Phil Woods (1931-2015)


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Phil Woods, a highly accomplished alto saxophonist who married Charlie Parker's widow, developed one of the most signature sounds on the instrument in small-group and big-band settings, carried on the bebop tradition long after others had moved on, became an exquisite composer-arranger and was perhaps best known for his solo on Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are, died yesterday, on Sept. 29. He was 83.

As an artist, Phil had an admirable and elevated level of intensity, determination and ambition—not for himself but for jazz, which he championed religiously throughout his life. During the 1950s, Phil recorded relentlessly as a leader and was in solid demand by bands that wanted his instrument's crane-like bluesy sound soaring over the top of their ensembles. Yet Phil never felt he was in competition with anyone. He simply played his very best and put his faith in his passion without compromising and inch.

Here's my interview with Phil in 2009, with all four parts combined...

Phil Woods is blunt. And moody. And passionate. And fast with a comeback line. Like many jazz greats, the alto saxophonist speaks the way he plays. His articulation and his instrumental attack share much in common. Both are refreshingly direct and raw with emotion. Whether Phil is talking or playing, you feel transfixed, as though a powerful invisible hand has reached out to hold you fast. From his earliest professional playing jobs, Phil has projected this unmistakable yearning sound on the alto sax that is drenched in blues and struggle. [Pictured: Phil Woods in 1956]

Starting in the mid-1950s, Phil's urgent sound soared on some of the finest recordings of the decade. During this period he recorded masterpiece solos with Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Quill, Neal Hefti, Gene Krupa, Quincy Jones and Michel Legrand. Phil also was frequently compared to Charlie Parker, especially after he married Parker's widow, Chan. Throughout his eight-decade career, Phil has made a practice of standing out, whether on straight-ahead jazz recordings or while adding solos to Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are and Steely Dan's Doctor Wu.

In my interview with Phil, the legendary saxophonist talks about how he accidentally came to the alto saxophone, the significance of his first music teacher, the real reason he took music lessons at age 15 with Lennie Tristano, and meeting Charlie Parker on the floor of a 52d Street club in the late 1940s:

JazzWax: When you’re digging in on a solo, what are we hearing—anger, love, pain, what?

Phil Woods: That’s for you guys to figure out. That would be immodest for me to say and beyond my abilities. As a musician, I’m trying to touch people. If that works, great. I can’t tell you what makes that work. I have a thing on my wall here that Beethoven said: “The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man's soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are." I love that.

JW: Have you always felt so passionately about music and the saxophone?

PW: I was put on the planet to be a musician, primarily as an alto player.

JW: You came to the instrument almost by accident.

PW: Yes. When I was 12, in 1942, I had an eccentric uncle, Norman, who was a mortician. He had a saxophone, and when he was in bed upstairs dying, I found it under my grandmother's sofa. I pulled out the case and opened it. When I saw all that shiny metal, all I could think of was melting it down to make toy soldiers. Then I closed the case and put it away.

JW: Did you wind up with it?

PW: When my uncle died, it was left for me in his will. I put it in my closet, and a year or so went by. Then my mother insisted I shouldn't let the saxophone go to waste, that I should take at least one lesson. So I opened the phone book and found a teacher randomly in there. His name was Harvey LaRose, and he changed my life.

JW: How so?

PW: Your first teacher in anything is so important. If that person decides you have talent and wants to touch your soul, wonderful things can happen. Mr. LaRose was an incredible inspiration. Mr. LaRose was the man.

JW: What was it about Mr. LaRose that made you work hard?

He taught me songs and pushed me to embellish. I was getting improv lessons at age 13. He gave me the four top pop songs of the week to play, and today, of course, they're all standards. I was raised on the American songbook, which is a pretty strong force there…

JW: But what made him special, as a teacher?

PW: If I could define it, we could sell it [laughs]. It’s magic. It’s not to be dismissed with a few comments. He was a great human being. He wasn’t a great improviser, by the way. But he was a composer. He played the alto, clarinet, violin, guitar and piano. He not only taught all of them but repaired them, too. And he arranged for the local big bands up near Springfield, Mass., where I grew up. We had some great territory bands up there. Mr. LaRose wasn't a great jazz player but he was very aware of the American musical scene. And encouraging. But you didn't get cocky or he’d shoot you down in a minute. [laughs] He kept you encouraged but humble. I just loved the man.

