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 seven-decade career, Phil has made a practice of standing out, whether on straight-ahead jazz recordings or while contributing mind-searing solos on Billy Joel's Just the Way You Are and Steely Dan's Doctor Wu.
In Part 1 of my four-part interview with Phil, the legendary saxophonist, 77, 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:
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?
PW: 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 piano player 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?
PW: 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.
Tomorrow, Phil talks about attending the Manhattan school of Music and Juilliard, feeling despondent playing pop songs on gigs after graduating, how jamming with Charlie Parker changed his mindset, and the night Parker rode down Seventh Ave. on a white horse.
JazzWax tracks: Phil's first recording was cut in 1947, at home in Springfield, Mass., when he was 16 years old. Billed as Phil Woods & His Pals, the group featured Phil on alto sax and clarinet, Joe Raich on vibes, Hal Serra on piano, Sal Salvador on guitar, Chuck Andrus on bass and Joe Morello on drums. The tracks can be found on a CD called Bird's Eyes: Last Unissued, Vol. 7, on the Philology label. It's extremely rare.
Ken Dryden in the All Music Guide, wrote:
JazzWax clip: To hear a perfect example of the yearning sound of Phil Woods' alto sax, dig this audio clip of Easy Living from 1957...