Phil Woods, 1931-2015

October 1, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great alto player (and sometimes clarinetist) Phil Woods died on Tuesday. Here’s my favorite Phil Woods story. I’ve edited it down slightly from an interview he did at JazzWax.

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” ten times a night. [The Nut Club, as the patrons’ preference in music shows, was a touristy joint. It sometimes featured cockroach races.] 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.

One night somebody came into the club and “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.

When I walked in, there was this 90-year old guy playing a piano that was only three octaves long. 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.

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.”

As I’m listening to him play my horn, I’m realizing there’s nothing wrong with it. 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. When I was done, Bird leaned over and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.”

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.

He is often compared to Cannonball Adderly, and although I can hear the similarity, Woods was always one of my favorites while I never had all that much use for Cannonball. I first listened, really listened, to Woods when I bought the 1959 LP “The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess” – a big band playing arrangements by Bill Potts. The Otto Preminger movie had appeared that year, and lots of people wanted to ride its wake – Miles, Ella and Louis, and others. The Potts album was a fancy production with pages of photos of the musicians in the studio.

“Bess You Is My Woman” belongs to Phil Woods, from his section work in the intro to the final cadenza.

His sound is unmistakable. If you see the 1961 moive“The Hustler,” as the opening credits roll over a big band soundtrack, even though there is no alto solo, you hear the ensemble work and know that it’s Phil on lead alto.

His best-known solo, as I’ve noted before (here) is not in jazz. It’s the alto break in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” I imagine all the people who have heard that track countless times since 1977. They know all the notes but have no idea that they are hearing one of the greatest alto players of the post-Bird era.

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