. I used to use power tools but not anymore. I don't trust myself around power tools, so, not so much anymore, no.
[MN]: The reason I ask is because you had a hell of a thing happen to you that most people don't have happen to them - your house burned down.
[PW]: Yes it did. But I didn't rebuild it. [laughs] But we had good insurance. We had just changed our insurance from regular insurance to replacement insurance so we were able to replace all our stuff, including our washing machine and stereo equipment and television. Instead of getting less money from the insurance company because your television set is old, you get how much money it costs to replace it. It makes a big difference. The insurance costs a little more but it's well worth it.
[MA]: You were here when that happened.
[PW]: Yes, I was.
[MA]: You had to get out.
[PW]: Yes, but there were so many fortuitous events. We had just changed our insurance to replacement insurance. We'd just gotten Blue Cross/Blue Shield. My wife's hospital bill was almost $20,000. Thank god, we got Blue Cross which we never had before. I'd just put up smoke alarms within a year before the fire. We'd done all this, so at least we were prepared. And I was home, thank goodness. Because Jill would never have heard the smoke alarms. We'll never sleep on the second floor again; we stay on the ground floor. We have exits all over the place, and the house is bullet-proof and fire-proof [laughs] ... Just in case, [both laugh]
[MN]: Now, after your quartet in the seventies, you decided to add another player, and what a player he is, and was.
[PW]: Well, no, the band had a guitarist, right from the get-go.
[MN]: Oh, that's correct.
[PW]: It's always been a quintet, basically.
[MN]: That's right. So, Harry [Leahey] did leave after a while.
[PW]: Yes, and then we were a quartet for a while. Tom Harrell used to do the gigs when we were in New York and then eventually we added him for the road. No, a quartet is not really a band. Two horns give you an ensemble sound; then you can have a band do something to add to the texture of the rhythm and the counterpoint. Otherwise, a quartet is too much like a front guy with a backup group. But it's always been a band in the sense that we've had two front-line players and a rhythm section.
[MN]: Do you feel like you've recorded enough? Do you like to record? Do you like to get product out there?
[PW]:I love the studio; it's one of my favorite work places. I love being in the studio, and I work fast. With a quartet or quintet or any ensemble I'm dealing with, we don't record until we know the music and it's ready to go. Then we treat the recording process like a gig. If it takes more than two takes there's something wrong, I think. I think you lose something. If you want to make it like a perfect head, I'd be more interested in a perfect solo, and if you keep doing the same take over and over and over again, the solos suffer, I think. If someone makes a slight error on the head I don't think it really matters if you've got a great feeling for the whole ensemble and the solos are fresh. And with a band like we have, we know what we're doing. The tunes have been refined on the job so it's, you know, "Put the tape on and if we're not if we're not back in an hour, shell the village."
[MN]: I took some lessons off you back in the eighties. You're a great teacher.
[PW]: Thank you.
[MN]: You have some opinions, I'm sure you do, about jazz education ...
[MN]: ... the way it's done, the way it should be done?
[PW]: I'm all for it. I mean, anything that puts an instrument in a kid's hands means he's less likely to buy an Uzi and shoot me. (both chuckle] No, I mean that I think learning an instrument makes you a better citizen, no matter what you decide to do in life. Have some music lessons; read some poetry and understand literature a little bit; speak a language. Be a cultured human being. If you want to be a musician or an artist, you should be aware of ballet and classical music and literature and Cinema Vertie. Learn about what's going on in the world of culture. If you just want to be a working stiff, and that's okay, if you want to play with a circus band or be in the pit all your life, there's nothing wrong with that. But I'm talking about if you're interested in the artistry of music then you have to learn about art in general. That's an all-consuming study.
To be concluded in Part 8.