Phil Woods is known worldwide as a jazz headliner and leader with a powerful attack on the alto saxophone. He plays with every ounce of energy, as though it's his very last day on the job. And for reasons that probably have more to do with nature than logic, when Phil plays, the urgency in his tone leaves me transfixed. It's so magnetic that I stop what I'm doing to listen and admire. [Photo of Phil Woods in 1962 by Stan Wayman for Life]
But back in the mid-1950s, the rising popularity of television, movies and youth-oriented music put a tightening squeeze on leadership opportunities for pure jazz musicians. Well-established artists were all set But the Young Turks had to struggle to gain recognition in a crowded field, especially if you played the alto sax. Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Phil found himself pegged as a roving sideman, the guy hired to deliver a singular sound and solo on other artists' record dates. Phil wouldn't become a household jazz name until the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In Part 3 of my four-part interview with Phil, the legendary saxophonist recalls his period of transformation, his experiences with Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Quill and Quincy Jones, and tells why he moved to Paris in 1968:
JazzWax: You joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in the spring of 1956. How did that come about?
Phil Woods: It was a band put together for a State Department tour and they needed a couple of white guys. It was me, Frank Rehak and Marty Flax. I’m just kidding. I think I was hired because I could play. Quincy had heard me play.
JW: That was Quincy Jones’ band for the most part, wasn’t it?
PW: Quincy chose all the guys and rehearsed the band. Then we flew to Rome and picked up Dizzy and went on to Abadan, Iran, our first port of call.
JW: Must have been amazing to sit on stage and see the faces of the audiences react to the music.
PW: It was. You couldn't believe the excitement. Read Satchmo Blows Up the World. It’s the history of the State Department jazz tours. While we were playing down in Rio in 1956, I could see [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Elis Regina and all those Brazilian cats sitting in the front row. Dizzy began that whole thing with jazz and Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music.
JW: What was it about Chan Parker, Charlie Parker's widow, that attracted you to her?
PW: [Pause] I don’t want to talk about my marriages. We were in love, so that’s enough.
JW: But did you ever feel there was unfair pressure on you when you married her?
PW: If you were a young alto player in those days, you didn’t have to marry Parker’s widow to feel pressure.
JW: Did you ever play Charlie Parker’s King alto?
PW: Yeah. I was playing it at a club because I had to hock mine to buy groceries to feed my family, Bird's kids. Charles Mingus came in and walked up to where I was playing, looked at the horn and saw “Charlie Parker” written on the bell. Then he looked at me with disdain.
JW: Was Mingus being a jerk?
PW: Yeah. He just wasn’t thinking. I was just trying to feed the family of the man he supposedly loved. I felt like saying, “Hey, I could use a little support here.” Charlie and I became good friends later on. That was just a bad moment for him.
JW: Did you dig playing on those albums with Gene Quill in 1956 and 1957?
PW: Yeah, of course.
JW: Have you listened to those recordings recently?
PW: They’re in my heart. I don’t have to hear them.
JW: Do you remember recording Gene Krupa plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements?
PW: Yep. That was the first overdub.
JW: What do you mean?
PW: Do you know If You Were the Only Girl in the World?
JW: Of course.
PW: I don’t know who it was written for originally. I think it was for a baritone solo. It wasn’t an alto solo. The band recorded the song and then I was asked to put the solo on after the guys were all packing up. They wanted an alto in there. I recorded my solo wearing headphones listening to a playback of the band. It was one of the first times I had seen that happen.
JW: The album is a killer.
PW: Oh, yeah. With Sam Marowitz on lead alto.
JW: What was Krupa like?
PW: A sweetheart. Nicest man in the business.
JW: Quincy Jones’ big band of 1959 started in Europe, didn’t it?
PW: It was the band America never heard. Quincy put it together to do a remake of Harold Arlen’s show St. Louis Woman. Sammy Davis Jr. was supposed to be in it but he was busy. So we had Harold Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers. It opened in Europe. The band was onstage in costume. It wasn’t a good period.
PW: The production was a little too hip for Europe. They didn’t quite get it. The saddest part is there’s no documentation of it. No one filmed it rehearsing or performing or anything. We were in Europe for about a year. The show only lasted two or three months. And then it folded and Quincy kept the band together.
JW: Was Quincy excited about the band?
PW: Quincy was suicidal about it. He lost so much money. He was in the hole for $100,000, out of his own pocket. He had to recoup it.
