For Phil Woods’ 80th birthday, here’s a DownBeat cover story from 2007.
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Like all his fellow 2007 NEA Jazz Masters, Phil Woods worked hard at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference in January. On the final afternoon, after three days of luncheons, dinners, panels and receptions, Woods engaged in a spirited public conversation with Nat Hentoff, an old friend, in a packed ballroom at the New York Sheraton Hotel. Barrel-chested and moustached, wearing his trademark captain’s cap, Woods was avuncular, charming, and amusing, spinning yarns and speaking his mind with declarative, salty language. After the interview he greeted a line of admirers for a half-hour, giving each his full attention; he did the same for assorted friends and fans as he made his way to the exit.
Trailed by his wife, Jill Goodwin, Woods entered the elevator. The door closed, and he allowed his face to go slack. He took deep, measured gulps. With deliberate steps, he exited the hotel and crossed 53rd Street to the Hilton, stopping twice to catch his breath before reaching his room. Once inside, he removed his hat and coat and shirt, turned on a portable oxygen machine, sat in an armchair, inserted a tube in his nose, and breathed deeply. In four hours he was due to perform three tunes with alto saxophonist George Robert, one of his many proteges. It would be his final IAJE obligation, and it was hard to see how he was going to fulfill it.
“There’s nothing wrong with my lungs,” Woods insisted, referring to the corrosive effects of emphysema, which caught up to him in 2001, when, for good measure, his prostate flared up and he had all his teeth extracted. “It’s the blood-gas ratio that makes me tired. If I stoke up before the gig, as I’m doing, I’ll be fine. I’m not so debilitated that I can’t perform. Don’t get me wrong. If I hadn’t been a saxophone player, I could be really in trouble.”
As he has done on a gazillion recorded solos for more than a half-a-century, Woods shifted to another gear and cut to the chase. “I smoked two packs a day from 15,” he said. “And did a lot of blow, smoked a lot of grass and drank a lot of booze. I’ve had fuckin’ fun! I never thought life was a lemon to be squeezed dry. You’ve got to live it, man. I don’t eat anything organic. Give me some butter still!”
Backed by Robert’s band a few hours later before another packed ballroom at IAJE, Woods uncorked theme-and-development solos that were models of melodic logic, incorporating wicked runs and subtle quotes, projecting a soaring tone instantly recognizable as his. It was no anomaly: a series of strong 21st century albums attests to Woods’ undiminished abilities on his instrument.
The most recent one is American Songbook, a beautifully played 2002 studio date for Vertical by the Phil Woods Quintet that disappeared after the label, as Woods puts it, “went horizontal,” but came out last year on Kind of Blue. On the weekend following IAJE, Woods convened the group at the Deerhead Inn in his home town of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., in the Poconos, to play two Saturday night sets as a quasi-rehearsal for a followup songbook session. Restricted by post-9/11 jazz economics and the leader’s dependence on his oxygen machine, the band hadn’t played together for many months, and hadn’t seen the music, but at the afternoon runthrough they coalesced as though it were the 1980s, when the Phil Woods Quintet was a constant force on the international scene.
As the players examined the sheet music for “Careless,” a bouncy theme song for ’40s band singer Eddy Howard, Woods said, “I’m hearing Kirby,” referring to the John Kirby Sextet, known for the precision of its ensemble playing during Woods’ formative years. Trumpeter Brian Lynch responded, “That means a cut mute.” Nothing more was said.
On break in the studio the next day after the Quintet had wrapped “Careless” in a single pristine, soulful take, Woods rested in a recliner, and sipped mineral water. Pianist Bill Charlap’s harmonic cogitations on the next number came softly over the speakers, and bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin, Woods’ partners since 1974, when he formed the quintet, sat with Lynch at a table laden with trays of focaccia pizza, eggplant parm, and chicken cacciatore that a fan had brought from a store in New Jersey’s “Sopranos” district.
“I might have given Brian a sparse sentence on that—like ‘just put a little grease on that motherfucker,’” Woods said. “This front line knows exactly when to put the chitlins in the piece, and when to play it straight.” As an example of the latter, Woods referred to his elegant introduction for “I’ll Take Romance.” “It’s kind of a classical thing, and we played it without vibrato. If it’s funky, we’ll put some bends in it. It’s instinctive; we barely even discuss it.”