JW: So Mr. LaRose made you feel good about your ability and potential?

PW: Yes he did. And because of him, from the time I was 13 or 14, I was hooked on becoming a musician. I worked very hard at it.

JW: You studied with Lennie Tristano in New York when you were just 15 years old—yet you were never influenced by him.

PW: I just wanted to go to New York because Charlie Parker was there. Studying with Tristano [pictured] was a good excuse. I’d just take a day trip to New York, you know. When kids talk about a field trip, that was a field trip for me and my friend, Hal Serra. He was a pianist who lived up the street from me. He had a couple of years on me. His family knew my family and he looked over me.

JW: What did you learn from Tristano?

PW: That I didn’t know anything and that I had a lot of work to do. I wasn’t quite ready for New York, but it was good I came to terms with the scene. I think everyone has to come to terms with a big city, where the environment is just jumping and swinging. In that period, New York was it, the place, you know. It sure wasn’t Los Angeles, and Chicago was a distant second.

JW: How many lessons did you take with Tristano?

PW: About six, over a summer, in 1946.

JW: As a teen, did you think Tristano's style was over the top?

PW: I learned that I didn’t know what he was talking about [laughs]. I was 15 years old, man. I wasn’t ready for Tristano. It’s not that I didn’t gravitate toward his musical preaching. But you know, I just wasn’t ready for anything.

JW: Did you ever get to meet Charlie Parker during those trips to Tristano's?

PW: Yes. After Hal Serra and I took our lessons at Tristano's [in Hollis, Queens], we’d routinely take the subway into Manhattan and get a pizza or a nice bowl of spaghetti and Coca-Cola for 25 cents at Romeo’s on Broadway in Times Square. Romeo’s was a dying chain. You knew the pasta was good because there was a big vat of it sitting in the window all day. Al dente was not in our vocabulary then [laughs].

JW: What did you do after you ate?

PW: We'd go over to Mainstem, a record store, and get all the latest 78s. A 10-inch shellac record cost between 35 cents and 75 cents. We'd pick up a few of those, and if we still had a dollar left we’d go to the clubs on 52d St.

JW: Lennie knew this?

PW: Yeah, we'd tell him. One time after a lesson, Lennie said, “Are you guys going down to 52d St.?" We said, “Yeah, why do you ask?" Lennie said, “I’m opening for Charlie Parker. I thought you might like to meet him." I said to myself, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to meet God.” So sure enough, we went down there.

JW: What happened?

PW: The Lennie Tristano Trio opened, and when they were through, his bassist, Arnold Fishkind, came to get us. Lennie was blind, of course. So Arnold and Lennie took us behind the curtain—the place was a former speakeasy and too small for a true backstage area. There sitting on the floor was the great Charlie Parker.

JW: What was he doing?

Eating a cherry pie. He said, “Hey kids, you want a piece of cherry pie?” I said, “Oh Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor.” And it was. I’ve always loved cherry pie. So he cut me a big slab, and we talked music.

JW: That must have been amazing for you.

PW: You might say that. We were there for about 5 or 10 minutes. Then he had to go to work. He had his pie, and then the lesson started. We went back outside and listened to an hour of the genius of the alto saxophone.

JW: Was it dangerous listening to Charlie Parker as a kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

PW: When you’re 15 years old, art is very dangerous. That’s what art is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a gigantic edifice that you’re afraid to enter. That was the way I felt. Still feel that way to a certain extent.

JW: You attended two different music schools in New York.

I went first to the Manhattan School of Music for just six weeks in the summer of 1948. It was great and all that, but I didn't really care for it too much. I do remember my first day of school. After I got out of class on East 105th St. [the school's location at the time], I bought a shaved cherry-favored ice from a street vendor and yelled to the heavens, “I’m in the middle of New York and I’m studying music. Wow!” I felt great. Looking back, I probably didn’t give the Manhattan School of Music a fair shake.

