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February 17, 2014IM -
“Music united the family instead of dividing it,” says alto saxophonist Phil Woods of Local 802 (New York City) and 577 (Pocono, PA), referring to his childhood. “In those days, everyone was on the same page in a sense, whether it was grandma or the kids. You listened to the music everybody was listening to. It wasn’t marketed like the music of today; now it seems that the corporations aim music at certain segments of the population.”
Woods, a legendary bebop saxophonist, band leader, session musician, and composer for more than 50 years, explains that there was no distinction between jazz and popular music when he was growing up; it was all just American music. “When you went to the movies, or turned the radio on, the quality of the music was very high and often had improvisation, so I was always struck with music,” says Woods. “My family all knew who Irving Berlin and Cole Porter were.” To Woods, jazz represents this richness of American culture and family strength.
Also representative of this strength is the AFM. “I’m a strong union man,” he says firmly. “My family has always been strong believers in unions. You have to have an organization to protect you when things go wrong. The main thing that we have is each other, and when we band together, we become a lot stronger.”
After 61 years in the AFM, Woods is well aware of the power it can exercise when negotiations go awry. “I think a musician’s union, especially in New York, has some clout,” he says. “They can shut down Broadway; they can shut down a club. You get paid, or else! I think every young musician should band together and be a part of the union.”
Woods picked up the saxophone when he was 12, and by 13, he was hooked on the big bands, as well as the hot small combos of the day, like the Benny Goodman Sextet and Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five.
Not long after that, the young Woods ventured to New York City, where he got his first taste of the jazz Mecca, right at the time of the 52nd Street phenomenon. He even studied with the famous pianist Lennie Tristano.
Around 1945, Woods got his first taste of the master of bebop, Charlie Parker. “I was playing with the local swing bands, but when I first heard Bird, that was it, that was all she wrote,” he says. On one of his trips to the city, Woods had a very special encounter with Parker, who was known for being very supportive of young musicians. The two of them enjoyed a piece of cherry pie together, and it was an unforgettable experience for Woods.
“I think every young artist should go into the deep water, and see how you hold up to the other young people,” Wood says of his early experiences in New York. “I learned about travel, what to listen to, and gained life experience, which is very important for a young artist.”
Music education is much different now than it was when Woods attended The Juilliard School. This was a time when jazz was not a respected art form, at least not in academic circles. Very few, if any, conservatories offered a legitimate jazz studies program, and it wouldn’t be until years later, when Local 802 member Wynton Marsalis’s influence was felt, that Juilliard would offer a serious jazz curriculum.
“Playing jazz wasn’t frowned upon, but it wasn’t part of the regular thing,” says Woods. “If you wanted to be a musician, you learned fugal techniques and counterpoint, the same stuff they’ve been learning for 300 years. Then, you picked the style that you wanted to play, whether it was symphonic music, or string quartets, or dance band, or theater music. We all share the same elements—the same scales, harmonic structure—it’s just what you do with it.”
After graduating from Juilliard, Woods had the fortune of doing well very early on. He’s the first to say, “I was good, I could play.” Listening to his early recordings, you can’t disagree. His first big job was playing for the Birdland All-Stars in 1956, with trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan’s rhythm section. It was in this group that Woods caught the eye of Local 47 member Quincy Jones, who was forming a band for Dizzy Gillespie to tour the Middle East for the State Department.
“That helped, because when you play with somebody of that caliber, people treat you differently,” says Woods. Ira Gitler, a producer for Prestige Records, also helped Woods by getting him his first recording contract, and his first session as a leader yielded “Pot Pie” in 1954.
Now, Woods has over 40 releases under his belt as a session leader, and countless more as a sideman, like the classic recordings The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall Concert (1959) with the quirky, albeit genius pianist Thelonious Monk; Symbiosis with pianist Bill Evans; and Masters Sessions vol. 1 with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
In the late ’60s, however, rock ‘n’ roll had almost completely overtaken jazz as the mainstream music. Recalling his recording dates from that period, Woods says he was doing a lot fewer jazz sessions, and instead, making his living as a studio musician. Europe’s jazz scene was thriving, so having lived there in 1959, as a member of Quincy Jones’s band, Woods packed up everything he owned in 29 cardboard cases and relocated to Europe, first at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, and later moving to France. Within a few weeks, he was playing all of the major European festivals.
With the help of some friends, he formed and led the European Rhythm Machine, and for the first time in a few years, Woods was back playing the music he loved full-time. “There was a certain freedom about having your own band in Europe during that period,” Woods recalls. “When you listen to the records, it sounds like I had just been let out of a cage. After doing all of that commercial music that I was doing, it was very refreshing, very exciting, to try to stretch the envelope a little bit.”
“I’ve always been grateful to Europe for giving me the chance to play jazz and not worry about commercial music,” he adds.
Upon returning to the states in the mid ’70s, Woods continued to earn his living playing session dates, appearing on several smash hits, like Local 802 member Paul Simon’s 1975 release “Have a Good Time,” and Billy Joel’s classic “Just the Way You Are,” in 1977.Now, however, Woods now had a vehicle to both make a living and play the music he loved. He formed the Phil Woods Quartet in 1974, which stayed together until 1983. His next group, the Phil Woods Quintet, was formed shortly after, and is still performing to this day with the same rhythm section. Jazz musicians are known for being “musical mercenaries,” and few combos stay together for even a few years, let alone over three decades.
“Someone asked me the secret of keeping a band together that long, and I think one of the main things is to keep getting new music,” Woods advises. “Don’t get your set A, and your set B, and play the same ballad every night. To this day, we’re always playing new music.”
Woods gets his new music from many different sources. Members of his group may contribute arrangements and compositions, or sometimes he pulls out obscure gems from forgotten corners of the Great American Songbook.
Woods, now in his late 70s, shows no signs of slowing down. His tour itinerary is fuller and more exotic than ever. “I’m going to Paris, Geneva, Barcelona, Rome, Belgium, and then to Birdland,” he lists off in rapid fire, adding nonchalantly, “I stay pretty busy.”
When asked about retirement, he spits back, “Retire?! To what? There’s so much to learn; it’s just getting good! That’s the thing about music, you never say, ‘Okay, now I’m there,’ because there’s always something new coming up.”
“I’m doing a lot more composing than I used to do, and I love that,” he says. Woods is also an accomplished writer, and he hopes to have his book, Phil Woods: A Life in E Flat, published this year. Also, as a cofounder of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts jazz festival near his Pocono home, he keeps busy year-round organizing the event. This year, he will celebrate the festival’s 32nd anniversary September 11-12.
Woods is playing better than he ever has, with a refinement and depth that great musicians only get with age. The quality of his music emanates from the gratification of a long, satisfying life that keeps getting better. “Between composing, writing, teaching, traveling, and enjoying my family, life is good,” he says.