Lynch spoke up. “It may surprise you to see us work so efficiently and do tunes on one take, but on the last edition of this series we sight-read the whole thing,” he said. “This band has no fear of that. Each of us can look at a piece of music and almost instantaneously, as the sound starts happening, figure out how to play it and what it should sound like—to understand the style of a piece of paper. With Phil, you get to the artistry as quick as you can.”
“Brian and Bill could do that when they first started playing together in the quintet,” Goodwin said.
“If you’ve played with Horace Silver and Art Blakey, you get that shit,” Woods retorted, referring to Lynch’s c.v. “That’s the school, man. Any musician worth his salt from my generation could do that.”
Woods formed a working group not long after making Musique Du Bois, a combo date that reunited the famous Prestige-of-the-60s rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson. Some consider it a classic, but he was dissatisfied. “It’s a good record, but I wanted more from the band,” Woods said. “I only see the seams.” After that date, Woods took gigs as a single, including one in Hartford “with some young kids who had their Real Books. I was tired of telling them what tune to play so they could look it up, and I carefully delineated the bridge to ‘Body and Soul,’ every harmonic nuance and melodic thing, and then I gave the downbeat for the melody. They all looked at me like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I ran into Bill and said, ‘We’ve got to get a band.’”
So he did. On the strength of Musique Du Bois, high visibility solos on Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu,” and featured status on Michel Legrand’s “Images,” Woods won the first of his 22 DownBeat Critics Poll awards for best alto saxophonist in 1975, and the first of 29 Readers Poll wins in 1976. In 1977 he garnered the first of three Grammys for Best Jazz Performance by a Group for Live From The Showboat, with a band comprised of Poconos musicians (guitarist Harry Leahey and pianist Mike Melillo joining Gilmore and Goodwin). By 1981, Hal Galper was the regular pianist, and by 1983 trumpeter Tom Harrell was sharing the front line.
“I needed at least one other horn to get into the compositional thing I wanted,” Woods said. “I like to utilize the bass and piano and drums as instruments, as part of the arrangement, not just read the chord symbols and chug along with the front line only playing the melody. I wanted to get some orchestral colors that I think haven’t been used yet by most small groups. We continue that to this day. My piano player has to really know what the fuck is going on. It’s really a five-piece band, not a rhythm section backup to a horn player.
“When we were really hot and working a lot, we’d do 12 sets a week, all different,” he continued. “The book is huge. That’s how you keep a quintet together for 30 years. When the rhythm section starts to sing your chorus along with you, it’s time to get a new bag, baby! I always bring in new tunes. To this day, I think we stand for something more than ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’ and bashing and thrashing. But I also love a band that knows exactly what they’re doing every second, but it doesn’t sound forced and it isn’t stylized. I have the ability to make an arrangement right on the spot. It’s still fresh, because they’re great improvisers. These guys don’t need to look at the Real Book. They’re trained in the trenches. They know every song I know.”
Among the more entertaining documents of Woods’ recent discography are encounters with Lee Konitz—already famous as the “cool” voice of the alto saxophone when Woods was establishing his white-heat tonal personality in the ’50s—from the 2003 Umbria Jazz Festival, on which Mister Cool and Mister Hot dialogue on repertoire by Konitz, Woods and Enrico Rava. They appear on Philology, the Italian label that bears Woods’ name. So does a profound two-disk navigation of Gershwin by Woods and pianist Franco D’Andrea.
“We both came into that invitation with trepidation,” Konitz recalled. “Phil is a superb player and logician, while I’m coming at it more from scratch, so there was potential for a head-on conflict. But he made me very comfortable. Back in the ’50s, Phil was one of the guys who made me realize how flexible an instrument the alto saxophone is. I wondered how in hell you can play it with the kind of pizzazz and skill and accuracy he’s always displayed. Even now, with the emphysema, he can fill up a hall without a microphone.”
Woods embraces the ethos of the soup-to-nuts musician, and he displays all his wares on This Is How I Feel About Quincy (Jazzed Media), from 2004, performing dearth arrangements of Quincy Jones charts with a nine-piece, six-horn “little big band” (he augments his quintet—trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap, bassist Steve Gilmore, drummer Bill Goodwin—with two saxes and two brass). One of the pleasures of the associated DVD, A Life In E-Flat: Portrait Of A Jazz Legend, which juxtaposes scenes of the proceedings with Woods’ account of his turbulent life and times, is the opportunity to observe him playing lead alto saxophone with almost reverential concentration and craft, as he did on the original recordings of this repertoire between 1956 and the mid ’60s. In fact, as Jones recounts in his autobiography, Q, he recruited Woods to play lead alto on Dizzy Gillespie’s legendary 1956 State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East, the gig that launched Woods to the status of New York’s first-call session alto saxophonist, a function he fulfilled over the ensuing decade on dozens of dates by the likes of Oliver Nelson, Gary McFarland, Gil Evans, John Lewis and George Russell.
