The one election on which there’s near-unanimous consensus this week is that of Phil Woods to the Downbeat Hall of Fame. The Springfield, MA, native died just over a year ago on September 29, 2015, and with his election, he joins an elite corps of jazz greats including Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, and, of course, Charlie Parker. Phil’s election found him outpolling such living masters as Wynton Marsalis, Benny Golson, and Kenny Burrell.
A few weeks before he died, Woods wrote “my improv powers are declining along with my breathing,” and he announced that a concert he’d just played in Pittsburgh would be his last. He was 83 at the time of his death from emphysema. Woods was a true giant of jazz, an alto saxophonist of penetrating lyricism and hard swing, a highly esteemed figure among his peers, and an inspiration to three generations of musicians. He was a tireless advocate for the music, but he was also a no-nonsense realist about the jazz life and the huge challenge it posed to anyone seeking a career in it. In Phil’s view, jazz was a profession for those who had, what he called, “No choice. You gotta have the fire in the belly.”
Phil was feted by Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno at the 2014 Jazz & Roots Festival. In between hits of oxygen, the saxophonist managed to play two moving solos with Greg Caputo’s big band. On that day named in his honor, every cheer and word of tribute was richly deserved. I had the pleasure of introducing Phil that day, and visiting with him before his set. He seemed especially impressed that I’d attended the annual ZootFest a few times, and introduced me to his companions like I was a disciple who’d made the pilgrimage; Phil presided over the Fest, like he did the small and cozy jazz scene around Delaware Water Gap in eastern Pennsylvania, for many years. His last album was recorded at the Deer Head Inn there in August 2014.
Philip Wells Woods grew up in Springfield during the ‘30s and ‘40s with a group of aspiring players who read from jazz scripture (or as Phil puts it, “the music of the streets”) before making their mark in the world. They included Teddy Charles, Sal Salvador, Chuck Andrus, Hal Serra, and Joe Morello. Joe was the renowned drummer who spent many years with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and created the drum lick that inspired Paul Desmond’s, “Take Five.” Phil & Company traded on local history in calling themselves The Springfield Rifles and they woodshedded on Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton before discovering Charlie Parker.
There were at least two enduring alto heroes who preceded Bird in Phil’s young life, and he celebrated one of them, Johnny Hodges, in one of the only vocal turns he ever made on record. I witnessed Phil invoking another alto hero at the 1999 Marciac Jazz Festival in France. I accompanied a travel group to the festival, and along the way was asked to speak about Massachusetts jazz history. I rattled off the names of prominent Bay State natives like Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and Jaki Byard before mentioning Milford-born “Boots” Mussulli. Boots, who died in 1967, was a great alto player who toured with Stan Kenton, jammed with Bird, and recorded with Serge Chaloff on Boston Blow-Up. But his name drew a collective blank from the travel group. So imagine our surprise when the following night at Marciac, Woods concluded his big band’s performance by naming all the cats on the band, then held his alto aloft and announced, “I’m Boots Mussulli!” A few years later, when I told Phil this story, he said, “I’m glad to know somebody got it.”
In addition to his election to the Downbeat Hall of Fame, Phil appeared on the magazine’s cover six times. But several years ago, Downbeat asked a select group of jazz greats to discuss musicians who’d had a formative impact on them. Downbeat expected these famous players to name other famous players, but Woods, a natural born iconoclast, submitted the name of his first saxophone teacher, Harvey Larose, of Springfield. Downbeat initially rejected the submission, but when Phil went public with his righteous view that teachers deserved acknowledgement, the magazine relented.
Woods left Springfield in 1948 to attend Juilliard. A year earlier, he and Hal Serra began taking the bus to New York on Saturdays for lessons with the legendary jazz guru, Lennie Tristano. On one of those Saturday nights, Tristano was sharing the bill at a 52nd Street club with Charlie Parker, and he invited his students to the gig. In the interview that Phil gave the Smithsonian Oral History Project in 2010, he recalled Tristano asking him if he’d like to meet Charlie Parker? Phil said, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to meet God!”
That night’s meeting took place behind a curtain at the rear of the bandstand at the Three Deuces. Like the Buddha with whom he was sometimes compared, Parker was sitting flat on the floor when Phil nervously approached. Bird was holding a cherry pie and said, “Hi kids, would you like a piece of cherry pie?” Phil said, “Oh, Mister Parker, cherry’s my favorite flavor.” At that, Bird opened his switchblade and carved Phil a slice. He thought, “Oh my, I’m in heaven!”