JW: Then you went full-time to Juilliard in the fall of 1948.

PW: Julliard was and still is the school. Back then, the school was located on 122d and Claremont Ave., where the Manhattan School of Music is today.

JW: Was the difference in schools about the teachers?

PW: No. It was just that Julliard offered an incredible immersion in music. At Juilliard, I was attending the Composers Forum at nearby Columbia University. I heard the first Charles Ives [pictured] music. I saw John Cage lecture, I heard Charlie Parker at night while I was doing my species counterpoint, a progressive program that teaches you how to compose. New York was booming then.

JW: Did you study the saxophone at Juilliard?

PW: No. I had to study the clarinet. They didn’t allow you to major on the saxophone then. There was a lot more literature available for the clarinet. The clarinet was a tough instrument. It was invented by people who never met each other. [laughs] That’s Frank Wess’ line. Give credit where credit’s due. I was a composition minor, so I studied with Peter Mennin, a classical composer who taught at Juilliard and eventually ran the school. So I spent my nights playing bebop alto and practicing Brahms and Mozart on the clarinet during the day. I was one of the first cats to play Stravinsky’s Three [Pieces] unaccompanied. Look, I was trained. I‘m a trained professional musician.

JW: And a pretty serious classical musician at that.

PW: Without going into the artistic part of it, I never considered myself a serious artist. I think I am now. But primarily I just wanted to be a good musician. I’m Juilliard-trained, studied with Lennie Tristano, played with all of the great bands, had personal contact with the greatest jazz artists. I’m of the first generation to learn at the feet of the masters. After Louis [Armstrong] there was Dizzy [Gillespie], the second line. It won’t ever be that way again.

JW: Big difference today?

PW: Now everything is codified. Now you can go to school and major in Coltrane. You just can’t get a gig playing it.

JW: Did you get to play with Charlie Parker?

I played with him on a couple of jam sessions at the Open Door in Greenwich Village. But the first time was the most memorable.

JW: What happened?

PW: I had just graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and was playing at the Nut Club on Seventh Ave. and Sheridan Square in the Village. After all of that great education, here I was playing Harlem Nocturne 10 times a night.

JW: A let down?

PW: I wasn’t happy with myself. I was saying to myself, “My god, I’m a Juilliard graduate, and I can play great jazz, and here I am playing Night Train and Harlem Nocturne. I didn’t like my mouthpiece. I didn’t like my reed. I didn’t like my horn. I didn’t even like the strap.

JW: Sounds like you were pretty low.

I was. One night somebody came into the club and said, “Hey, Charlie Parker’s playing across the street. He’s jamming.” The guy was referring to Arthur’s Tavern, which is still there on Grove Street across Sheridan Square. It was a little tiny hole in the wall with a little bar.

JW: What did you do?

PW: I was going on my break so I rushed over. When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long [laughs]. His father was on drums using a tiny snare and little tiny pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie Parker—playing the baritone sax. It belonged to Larry Rivers, the painter. Parker knew me. He knew all the kids who were coming up.

JW: What did you say?

PW: I said, “Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to play my alto?” He said, “Phil, that would be great. This baritone’s kicking my butt.” So I ran back across the street to the Nut Club and grabbed the alto sax that I hated. I came back and got on the bandstand, which was about as big as a coffee table. I handed my horn to Bird and he played Long Ago and Far Away.

JW: What did you think?

PW: As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing there’s nothing wrong with it [laughs]. Nothing was wrong with the reed, nothing was wrong with the mouthpiece—even the strap sounded good. Then Parker says to me, “Now you play.” I said to myself, “My God.” So I did. I played a chorus for him.

JW: What song?

PW: You’re not paying attention. A chorus on Long Ago and Far Away.

JW: So the rhythm section was still playing when he handed you your horn?

PW: Right. As soon as Bird finished, he handed me the horn to take my solo. When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.” This time I levitated over Seventh Avenue to the Nut Club. And when I got back on the bandstand there, I played the shit out of Harlem Nocturne. That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing. That was quite a lesson.

JW: And a morale booster.