“I was a fine musician,” Woods said without false modesty. “I could read flyshit and interpret it. There wasn’t many of me. I was the first-generation jazzer that actually went through the conservatory. The music became more complicated, and it required a better level of musicianship from the section players. Writers like Gil and Quincy, John Carisi, Billy Byers, Al Cohn, Elliot Lawrence, Manny Albam and Bill Potts had to get younger players, because the older guys were not doing justice to the new bebop time feel. I was well-equipped to handle all that.
“At that point, the music, commercial or not, was always an ensemble,” he continued. “It wasn’t done by three idiots with EWIs. You had at least four or five horns, then you did four or five tunes in a three-hour session. Quincy used to change his charts on the fly, and he’d sing the new part—you had to hear it and transpose and be able to execute. So only people that knew their onions!”
What differentiates Woods from the pack, Charlap opined, is his ability to excel—a la Hank Jones, Clark Terry and Milt Hinton—“as both a master section player and a master improviser with a complete personality on the instrument.”
“He has the blues, a raw edge, but he’s also very sophisticated,” Charlap continued “There’s the tough side, but also a tender side. When Phil plays a ballad like “Goodbye, Mr. Evans,” he reminds me of a great operatic tenor, less like Carmen McRae than Pavarotti. His mind is like a computer, and it sure seems like he can execute anything that comes into it. He also has an incredible ability to reach out beyond the bandstand and grab the audience right away. He’s a star, and it’s beyond being a great player. It has to do with charisma and communication.”
Lynch honed in on Woods’ meticulousness and attention to detail. “Every aspect of what he does is at the highest level,” he said. “Some people do some things well, but don’t take care of others. Phil has taken care of everything. A lot of people’s styles are based on artfully disguising their weaknesses. Phil’s style is based on artful presentation of his strengths, not on a limitation, but abundance.”
While Woods’ solos are marvels of spontaneous construction, he has a rotation of anecdotes which he accesses and repeats verbatim at a moment’s notice with the panache of a lecture circuit veteran. One such addresses a series of “field trips” to New York City with teen chum Hal Serra for lessons with Lennie Tristano during the summer preceding Woods’ senior year of high school in Springfield, Mass., his home town. Already a member of the local musicians union, he was jamming with such luminaries-to-be as Joe Morello, Sal Salvador and Teddy Charles.
“There was a tenor player named Bob Rich, and we took down all of the Tristano-Warne Marsh-Lee Konitz stuff and played it just before I moved to New York,” Woods recalled. “After the lesson, we’d go to 52nd Street. They knew Hal, and gave us the seat by the drums, not the choicest acoustical spot, but nobody bugged us, and we had a Coca-Cola and sat all night. I remember hearing Tatum and Dizzy’s big band, and Milt Jackson’s Quintet and Howard McGhee. They closed at 4 a.m. and we strolled down to 42nd Street and jumped on our 5 a.m. bus for Springfield.
“After one lesson Tristano said, ‘Are you going to 52nd Street tonight? I’m opening for Charlie Parker, and I thought you kids would like to meet him,’” he continued. “We held back on the pasta and the records so we could buy two Coca-Colas, showed up early at Three Deuces, and got our usual spot by the drums. Tristano’s trio played the first set, and then somebody took us backstage—well, it was a papier mache curtain and a small space behind the bandstand—and there was Charlie Parker sitting on the floor with a cherry pie. He said, ‘Hi, kids! Would you like a piece of cherry pie?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor.’ We sat on the floor with Bird, and he pulled out his knife, cut us a big slab. We wolfed it down and talked about music. Then we went back and listened to the genius of the world play the saxophone.”