JW: On the Jazz Icons video, Quincy Jones: Live in '60,
you’re sitting on the set's steps in Belgium blowing that enormous solo on The Gypsy. Was it hard to play sitting like that?
PW: Hard? That’s what you did in a big band. You sat down.
JW: Yes, but you're on the steps in an awkward position, with your knees almost at the same level as your chest.
PW: Oh yeah, I forgot about that. I was young then, so it didn’t matter. In my head, I can still do it. [laughs]
JW: Did you move to Europe in 1968 to escape the rock scene here?
PW: I did it to play jazz and get away from the political climate here. It was not a great time in American history with the Vietnam War. But it was mostly an artistic move. I was getting trapped in the studios and not playing enough real music.
JW: Did studio work include commercials?
PW: Yes. I was tired of selling Buicks and Coca-Cola. It paid the rent, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do.
JW: Which Coca-Cola ads did you do?
PW: You name it, I’m on it.
JW: Did the move to Europe help your career?
PW: Once I left America I was taken seriously. Within two months after I moved to Europe I was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival with my own group. When I had lived in New York, I had played only as a sideman at Newport but not as a headliner.
JW: Why did you return to the States in 1973?
PW: I had been there for five years. That was enough. You stay there long enough people try to localize you.
JW: What do you mean?
PW: They try to drive the price down on your gigs. My idea was to drive the price up, not down [laughs]
JW: Was Europe helpful to your development?
PW: I’ve always been very grateful to Europe for creating the conditions that allowed me to grow as a jazz musician. But after five years, it was time to make some kind of mark in the United States.
Tomorrow, Phil talks about recording his timeless solo on Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are, his relationship with engineer Phil Ramone, the only type of music he can't play well, why he recently recorded a tribute album to Quincy Jones, how Michel Legrand changed his life, and what's next in his seven-decade career.
JazzWax trax: I could devote an entire day's post to Phil's great recordings as a sideman and leader between 1956 and 1960. So let me simply provide you with my favorites. I'm sure emails from readers will follow with great Phil Woods albums I've missed.
An absolutely essential CD is Phil Woods and Gene Quill: Complete Quintet and Sextet Sessions. The two alto saxophonists were paired and positioned as scrappy teammates, players who competed furiously on solos but played harmoniously together. Think Al Cohn and Zoot Sims on altos. Phil and Gene's albums for three different labels between 1956 and 1957 included Phil and Quill, Phil and Quill With Prestige and Phil Talks With Quill. All are on this CD anthology, available here.
Phil's period with Dizzy Gillespie's big band can be found on several CDs, including Birks Works: The Verve Big Band Sessions and Dizzy in South America, Vols. 1-3. All are available at iTunes as downloads.
Sugan with Ray Copeland on trumpet, Red Garland on piano, Teddy Kotick on bass and Nick Stabulas on drums is another terrific high-energy session from 1957. In some ways, it's an East Coast companion album to Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section. You'll find it here on CD.
Gene Krupa Plays Gerry Mulligan Arrangements (1958) is a stunning merger of Krupa's drumming, Mulligan's writing and Phil's solos. Here is Phil, between Dizzy's big band and Quincy Jones' orchestra of 1959-61, and his approach is red hot. This one is available at iTunes. For a taste, sample How High the Moon. Then count how many seconds elapse before you download the entire album.
But Phil with Dizzy and Krupa are mere tune-ups for his work with Quincy Jones. Phil played and soloed on Jones' first big band album, This Is How I Feel About Jazz, in 1956 for ABC Paramount. By 1959, Jones' writing had become more expansive, and his big band recordings between 1956 and 1964 for Mercury gave Phil an extraordinary opportunity to shine. All of these recordings, including the 1956 date, are available on The Quincy Jones ABC/Mercury Big Band Jazz Sessions (Mosaic Records). Interestingly, they are as much about Phil Woods as they are about Quincy Jones. You literally find yourself waiting for Phil to spring up on tracks with that razor sharp sound. This is a fabulous box.
Finally, grab Quincy Jones: Live '60, a DVD that's part of the Jazz Icons series. It's worthwhile just to see Phil play The Gypsy. It's a magnificent solo on a ballad that Charlie Parker had recorded. And with all due respect to Phil, while big band players do indeed sit all the time, see for yourself how impossible it would have been for mortal players to deliver that much power given the position of his knees. The DVD is available here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a rare clip of a group Quincy Jones put together in Europe in 1959 after St. Louis Woman closed. The group featured Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Sahib Shihab and others. They appeared on a TV show in the Netherlands. Dig Phil's breath control...