Yeah. But the real main point of that story is the accessibility of Parker. All of these masters were there for you to talk to and learn from and play with. I got to know Dizzy and all the guys this way. We all used to hang out at the same bar—Charlie’s Tavern, up on 51st St. between Broadway and Seventh Ave. There was no presidium. There was no, “They’re on stage and you’re in the audience.” We were all at the musician's union hall or at Charlie’s Tavern, learning and listening and talking.

JW: That must have been some scene.

PW: It was—all day and night. I was in Charlie’s Tavern when Bird came riding down Seventh Avenue on a white palomino horse [he had rented], wearing his straight fedora and pinstripe suit. Someone came into the bar and said, “”Bird is riding down Seventh on a horse.”

JW: What did you do?

PW: We all ran outside. I yelled, “Hey Charlie, how you doing?” He said, “I’m going to break my ride and get a meatloaf sandwich.” That’s what you ate at Charlie’s Tavern. You had a meatloaf sandwich and a beer.

JW: What happened after he finished eating?

PW: He left. As kids, we all followed him back out to the street to his horse. We said, “Bye-bye, Charlie,” as he rode off into the sunset. Who was that masked alto saxophonist? [laughs]

JW: Quite an image.

PW: We were all on the same level socially, and the greats were available for anything you wanted to know.

JW: Let me ask you—honestly—were those times as exciting as they sound?

PW: Yes, yes, yes. And jazz was in every joint. Jazz was relevant. I mean people were dancing to All the Things You Are and How High the Moon. You’d play your horn and nobody said you were playing art or jazz. You were just playing American music. It was a different world.

JW: You joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the spring of 1956. How did that come about?

PW: It was a band put together for a State Department tour and they needed a couple of white guys. It was me, Frank Rehak and Marty Flax. I’m just kidding. I think I was hired because I could play. Quincy had heard me play.

JW: That was Quincy Jones’ band for the most part, wasn’t it?

PW: Quincy chose all the guys and rehearsed the band. Then we flew to Rome and picked up Dizzy and went on to Abadan, Iran, our first port of call.

JW: Must have been amazing to sit on stage and see the faces of the audiences react to the music.

PW: It was. You couldn't believe the excitement. Read Satchmo Blows Up the World. It’s the history of the State Department jazz tours. While we were playing down in Rio in 1956, I could see [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Elis Regina and all those Brazilian cats sitting in the front row. Dizzy began that whole thing with jazz and Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.

JW: What was it about Chan Parker, Charlie Parker's widow, that attracted you to her?

PW: [Pause] I don’t want to talk about my marriages. We were in love, so that’s enough.

JW: But did you ever feel there was unfair pressure on you when you married her?

PW: If you were a young alto player in those days, you didn’t have to marry Parker’s widow to feel pressure.

JW: Did you ever play Charlie Parker’s King alto?

PW: Yeah. I was playing it at a club because I had to hock mine to buy groceries to feed my family, Bird's kids. Charles Mingus came in and walked up to where I was playing, looked at the horn and saw “Charlie Parker” written on the bell. Then he looked at me with disdain.

JW: Was Mingus being a jerk?

PW: Yeah. He just wasn’t thinking. I was just trying to feed the family of the man he supposedly loved. I felt like saying, “Hey, I could use a little support here.” Charlie and I became good friends later on. That was just a bad moment for him.

JW: Did you dig playing on those albums with Gene Quill in 1956 and 1957?

PW: Yeah, of course.

JW: Have you listened to those recordings recently?

PW: They’re in my heart. I don’t have to hear them.

JW: Do you remember recording Gene Krupa plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements?

PW: Yep. That was the first overdub.

JW: What do you mean?

PW: Do you know If You Were the Only Girl in the World?

JW: Of course.

PW: I don’t know who it was written for originally. I think it was for a baritone solo. It wasn’t an alto solo. The band recorded the song and then I was asked to put the solo on after the guys were all packing up. They wanted an alto in there. I recorded my solo wearing headphones listening to a playback of the band. It was one of the first times I had seen that happen.

