[JPL] Phil Woods: A 'soldier for jazz

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Mon Oct 16 09:42:37 EDT 2006


Jazz musician Phil Woods of Delaware Water Gap has performed
internationally, won four Grammys and, most recently, received a National
Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. In popular music, he is
known as the guy playing alto saxophone on Billy Joel's ŒJust the Way You
Keith R. Stevenson/Pocono Record

A 'soldier for jazz'
Delaware Water Gap sax player's passionate career capped by highest national
jazz award
Helen Yanulus
Pocono Life Writer
October 15, 2006

It's a good thing that a 12-year-old Phil Woods didn't melt down his uncle's
saxophone into a colossal golden warrior.

At the time, his family was living in a duplex, where his uncle, who was
dying of cancer, lived on the first floor. Woods discovered the alto sax in
a case near a wicker sofa in the entryway.

As a young boy growing up during World War II, he stripped batteries for the
metal to melt down and make toy soldiers. After his uncle died, Woods
inherited the instrument, promptly putting it in his closet.

His mother encouraged him to take lessons, and the rest is history.

Woods, who is weeks away from his 75th birthday, recently received a
National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, which is the
highest honor that can be bestowed upon a living jazz musician.

"I started at 12 and now I'm 75. That's a lot of one-nighters, man," said
Woods, sitting back on a leather couch in his airy Delaware Water Gap home,
a stone's throw away from the Pocono area's home for jazz, the Deer Head
Inn, as well as the concert site for the annual Celebration of the Arts jazz

He credited Patrick Dorian, Billy Taylor and jazz journalists who were in
his corner as the reason the award came his way.

Woods, who has performed internationally with many big names as well as
recorded with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and Thelonious
Monk, has received countless awards, including four Grammys. He is often
referred to, however, as the guy on Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," yet
his roots are in classical music and jazz.

WOODS GREW UP in a world where Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern were the
standards on the radio, creating the American songbook, to which many
musicians began adding jazz licks.

He found his first teacher, Harvey LaRose, in the phone book, who Woods
asked if he should bring the sax with him to the first lesson.

"That changed my life," said Woods, who never practiced as a kid and played
by ear. "I discovered later that I was here to play the saxophone."

He learned all the songs on the Hit Parade as LaRose encouraged Woods to
decorate the harmony, introducing the idea of improvisation. A year later,
Woods picked up the clarinet.

The first jazz he played came in the way of Benny Carter improv solos, which
LaRose introduced to Woods.

One week, LaRose gave Woods the tune "Mood to Be Wooed," and Woods went to
hear Johnny Hodges' version at a Duke Ellington performance. "There's
nothing like hearing a master playing what you are working on," Woods said.

CHERRY PIE ALSO changed Woods' life. It was during the post-war era when the
arts were busting out all over the place. And Charlie Parker was spreading

Woods didn't know if he had what it would take to be a jazzer, but he had to
try. He headed to New York City for lessons with Lennie Tristano, good
spaghetti, bags of records and the clubs on 52nd Street.

One night, he met Parker, who just happened to be sitting on the floor
eating a cherry pie, and asked Woods to join him. Over that pie, Woods
learned how generous jazz musicians are about sharing knowledge.

Woods went on to study classical music in college and learned jazz on "the

Years later, while Woods was earning a living playing in a strip club and
hating his "worn-out" instrument, he ran across Sheridan Square to another
club, and Parker remembered him and needed an alto sax. Woods ran back, got
the sax and gave it to Parker, who played "Long Ago and Far Away."

"It occurred to me that there wasn't anything wrong with my sax. The reed
was OK. The mouthpiece was OK. Even the strap looked good," Woods said.

The biggest complement came from Parker, who commented on Woods' playing:
"Sounds real good, Phil."

A flurry of practice ensued, and Woods was on his way, soon joining the
Quincy Jones Band's tour of Europe in 1959.

In 1968, while doing a lot of studio work, Woods packed up his bags and
family and moved to France. He wound up forming a band, performing at the
Newport Jazz Festival and gaining a record contract. He returned stateside
five years later and continued his career.

FOR WOODS, jazz deserves recognition. "It's the only original American art
form besides Mickey Mouse and baseball," Woods said, chuckling. "Jazz has
been such a big part of America's prominence."

Woods reflectively provided a history of jazz music and its pairing with
wars, when bands were sent with troops and the music spread internationally,
becoming more sophisticated.

"Jazz was the music of freedom for Iron Curtain countries," said Woods
relaying a story of how he "talked" with Russians via names of jazz
musicians despite a language barrier. He is saddened that the world became
educated about America's "melting pot of music" while back home it was

Woods' first tour was with Dizzy Gillespie through the state department,
where he stopped in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece and other locations.
"It's better to send guys with instruments, not with guns," he said.

And, he enjoys passing it all on. One thing he is most proud of are the 500
or so kids that have gone through the COTA Cats program, which is associated
with the COTA jazz festival.

He advised youths to practice; learn about all culture, not just jazz; study
a language; visit the world; and learn about wine and food. Woods said,
"Music is only for those of us who have no choice. You have to have the fire
in the belly."

TODAY, AFTER A BOUT with cancer and living with emphysema, Woods still can
capture his youth. "When I'm on the bandstand, I'm 24 again," he said. "The
attraction is playing, improvising and touching someone."

Woods gives his all to each and every performance, no matter how jet lagged
or tired. He said, "Every time I play, I think of those musicians in the
sky. I play for them. I consider myself a soldier for jazz."

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