Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

Stormy weather

Starting a new project is never easy. Working during a storm that threatens your entire state makes it even harder to concentrate.

Now that Hurricane Irma has swept through Florida and spared our home, I’m trying to refocus efforts on a new novel, tentatively titled Born Under a Bad Sign, although The Peaceable Kingdom might provide an ironic description of the theme.

Set in 1969 just before the historic Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the book pits the residents of eastern Pennsylvania against the government in a battle to save or dam the Delaware River. It introduces two young people, a budding photographer named Elizabeth Reed and a prodigal musician called Hayden Quinn, who struggle with their own personal conflicts as they weigh the risks and rewards of love and fame.

For Elizabeth, the peace of the Minisink Valley is a form of paradise. For Quinn, whom Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, Eden lies to the north, at Max Yasgur’s farm. Whether they realize their dreams is an open question.

Unlike its predecessors, the CW McCoy and Brinker novels, this work is more mainstream, an exploration of the baffling mysteries faced by a sixteen-year-old woman on her emotional journey to adulthood.

I started working on paper (hence, the image of the notecards) before graduating to Word, with its document-view feature that uses headers to provide a visual outline of the manuscript. Less onerous than outlining, it’s a system I recommend to fellow writers who want flexibility as well as organization.


Phil Woods rides again

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.

Phil WoodsPhil Woods is alive and well-known (in jazz circles) and living in your back yard.

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.”

images-coverWoods 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.

© Garth Woods“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.”