In 1949, Woods matriculated at Juilliard as a clarinet major, and joined New York’s young fraternity of card-carrying beboppers. “In Springfield we listened to records and jammed all the time, but the only Bird solo I ever copied was ‘Koko,’ although I would cop licks and analyze,” he recalled. “Sal Salvador was the first cat among us to go to New York, and he had a pad in a big old brownstone on Riverside Drive and 93rd Street. Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney were in that building, too, and Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, John Collins and Billy Bauer came to jam sessions. There I finally understood what bebop was. I was still into a diatonic approach, more a swing approach to improvising. That’s when I started understanding the use of all 12 tones, those in-between notes.”
During his four years at Juilliard, then located in Morningside Heights, Woods heard Ussachevsky’s early taped experiments and musique concrete and attended John Cage lectures. He heard new work at the Composers Forum, and attended the rehearsals of Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” at the Metropolitan Opera with a score in hand. For his final thesis, he analyzed Bartók’s “Music For Percussion, Celeste And Strings.”
“I’d listened to Stravinsky and Schoenberg in high school because I knew Bird liked it, but I was not equipped to play classical music when I got there,” Woods said. “My first couple of years I spent hours each night at the record library, trying to catch up to violinists who played Beethoven. By the same token, for my first year keyboard harmony placement test, I played a Bud Powell solo, and was put into the third-year class.”
In stark contrast to such highbrow influences, Woods, who had started a family and moved to Brighton Beach, in southern Brooklyn, made rent money on club jobs around the boroughs and dance band gigs, most notably with Charlie Barnet. In 1953, he joined Barnet on a tour that concluded at the Apollo Theater, coinciding with Woods’ final recital.
“Between shows I’d leave the Apollo, where I was playing for Pigmeat Markham and Honi Coles and the sword swallowers, and run over to Juilliard to play Mozart, Brahms and Stravinsky,” he recalled. “Or I’d practice them unaccompanied between shows, and then stash the clarinet in what I thought was a good place. Like a fool, I left it there overnight the day before my exams. Somebody stole it. When I told my teacher, he said, ‘You were doing fine until you started sticking that needle into your arm.’ I was scuffling, and it was not a joyous time. I said, ‘Fuck you,’ went back to the Apollo, did the six shows for the day, and never looked back.”
Soon after, Woods had a steady gig with drummer Nick “Fabulous” Stabulas, trumpeter Jon Eardley and bassist Teddy Kotick, all boppers, at the Nut Club, a strip joint on Sheridan Square. Gil Evans and other friends came by; a gallon of wine on the bandstand alleviated the boredom.
“I was going through this agonizing youthful angst,” Woods said, launching another oft-told episode. “I went to Juilliard, played with a couple of bands, and all I’m doing is playing ‘Harlem Nocturne’ for strippers. I don’t like the mouthpiece, or the reed, or the horn, or even the strap. I’m not making progress. I’ve got to get some new equipment, and break this mold I’m in.”
One night a report came in that Charlie Parker was jamming across the street at Arthur’s Tavern, still extant, at Seventh Avenue and Grove. “There was a three-octave piano and a 90-year-old guy playing it, and his father was on drums, which consisted of a couple of pie plates and a 10-inch snare,” Woods said. “Bird was playing on Larry Rivers’ baritone sax, and I could tell he was having trouble. I said, ‘Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to use my alto’—the one that I figure is not very good and I’ve got to get a new one and all that shit. I retrieved my horn for him, and he played ‘Long Ago and Far Away.’ Then he handed it to me and said, ‘Now you play.’ I played my imitation of a master, all the masters I had listened to and loved, and he leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘Sounds real good, Phil.’ I can still hear him saying it. I levitated back across Seventh Avenue and played the shit out of ‘Harlem Nocturne.’ I stopped looking for the magic reed, the magic mouthpiece, and started to practice—stop the maudlin Irish horseshit and just get on about your career. It was a great musical lesson.”
Woods took the lesson to heart. While remaining in Barnet’s employ, he worked with bop pianist George Wallington, hit Monday nights at Birdland with arranger Neil Hefti and drummer Jim Chapin, and recorded as a sideman with all of them. Another sideman date, with Jimmy Raney for Prestige in 1954, led to three well-received Woods-led quintet sessions for the label. In 1956 Birdland owner Morris Levy paid Woods $400 a week, big money then, to play on a 10-week “Birdland All-Stars” tour as an opening act (with Al Cohn, Kenny Dorham and Conte Candoli) for a lineup including the Count Basie Orchestra, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young and Bud Powell.
