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Phil Woods: 1931-2015

AAJ Staff By

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In memory of NEA Jazz Master, Phil Woods. This article was previously published in November 2002.

All About Jazz: Looking back on the almost three decade history of your Quintet, one question springs immediately to mind. You've had the same rhythm section of Steve Gilmore on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums ever since you formed the band back in the early 1970s. Most jazz musicians end up hopping around from group to group constantly. So how have you managed to keep your rhythm section intact?

Phil Woods: I've been working with Steve and Bill for 28 years, when I put together the quintet after a came back from living in France for a few years. They're my neighbors too—we all live in the same little community in Pennsylvania. I guess my attitude is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. For us, playing together just feels right. We're just dear friends and we're compatible. And most importantly, they play good!

AAJ: That same longevity—on not quite the same scale—applies to almost everyone who's played in your quintet.

PW: That's right. Bill Charlap has been with me for ten years, and so has Brian Lynch. And before they were with me, Tom Harrell was in the band for six years, and Hal Galper played piano with me for a decade. One thing you can say, I definitely get a lot out of my guys. I do get the mileage.

AAJ: That ability to keep a group of musicians together for such a long time certainly speaks well for your ability as a bandleader. Where did you pick up those leadership skills?

PW: I was raised by the best. My first bandleader was Charlie Barnet. And I worked with Dizzy Gillespie, who was the best, and Benny Goodman, who was the worst! So I learned what to do—and what not to do when I began to lead my own band. I know all the pitfalls, and the right questions to ask at the right time, But it's something I'm still learning. It's a process that never ends.

AAJ: I remember reading an interview with you a few years ago in which you talked about the importance of being a team player in a small group setting. And you made an interesting analogy to baseball—comparing yourself to former Reds catcher Johnny Bench.

PW: Well, I love baseball and Johnny Bench was one of my heroes. I think that comparison applies, because in baseball and in jazz, the race is not always to the swiftest. What's important is consistency and professionalism—contributing in whatever way you can, getting a hit, getting on base, playing intelligent ball. You may not change the world, but you keep on the winning track. You know, in baseball and music, being a total pro is kind of overlooked, but that's what every musician in this band is.

AAJ: When you first came to New York to study at Julliard, you were playing clarinet in a classical setting. But like Miles Davis before you, it's pretty clear you really came to hang out at clubs and hear Charlie Parker, right?

PW: Julliard didn't have a major in sax at the time, and yeah, I just wanted to be where Bird was. But I didn't want to tell my parents that. So if I told my Mom I wanted to major in Mozart and play clarinet, that was okay. In addition, I didn't know at the time if I was really qualified to make it as a jazz musician, so that was my backup plan if things didn't work.

AAJ: Did you have much trouble at first sitting in at clubs?

PW: No, I came down to New York from Springfield, Massachusetts with Sal Salvador and Chuck Andrus, who were all trying to play jazz. And we already knew Teddy Charles and Joe Morello from Springfield, so I was able to start gigging right off the bat.

I'd sit in with a dance band, and play "All the Things You Are,"—sticking in my jazz licks as people danced by and smiled. After the gig, we would get a bowl of spaghetti, a glass of wine and a few bucks. All in all, it was pretty cool.

AAJ: When you were in New York, there was a real revolution going on in jazz with Bird, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. There had to be a lot of energy in the air.

PW: It wasn't just Bird, Dizzy and Monk. It was just a fecund era all around—especially in New York City. I remember hearing the Julliard String Quartet working their way through the Bartok cycle while I was there. I heard John Cage lecture, and got student passes to see all the rehearsals of Stravinsky's "A Rake's Progress" including the dress rehearsal. Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee were writing plays, and Bernstein was doing "West Side Story." People tend to label me as a bebopper, but at Julliard I was playing 12 tone jazz with Teo Macero, who was a student there at the same time. I felt pretty qualified to go in just about any direction that was pointed out.

AAJ: What are some of your current projects?

PW: We just recorded a couple of albums. One in Japan for Venus records that—do I dare say—is similar to Charlie Parker with strings. We also just finished a quintet recording for the Vertical label. It seems we're kind of going back to the great American songbook, although it's pretty cutting edge stuff. I still think the hardest thing in the world is to play a melody and define the contours carefully. That's what I do best, though. I found that out by doing everything else.

Coming up, I think I'm finally going to be able to record music I wrote to accompany songs from A.A. Milne's book, Now We Are Six. Disney has the rights, and I guess they're finally going to give a jazz musician permission to record it. Also, I'm going to be doing a recording with Herbie Mann. We haven't recorded in many years—since Yardbird Suite in 1957. We'rre just a couple of survivors from Tony's Bar in Flatbush, but we're both very interested in the music of Brazil. I'm fascinated by the combination of lovely melody, sophisticated rhythm and great harmony in that music. The future for jazz might lie in that direction, and I want to get on board.

AAJ: You've recorded an incredible number of albums as a leader over the years. If a young student came up to you asking for recommendations on what albums of yours to check out, what would you tell them?

PW: Buy the new stuff! The old stuff is hard to find and too expensive. Seriously, I think I'm playing better now than I was then. I'm just more capable. I don't have the energy level to play 100 miles per hour anymore, but I've learned to play whole notes and that only means everything in music to my way of thinking. I like to think I've contributed something to the alto saxophone. But basically, I'm just a working stiff, and I'm proud of that.
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