Listen to virtually any Charlie Parker recording and it's immediately apparent why the alto saxophonist had such an enormous impact on jazz musicians coming of age in the early 1950s. But Parker's magnificent tone and improvisational skills were only half the story. As Phil Woods notes today, Parker's personality also had a profound impact on musicians, many of whom might have given up had it not been for his few words of encouragement. [Pictured: Phil Woods in 1955]
During the early 1950s, Phil found himself musically despondent. Schooled at New York's finest music institutions, Phil wasn't happy with the way he sounded on the alto sax. In some ways, he feared he might have been born too late—coming of age professionally just as jazz and the rich jazz culture of the 1940s were starting to fade. At 21, Phil wondered whether his enormous skills as a player and improviser would have much meaning as the years rolled on.
In Part 2 of my four-part interview with Phil, the legendary alto saxophonist talks about Charlie Parker, why he felt adrift while gigging in New York, what Parker said that turned him around, the miraculous accessibility of great jazz artists, and what the New York jazz scene was like during this period:
JazzWax: Was it dangerous listening to Charlie Parker as
a kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s?
Phil Woods: When you’re 15 years old, art is very dangerous. That’s what art is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a gigantic edifice that you’re afraid to enter. That was the way I felt. Still feel that way to a certain extent.
JW: You attended two different music schools in New York.
PW: I went first to the Manhattan School of Music for just six weeks in the summer of 1948. It was great and all that, but I didn't really care for it too much. I do remember my first day of school. After I got out of class on East 105th St. [the school's location at the time], I bought a shaved cherry-favored ice from a street vendor and yelled to the heavens, “I’m in the middle of New York and I’m studying music. Wow!” I felt great. Looking back, I probably didn’t give the Manhattan School of Music a fair shake.
JW: Then you went full-time to Juilliard in the fall of 1948.
PW: Julliard was and still is the school. Back then, the school was located on 122d and Claremont Ave., where the Manhattan School of Music is today.
JW: Was the difference in schools about the teachers?
PW: No. It was just that Julliard offered an incredible immersion in music. At Juilliard, I was attending the Composers Forum at nearby Columbia University. I heard the first Charles Ives [pictured] music. I saw John Cage lecture, I heard Charlie Parker at night while I was doing my species counterpoint, a progressive program that teaches you how to compose. New York was booming then.
JW: Did you study the saxophone at Juilliard?
PW: No. I had to study the clarinet. They didn’t allow you to major on the saxophone then. There was a lot more literature available for the clarinet. The clarinet was a tough instrument. It was invented by people who never met each other. [laughs] That’s Frank Wess’ line. Give credit where credit’s due. I was a composition minor, so I studied with Peter Mennin [pictured], a classical composer who taught at Juilliard and eventually ran the school. So I spent my nights playing bebop alto and practicing Brahms and Mozart on the clarinet during the day. I was one of the first cats to play Stravinsky’s Three [Pieces] unaccompanied. Look, I was trained. I‘m a trained professional musician.
JW: And a pretty serious classical musician at that.
PW: Without going into the artistic part of it, I never considered myself a serious artist. I think I am now. But primarily I just wanted to be a good musician. I’m Juilliard-trained, studied with Lennie Tristano, played with all of the great bands, had personal contact with the greatest jazz artists. I’m of the first generation to learn at the feet of the masters. After Louis [Armstrong] there was Dizzy [Gillespie], the second line. It won’t ever be that way again.
JW: Big difference today?
PW: Now everything is codified. Now you can go to school and major in Coltrane. You just can’t get a gig playing it.
JW: Did you get to play with Charlie Parker?
PW: I played with him on a couple of jam sessions at the Open Door in Greenwich Village. But the first time was the most memorable. [Photo of Charlie Parker at the Open Door in 1953 by Bob Parent]
JW: What happened?
PW: I had just graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and was playing at the Nut Club on Seventh Ave. and Sheridan Square in the Village. After all of that great education, here I was playing Harlem Nocturne 10 times a night.
JW: A let down?
PW: I wasn’t happy with myself. I was saying to myself, “My god, I’m a Juilliard graduate, and I can play great jazz, and here I am playing Night Train and Harlem Nocturne. I didn’t like my mouthpiece. I didn’t like my reed. I didn’t like my horn. I didn’t even like the strap.
JW: Sounds like you were pretty low.