“Al Cohn and I took the seat over the wheel, right behind Bud and Prez,” Woods said. “They didn’t talk for 10 weeks. Bud stared out the window, and Prez rolled joints and shot dice with Basie in the back seat. Al and I would play two tunes, and get the rest of the night off, and we’d play gin rummy and sip from a pint of scotch; Bud always came by in hopes that we’d give him a drink. Once the Basie cats got their itinerary, they knew exactly what their existence would be like for the next ten weeks, which amazed me. ‘We’ll stay with Annie Mae here, and have some collard greens, we’ll eat this here, get a reefer here, get some good corn liquor there.’ When we got south of Baltimore, the black cats had to go to a different hotel, and I became an irate white guy. I said, ‘I’m going to go stay with you guys.’ They said, ‘Phil, it don’t go like that. We don’t want you in our hotel; it’s just going to put heat on us.’ I had to learn all about that.
“The black cats viewed the world with a certain street-wise sophistication,” he continued. “You’re playing music; this is important shit. You look right, you be right. They had to exhibit a certain level of professionalism to rise above the position that white society put them in. ‘We do shit that you cats can’t possibly touch.’ But if you’re an ofay and you can cut the mustard, man, they’re going to share with you.”
Although Woods earned respect—and gigs—from such tough-to-please black elders and peers as Gillespie, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk, the skin game worked against his reputation as a hardcore jazz musician in the racially charged environment in which jazz operated from the late 1950s through the ’60s. It didn’t help that Woods was making a name as an heir to Charlie Parker’s throne, most visibly in a battling saxes combo with white altoist Gene Quill. To add fuel to the fire, in 1957 Woods married Chan Parker, the mother of two of Charlie Parker’s children, drawing accusations on the level of Art Pepper’s subsequent shit-sling, “Phil Woods loved Charlie Parker so much, he married his wife.”
“I could feel the buzz,” said Woods, who in A Life In E-Flat recounts a night at the Five Spot when Charles Mingus, noticing that Woods was blowing on Parker’s old King alto, glared balefully at him from the foot of the bandstand. “But most cats were pretty cool—I was with Dizzy’s band, and you didn’t mess with Dizzy’s guys. And Miles was a dear friend; he never gave me any crap. I knew I was good, but I wasn’t sure I had it. I was aware that it’s a black art form, and had the self-doubts of a white guy coming up, but Dizzy and Art Blakey said, ‘Get yourself together; you can play!’ That was the end of that shit. So I was ensconced in a level of musicianship that, ‘OK, he married Bird’s widow, but I don’t think we should mess with him.’ People who knew me knew I was not exploiting the issue, that I was genuinely in love with Chan and I was taking care of the family. Even Mingus knew that. He wouldn’t mess with me! Chan would have killed him.
“The first music I studied was Benny Carter, and I hear more of Benny than Bird in my work early on,” he continued. “I was trying to become my own man, and when I listen to the early records, I think I was already finding my voice. I sounded pretty damn good. I never tried to sound like Charlie Parker. As Lee Konitz said, it was too hard. Or as Gene Quill said, ‘Here, YOU imitate Charlie Parker.’ When I heard Bird’s recording of ‘KoKo’ at 14, that’s all she wrote—no pun intended. It was my epiphany. Within 8 bars I understood that I wanted to be a jazz musician. ‘KoKo’ was the only solo I transcribed, but I learned all the tunes, of course. If I heard a phrase I liked, I’d steal it. That’s how you learn music—or writing or painting. It’s a noble tradition.”
Unlike many Parker acolytes among his peer group, Woods did not succumb to heroin. “People tried to get me to do it, but I never related to it,” he stated. “I snorted some once in Florida because I didn’t know any connection, and wouldn’t be able to get it again. I hated it. I’m an uppers guy. When I was a kid, I’d break down benzedrine inhalers, put them in a Coca-Cola and then listen to Charlie Parker for six hours straight.”
The drinking got worse, as Woods, feeling increasingly trapped in the New York studios as the ’60s progressed, binged after sessions and spent more and more nights in the city. It’s not hard to see why: of the hundred or so sessions comprising Woods’ discography between 1960 and 1968, he led only two—the Hentoff-produced Rights Of Swing (1961) and a novelty album called Greek Cooking (1966).
“My jazz credentials were not quite what I thought they should be,” Woods said. “I was known in New York, but I wasn’t getting out of town much unless it was with somebody else’s band. By 1968, the jazz scene was dying down, and although I was busy-busy-busy, it was mostly jingles. Most of the work was television, selling Coca-Cola and Buick cars, and I wasn’t playing any music. I decided to move to Europe.”
