This week, jazz musicians will honor one of the greatest alto saxophone players in memory, the late Phil Woods. This year’s Celebration of the Arts, the annual outdoor music festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., is dedicated to Phil, and his friends and admirers will gather tonight for a benefit concert to continue his legacy.
Forty-one years ago, I sat with Phil in his home in the Pocono Mountains for an interview published on Sept. 29, 1975 in The Pocono Record. He’d already played with the greats of jazz and two years later would conquer the world of pop music with his lyric solo for Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
This is my contribution to his memory.
The alto saxophonist has 30 records to his credit, a grant to compose a major work for sax and orchestra and a cool manner smoothed by years of roadwork with Count Basie and myriad jazz greats.
He lives in Delaware Water Gap in a modest white clapboard house with his lady Jill and at least five cats, composing his three-movement “Sun Suite” in front of a blackened stone fireplace in his vaulting living room.
He began writing the suite under a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts; it comes to fruition in October when Woods, his quartet and an orchestra tape it for RCA Records.
Like many musicians, artists and writing living in the Poconos, Woods’ work is known nationally and internationally, yet he camouflages himself here, lays back and enjoys the scenery for a month, then flies through Japan and Holland, touring jazz festivals or debuting a new work.
He left home (Springfield, Mass.) at 15, powered by Art Tatum and later Charlie Parker, jazz jingling in his blood, hauling a horn willed to him by his uncle. He hit the road with the Birdland All-Stars tour, petrified but hungry to learn with his heroes—Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Bud Powell—riding the band bus and playing the southern Tobacco Warehouse circuit in the late ‘50s.
Living on the road out of a bus taught him about life, he feels. “There are still some big bands out there. But there’s no place for young people to get that experience, although the colleges have tried to replace that in a sense with the stage band situation. But that doesn’t teach you too much about life. That teaches you about the music, but not the invaluable things about living.
“You just keep your mouth shut and watch what the veterans do. I think that’s ideal, don’t you? Any man who’s been doing it five times as long as you have must have something to say.”
Woods has studied at both schools, trekking from Bach to bebop, from four years at Julliard through two decades of big bands and his own quartet. With a common twine called jazz running through his career, he has turned out eclectic potions like “Charity” on his 1973 album for Testament (“This is my boogaloo period.”) and “Images,” his latest LP for RCA with Michel Legrand and his orchestra.
His phrases are lithe, never overblown or dirty. He ranges from the cool (“The Windmills of Your Mind”) to the big and brassy to the sporadic. (The experimental sounds on the Testament album Woods said didn’t go over in a nightclub in the San Fernando Valley.)
Woods’ rather eclectic life seems to give his music its dynamics.
“I used to interview American jazz artists for a French magazine, a jazz magazine,” Woods said as he lit a cigarette and settle back in a chair in his living room.
That was during his 1968-72 stay in Paris, a trip Woods feels everyone should take. “It’s one of the most magnificent cities in the world. If you’re an artist, you owe it to yourself to go see it—why it’s different—so you can relate to what you have here. You need that contrast,” he said in a gravely baritone voice.
A musician before he found an instrument, Woods stumbled into the field. “I could whistle and make up a melody. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. I was totally frustrated, and it would just sound terrible.
“But I remember the attraction. That’s the reason I got the saxophone, because my uncle died. And when I was evidently nine, ten or younger, I would go look at his sax. It just intrigued me, all that white—the pearl and the gold, you know. I just loved to touch it.”
He was hooked after one lesson, took a four-year crack at classical clarinet and composition (“I had dreams of perhaps playing Mozart but I found out that was not my road.”) and gravitated toward jazz.
With a photographic memory for a melody, Woods set out to imitate his heroes of the big band era. “I guess you have to imitate before you can stretch out. That’s how you learn how to play. Essentially you can’t teach jazz, but a great way to help a student learn how to play is to have him learn how to play different solos.”
That background and the awe Woods says he feels for the jazz greats who have survived the decades (“It’s easy to be a swinger when you’re 26; let me check you out when you’re 46.”) led him into his present brainchild, “Sun Suite.”
“It will be a piece that everybody will be able to play, hopefully. It is meant to be used—not just recorded once and discarded. Hopefully published and used in schools. I’m trying to construct it in such a way it can be played with almost any instrumentation.”
Lighting another cigarette, Woods described his round-the-world tour of jazz festivals, culminating with the recording of “Images” before the Concord Jazz Festival this year in California.
But can he describe in words what his music’s about?
“No. Only when I have a horn in my mouth.”