What Phil also remembered from that day was an experience that I think most young fans of jazz and blues discover, namely the accessibility of the masters. As Phil put it, “Here was one of the greatest musicians in the world. There was no presidium. There was no pretense. It was, ‘You want a piece of pie.’ What kindness!” He added, “That’s something I’ve always tried to be, kind, even in my curmudgeonly way. I try to share what I know with young musicians, and not dissuade them. I might give them a hard time, of course, but if they can’t get beyond my hard time, they’ll never make it in the business.”
I witnessed a famous example of Phil’s generosity in 2006 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when he invited the young alto saxophonist Grace Kelly to join him for a performance of “I’ll Remember April.” Phil was so impressed with the 14-year-old Kelly that he doffed his trademark leather cap and placed it on her head. A few years later, they made a fine album called Man With the Hat, and with respect to Phil’s Hall of Fame election, Grace told Downbeat, “There’s something about the way Phil lays into a note that really sounds like the human voice. His sound has so much character…he cuts through with his sassiness and greasiness, but it’s mixed with romance and melodicism. He always plays the horn very percussively, utilizing the slap tongue and blending it into his lines…like part horn, part drum.”
In 1956, eight years after his first meeting with Parker, the 24-year-old Woods was hired by Dizzy Gillespie as a soloist and lead alto player in the big band he was forming for State Department tours of South America and the Middle East. “Birks,” as Phil called Gillespie, remained a guiding light in his life. Like Woods, Dizzy’s mother was a Springfield native, and who knows but that Dizzy and Phil felt a special kinship as a result? Phil often told the story of how Dizzy and Ray Brown talked sense into him when he was languishing with self-pity and racial self-consciousness over his identity as a jazz musician. The year after Phil’s first tour with Gillespie, he married Chan Richardson, who’d been Charlie Parker’s common-life wife until his death in 1955.
Phil’s’ combined skills as what Bill Charlap calls “the master section player and the master improviser,” made him a first call player for studio work and for bands led by Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, Benny Goodman, and Benny Carter. He was a member of the Goodman band that toured the Soviet Union in 1962, and there are few more droll accounts of the jazz life than Phil’s published recollections of the tour. In it he quoted Zoot Sims, who when asked what it was like touring Russia with Benny Goodman, replied, “Any tour with Benny is like being in Russia.”
In 1961, he joined Benny Carter as the other alto soloist on Benny’s landmark album, Further Definitions. Phil’s evolution from the 12-year-old studying Carter solo transcriptions under Harvey Larose to his peer marked a signal moment in his career and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Carter and Woods went on to tour together in the ‘90s, and they recorded two more albums, My Man Benny/My Man Phil, and Another Time/Another Place. In 1990, Benny said, “In the whole history of the alto saxophone, Phil is the one we should all be emulating.”
I heard Phil’s poignant memorial to Benny in 2004. While performing in New York with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Billy Hart, Phil asked to have the mics turned off while he and Kenny played a duet. Carter had died a year earlier at age 95. When recalling Benny before the hushed crowd, Phil proclaimed, “This is for ‘The King’,” then proceeded with a ravishing performance of Carter’s “Summer Serenade” that left few dry eyes in the house. “The King” was the jazz world’s nickname for Carter, who never quite achieved the fame of Duke, Earl, and Count, but he was seen as their equal by musicians.
Woods’s legacy as a studio player includes two of the most famous solos in modern pop, Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” Give the former song’s omnipresence at weddings, Phil’s solo may be the most imitated of all time. But he’ll best be remembered for his artistry as a modern jazz saxophonist and as the leader of a succession of state-of-the-art combos whose select members included trumpetyers Tom Harrell and Brian Lynch, trombonist Hal Crook, pianists Hal Galper, Jim McNeely, Bill Charlap, and Bill Mays, his longstanding rhythm section of bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin.
When Lynch was asked to comment on Woods’s election to the Hall of Fame, he said, “He made the most out of his talent in all conceivable aspects. Everything was covered and above reproach…the playing, the writing, the presentation, the way business was done. He was inquisitive, with broad tastes. He was an American epic.”
In addition to his exquisite saxophone and clarinet playing, Phil was a vivid storyteller, witty, self-deprecating, occasionally acerbic and refreshingly candid. His expansive interview with the Smithsonian Oral History Program has now been published in two, lavishly-illustrated editions of The Note. Published out of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, The Note featured Woods’s free-wheeling column, Phil in the Gap, in every issue, and editions 55 and 56 contain the Smithsonian interview with lots of photos and recollections of his days in Springfield and beyond.
In 2007, Phil told Downbeat, “Sometimes I’d like to change persona and make up a whole new self. But it doesn’t seem to work. It’s too late to change. I’m not an innovator. I just play songs. I play bebop. I’m happy to be a good player, a pro, a soldier for jazz.”