Phil Woods: The Irrepressible Spirit of Jazz

Whenever I hear Phil Woods, he reminds me of Roy Eldridge. It’s the passion of his storytelling and, like Roy, he never coasts. Eldridge, in rehearsals or on a gig, played as if it was the last chorus he’d ever take. So too with Phil Woods.

Yet, as Richard Cook and Brian Morton say in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Phil “has often suffered from a degree of neglect.” When Phil was coming up, it was said by some that he was just an acolyte of Charlie Parker. But he soon came into his own compelling, resounding voice. And always, as Cook and Morton note, “he has a bottomless appetite for playing.” It’s long past time for a television profile of Phil, who has never stopped surprising himself.

Phil was one of the players on Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956 State Department tour of Latin America and the Middle East. At 23, Quincy Jones was chosen to be musical director and arranger for the band, and he put it together.

Dave Usher’s three-volume set, Dizzy in South America: Official State Department Tour, 1956 (Red Anchor) is an exultant reminder of how much excitement and sheer pleasure we’ve lost as big league jazz bands vanished. The third CD includes Usher’s interviews with Dizzy, Quincy and, among the sidemen, Phil Woods.

“Dizzy,” says Phil, “is pivotal to the whole core of my being. He used to say, ‘I’m a rhythm man. The rhythm is the foundation of the building. If you lose sight of the foundation, the building topples.’” And, Phil went on, “if you lose the basic spirit of the rhythm, when you get way out with harmonies and other things, you lose the jazz pulse. It’s not jazz.”

I thought of that reminder when I saw the lead paragraph on a New York Times piece, “Techno Dances With Jazz”: “Wielding samplers and laptops instead of saxophones and pianos, electronic musicians are increasingly borrowing from—and aspiring to make—jazz.” I can imagine Ben Webster’s reaction to having a laptop in his rhythm section.

Phil was not saying that jazz, to be “authentic,” has to be closed to other cultures and times. “Dizzy,” Phil said in the interview, “was a student of music all his life. On his night off in another country, he’d say, ‘I don’t want to hear a jazz band. I want to hear their music.’” But Dizzy never lost sight of the jazz pulse. Nor did Duke Ellington, who absorbed colors and cadences, from every country he toured.

Phil also pointed out the influences on jazz of what he called “the Jewish-European harmonic contribution. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and the rest of those composers fed the bebop soul. They weren’t all Jewish. Cole Porter, for example. And Dizzy collated all that. Along with the rhythm, Birks absorbed and expanded the harmonic sophistication of that tradition. With him, you got the whole package.”

As direct and unguarded off the stand as he is when he speaks through his alto saxophone, Phil told a rite-of-passage story during the interview with Usher: “One night, at a club, I was down. I was saying, ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’m a white guy in this music.’ Hearing me whining and crying the blues, Art Blakey and Dizzy kidnapped me. They put me in a cab and took me to Dizzy’s place in Long Island. Dizzy sat me down and said to me: ‘Bird gave it to everybody. To all races. If you can hear it, you can play it.’”

What Phil misses these nights—and Quincy Jones has said this to me too—is what he calls “the oral tradition of the tribe. On the band bus, the young guys and the old guys would be together, and that’s how we young guys learned. But there aren’t any of those kinds of buses any more. There was a sharing thing, a family thing.”

But the life force of the music goes on; and during the interview, Phil, putting into words what you hear on his horn, practically shouted: “I’m so lucky to be a jazz musician!”

It is, of course, undeniable that, as Sidney Bechet used to say, you can’t hold the music back. Among the younger veterans, Dave Douglas doesn’t hold back, nor does Greg Osby, to name a few. But as Ruby Braff knows, shows and says: “Jazz is not exclusively a young man’s music. It’s in the first 25 years that you learn how to play your horn.”

And Ben Webster once told me: “It may be that the older some players get, the better they are. At least I hope so. You keep hearing different guys and learning different things, and that helps.”

Duke Ellington, when I asked him what he most looked for in bringing a new player into the band, did not mention age. “The most important thing is listening. That’s the first important step in becoming a musician. If and when they stop listening—to themselves or to somebody else—they’re no longer with music.”

That also applies to those who don’t play, but listen. Not by style or age, but to the life story of each member of the tribe.

Originally published in April 2002

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