Within six months, Woods noted with some irony, he was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival with the European Rhythm Machine, his first-ever working group, comprising either Gordon Beck or George Gruntz on piano, Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. Based in the farming village of Champotteux for the next three years, he spent much time in Paris, shed his blue gig suit, grew his hair long and sprouted a moustache, experimented with electronic sax and piano, and took his music to a Woodsian version of the outer partials. In the process, he finally became an international jazz star.
“I sounded like I was let out of jail,” Woods said of his European tonal personality, which incorporated, among other things, intervallic ideas postulated earlier in the ’60s by Eric Dolphy, who Woods got to know well in the John Lewis-led Orchestra, USA. “We were a hot band. We weren’t playing what I’d call free jazz, but it wasn’t your father’s jazz either. You were expected to be an artist and to experiment in Europe. In America they want to put you in a box, but Europe didn’t play that game so much. They take their jazz very seriously, and I thrived on it.”
During these years, Woods commingled with such radical Paris-based musicians as Steve Lacy, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. “Strangely enough, Braxton told me that listening to my records with Oliver Nelson kept him sane when he was in the military,” said Woods, whose tune ‘HUK2E’ is a put-on of Braxton’s ’70s titles. “As with Cage, I like Braxton’s philosophy more than his music. I like the idea of tearing down the walls, and I appreciate an artist who affects the world. Braxton has affected the world. Still, I find that approach rather limiting. How many ways mathematically are you going to divide things? If you’re such a great artist, why do you need a system? Why don’t you just make the melodies?”
A man as many-sided as Woods may never find inner peace and harmony, but he has, in his seventies, brought the “maudlin horseshit” under control. “I had joneses, and I’ve had to deal with them,” he said bluntly. As an example, he recalled an early morning 50 years ago when, after dropping a couple of sleeping pills on top of the wine over the course of a night of “Harlem Nocturne” at the Nut Club, he raced down the platform of the West 4th Street subway station to catch the Brighton Beach train, tripped, fell on the tracks, and landed a few feet short of the front car.
“Dumb high, but you got loaded,” he said. “After coming so close to biting the bullet, I said, ‘I don’t think I should do that any more’—and I never did. Another time, the early quartet, with Mike Melillo, was working Hoppers, and I got so juiced that I had to give the money back. It was $700. The next day I said to myself, ‘You wanted to be a jazz musician all your life, you’ve got a good band, you’re working—you can’t play and you have to give the money back? You dummy!’ Music first. Not drugs first. Not booze first. So I developed a discipline—play the gig and then drink. I thought I was cool, but then I would drink too much; eventually, that didn’t work either. I never woke up with the shakes or anything. I just drank too much. I stopped. I’ve tried AA and that doesn’t work for me. I’ve been an independent motherfucker doing it my way for as long as I can remember, so I couldn’t adjust to that. Now it’s only the music and my family. And coffee. The last jones. I have a big espresso machine.”
Sober and sage in his golden years, Woods commands as loyal and intense a fan base as any musician in the business. Even so, he still seems to consider himself ever so slightly misunderstood and underappreciated.
“Sometimes I think my artist credentials are suspect,” he said. “Somebody in the band ran across a young saxophone player who mentioned my name, and the cat said, ‘Oh, the technical guy’.” He shook his head disbelievingly. “The technical guy. Yeah, right.
“And there are still people in France who think you can’t possibly play if you’re white. A black writer once rapped the Phil Woods Quartet, saying, ‘Phil Woods used to work with Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, and took all our music, and now he doesn’t hire any black people.’ Now, you’ve got to realize that the band began when I was staying at Bill Goodwin’s house in the Poconos, which is a lily-white part of the world, and Steve Gilmore and Mike Melillo lived there. There were no black cats. I would prefer to have a salt-and-pepper band, but I’m not going to go out of my way to find one.”
These things being said, Woods has no apologies.“I’m not an innovator,” he said. “I just play songs, man. I play bebop. I’m influenced by Harold Arlen and Charlie Parker and Jerome Kern and Thelonious Monk. I don’t consider myself in those ranks creatively, though. I keep the flame going. I’m very happy to be a good player. A pro. I’ve sometimes referred to myself as ‘a soldier for jazz.’ 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.”