JW: The album is a killer. PW: Oh, yeah. With Sam Marowitz on lead alto.

JW: What was Krupa like?

PW: A sweetheart. Nicest man in the business.

JW: Quincy Jones’ big band of 1959 started in Europe, didn’t it?

PW: It was the band America never heard. Quincy put it together to do a remake of Harold Arlen’s show St. Louis Woman. Sammy Davis Jr. was supposed to be in it but he was busy. So we had Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. It opened in Europe. The band was onstage in costume. It wasn’t a good period.

JW: Why?

PW: The production was a little too hip for Europe. They didn’t quite get it. The saddest part is there’s no documentation of it. No one filmed it rehearsing or performing or anything. We were in Europe for about a year. The show only lasted two or three months. And then it folded and Quincy kept the band together.

JW: Was Quincy excited about the band?

PW: Quincy was suicidal about it. He lost so much money. He was in the hole for $100,000, out of his own pocket. He had to recoup it.

JW: On the Jazz Icons video, Quincy Jones: Live in '60, you’re sitting on the set's steps in Belgium blowing that enormous solo on The Gypsy. Was it hard to play sitting like that?

PW: Hard? That’s what you did in a big band. You sat down.


JW: Yes, but you're on the steps in an awkward position, with your knees almost at the same level as your chest.

PW: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I was young then, so it didn’t matter. In my head, I can still do it. [laughs]

JW: Did you move to Europe in 1968 to escape the rock scene here?

PW: I did it to play jazz and get away from the political climate here. It was not a great time in American history with the Vietnam War. But it was mostly an artistic move. I was getting trapped in the studios and not playing enough real music.

JW: Did studio work include commercials?

PW: Yes. I was tired of selling Buicks and Coca-Cola. It paid the rent, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.

JW: Which Coca-Cola ads did you do?

PW: You name it, I’m on it.

JW: Did the move to Europe help your career?

PW: Once I left America I was taken seriously. Within two months after I moved to Europe I was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival with my own group. When I had lived in New York, I had played only as a sideman at Newport but not as a headliner.

JW: Why did you return to the States in 1973?

PW: I had been there for five years. That was enough. You stay there long enough people try to localize you.

JW: What do you mean?

PW: They try to drive the price down on your gigs. My idea was to drive the price up, not down [laughs]

JW: Was Europe helpful to your development?

PW: I’ve always been very grateful to Europe for creating the conditions that allowed me to grow as a jazz musician. But after five years, it was time to make some kind of mark in the United States.

JW: How did you record your solo on Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are?

PW: That was done at midnight wearing headphones as an overdub. I think there were two takes.

JW: You still get stopped on the street?

PW: People come up to me all the time to ask me about that. My favorite was the young saxophonist who came up to me on some gig I was playing and said, “Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?” I said, “Yes I am.” He said, “Have you done anything on your own.” [laughs] I said, “A couple of things.”

JW: Did you hear the Billy Joel song before you went into the booth?

PW: Yeah, of course. It was just me and Phil Ramone. He played me the track and showed me the music.

JW: Did you work on the solo concept before recording?

PW: I’m a professional musician. I sight read and play it. That same day I had recorded on Phoebe Snow's Never Letting Go, also produced by Phil.

JW: What’s so special about Phil Ramone?

PW: He’s my friend, and he knows music. We were at Juilliard together. He was a violin major. We go back to our childhood. Or at least our youthful teens. When he hired me for a record date, it was because he thought I could contribute something.

JW: Ever get called for stuff you found hard?

PW: Sure. I can’t do funk very well. It’s not my thing. But if it’s a song with a musical story, I can play it. Phil [Ramone] recognized that early from all the dates that I did.

JW: Did you enjoy making This Is How I Feel About Quincy in 2004?

PW: Yeah, I loved it. I love the songs but I’m also paying tribute to a mentor and a dear friend. Very few people know what he’s all about. That’s why I wanted to make sure people know how special he is. Listeners weren’t in Europe when we were there. They don’t know the full story.

JW: What full story?