PW: I was. One night somebody came into the club and said, “Hey, Charlie Parker’s playing across the street. He’s jamming.” The guy was referring to Arthur’s Tavern, which is still there on Grove Street across Sheridan Square. It was a little tiny hole in the wall with a little bar.
JW: What did you do?
PW: I was going on my break so I rushed over. When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long [laughs]. His father was on drums using a tiny snare and little tiny pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie Parker—playing the baritone sax. It belonged to Larry Rivers, the painter. Parker knew me. He knew all the kids who were coming up.
JW: What did you say?
PW: I said, “Mr. Parker, perhaps you’d like to play my alto?” He said, “Phil, that would be great. This baritone’s kicking my butt.” So I ran back across the street to the Nut Club and grabbed the alto sax that I hated. I came back and got on the bandstand, which was about as big as a coffee table. I handed my horn to Bird and he played Long Ago and Far Away.
JW: What did you think?
PW: As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing there’s nothing wrong with it [laughs]. Nothing was wrong with the reed, nothing was wrong with the mouthpiece—even the strap sounded good. Then Parker says to me, “Now you play.” I said to myself, “My God.” So I did. I played a chorus for him.
JW: What song?
PW: You’re not paying attention. A chorus on Long Ago and Far Away.
JW: So the rhythm section was still playing when he handed you your horn?
PW: Right. As soon as Bird finished, he handed me the horn to take my solo. When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.” This time I levitated over Seventh Avenue to the Nut Club. And when I got back on the bandstand there, I played the shit out of Harlem Nocturne. That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing. That was quite a lesson.
JW: And a morale booster.
PW: Yeah. But the real main point of that story is the accessibility of Parker. All of these masters were there for you to talk to and learn from and play with. I got to know Dizzy and all the guys this way. We all used to hang out at the same bar—Charlie’s Tavern, up on 51st St. between Broadway and Seventh Ave. There was no presidium. There was no, “They’re on stage and you’re in the audience.” We were all at the musician's union hall or at Charlie’s Tavern, learning and listening and talking.
JW: That must have been some scene.
PW: It was—all day and night. I was in Charlie’s Tavern when Bird came riding down Seventh Avenue on a white palomino horse [he had rented], wearing his straight fedora and pinstripe suit. Someone came into the bar and said, “”Bird is riding down Seventh on a horse.”
JW: What did you do?
PW: We all ran outside. I yelled, “Hey Charlie, how you doing?” He said, “I’m going to break my ride and get a meatloaf sandwich.” That’s what you ate at Charlie’s Tavern. You had a meatloaf sandwich and a beer.
JW: What happened after he finished eating?
PW: He left. As kids, we all followed him back out to the street to his horse. We said, “Bye-bye, Charlie,” as he rode off into the sunset. Who was that masked alto saxophone player? [laughs]
JW: Quite an image.
PW: We were all on the same level socially, and the greats were available for anything you wanted to know.
JW: Let me ask you—honestly—were those times as exciting as they sound?
PW: Yes, yes, yes. And jazz was in every joint. Jazz was relevant. I mean people were dancing to All the Things You Are and How High the Moon. You’d play your horn and nobody said you were playing art or jazz. You were just playing American music. It was a different world. [Pictured: New York jazz club, 1950, Bradley Smith]
Tomorrow, Phil talks about playing in Dizzy Gillespie's State Department band of 1956, his marriage to Chan Parker, Charles Mingus' reaction to seeing him play Charlie Parker's alto sax, his celebrated recordings with Gene Quill, and how he came to join Quincy Jones' big band of 1959.
JazzWax tracks: Phil Woods early recordings includes four sides with Jimmy Raney in August 1954, which can be found on the Jimmy Raney Quintet: Complete Recordings here.
Phil's first leadership date was for Prestige in October 1954. The date featured Jon Eardley (trumpet), Phil (alto sax), George Syran (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass) and Nick Stabulas (drums) and can be found here on Pot Pie.
As much as he detested the song, Phil performed Night Train with trumpeter Tony Fruscella in either 1955 or 1959. The discographies aren't certain. The performance was recorded at the time and later released. You'll find it on Tony's Blues here.
JazzWax clip: The following clip has nothing to do with the 1950s. It's from 1995. I love it and thought you'd enjoy hearing Phil and three other saxophone legends jam on Crazy Rhythm...