PW: They don’t know about the time before I joined the band, when I called Quincy and said, “I don’t have enough money to feed my kids.” Quincy said, “Come to Paris and I’ll give you half of what I got.” At the time he had 100 francs and he gave me 50, which was about $10. In those days you could get groceries with that kind of money. People say Quincy has too much money and has sold out. I say, “You didn’t hear the big band.”

JW: You're about to release a new album.

PW: Yes. It's my Children’s Suite. I wrote it 40 years ago. On the CD, I used my Little Big Band and a string quartet. Bob Dorough [pictured] and Vicki Doney appear on vocals. The suite was inspired by A. A. Milne’s book of poems for children called Now We Are Six, Then I have a DVD coming out from this session, and an album with my quintet of Billy Strayhorn material. I’m also working on a piece for the New Jersey Saxophone Quartet that will debut in July at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok, Thailand. So I’m still pretty busy.

JW: When you close your eyes and think back, is there one song that you love more than any other?

PW: Yeah, You Must Believe in Spring by Michel Legrand.

JW: Why?

PW: After I came back from Paris in 1973, I stayed in L.A. for a minute before heading back to New York. I was going to had back to Paris. Nothing was happening for me in the States. It was a failed experiment. I was trying to be a prophet in my own land.

JW: Where were you living?

PW: I was staying with Jerry Dodgion, the saxophonist. We were just kind of hanging out one day and saying goodbye to everybody since I was returning soon for Paris. The phone rang, and it was Michel Legrand’s manager who needed a saxophonist to play with Michel. His manager said, “I got Eddie Daniels just for the first week but I need someone at Jimmy's club. We’re going to record live, and I need a good man.”

JW: What did Jerry say?

Jerry said, “I can’t do it but Phil Woods is sitting right here. Do you want to talk to him?”

JW: What happened next?

Well, to make a long story short, I did the gig. That was my solo spot. I had just split up with Chan, I had just fallen in love with Jill, my current wife. She was ill at the time, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was going out of my head. I had to deal with divorce proceedings, my future wife was sick and I was heading back into the New York clubs with my tail between my legs to record with Michel.

JW: What's so special about You Must Believe in Spring?

PW: It's one of the highlights of our live recording for RCA. When the tape was rolling, I said to myself, “I’ve got to come up with something here. This is it.” Well, I guess I did because that led to a record contract with RCA.

JW: So you decided to stay in the States.

PW: Yes. For the next RCA project, Michel wrote a piece called Images that we recorded in London in 1975 with strings. It won a Grammy that year, and the rest is history.

JW: Pretty big twist.

PW: I know. It was ironic that I was heading back to France because nothing was happening here, and my career was saved by Michel Legrand, who had lived just down the road from me in Paris. So that song has a lot of importance for me.

JW: Is it available on CD?

I don’t know. I don’t buy ‘em. I just make ‘em. [laughs].

JazzWax tracks: And now for a bunch of seriously groovy tracks by Phil, with some that are way off the beaten trail:

Here's Phil's third recording session in 1954, playing Back and Blow with John Wilson (tp) Jimmy Raney (g) Bill Crow (b) and Joe Morello (d). Dig the might Bill Crow on bass—holy smokes...


Here's Phil in 1957 with John Williams (p) Teddy Kotick (b) and Nick Stabulas (d) playing the achingly beautiful Falling in Love All Over Again, from Woodlore...


Here's Phil in 1957 with Donald Byrd (tp) George Wallington (p) Teddy Kotick (b) and Nick Stabulas (d) playing Indian Summer...


Here's Phil on One for Tubby, from Yardbird Suite in 1957 with Herbie Mann (fl), Eddie Costa (vib), Joe Puma (g), Wendell Marshall (b) and Bobby Donaldson (d), from Mann's Yardbird Suite...


Here's Phil soloing on Gerry Mulligan's Bird House with Gene Krupa in 1958...


Here's Phil playing his tour-de-force solo on The Gypsy with the Quincy Jones Orchestra in 1960...


Here's Phil playing April in Paris with strings...


Here's Phil's solo on Steely Dan's Dr. Wu from The Royal Scam in 1976...

Doctor Wu

And here's Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are in 1977, with Phil Woods' solo... 


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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