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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Remembering Phil Woods

When I was a student at UMASS, the jazz ensemble played a festival that was judged by the legendary Phil Woods.  On the scoring sheet, he singled me out with a very nice comment.  My teacher at the time convinced me that I should ask Phil if I could use the quote in my promotional materials.  (I was probably 20 years old at the time, so my resume was still a little slim!)  I thought it was a great idea, but I certainly had no idea how to contact him, so I forgot about it.

A year later, I had a job at a music company that did some work with Phil and I was able to get permission to copy down his mailing address to send a letter.  On my old electric typewriter, I pounded out something like, "Dear Mr. Woods, Thanks for being awesome.  I don't ever expect you to reply to this letter, but if you would give me permission to use that quote, I would be ever grateful."  I mailed the letter and imagined that he would never even read it, so once again, I forgot about it.

It was summer and I was living at my parents house while I made some money for the coming school year.  I got home from work one day and my younger sister said, "Some guy named Phil left you a message."  I was thinking, "Phil who?"  When I hit play on the answering machine, there was the voice of THE Phil Woods, happily telling me to use the quote as much as I would like, and wishing me luck in my career.  I freaked out.  I couldn't believe that he would give me permission to use the quote, never mind that he took the time to call me and leave a nice message.  I still have it on a foggy sounding cassette tape somewhere in my archive of unplayable and ancient recorded media.

When I was a graduate student, I was at a jazz education conference and I walked into the hotel restaurant to see a crowd around the bar.  At the center of the group was THE Phil Woods, trademark hat and all.  I quietly sat down at a table, not wanting to disturb him, as he was already being sufficiently worshipped by his friends and fans.  As I looked at my menu, I heard my name called out, "David Pope!  How the heck are you?"  He said something like, "Do you guys know this cat?  You should check him out.  He's going places!"  I ran over to him and shook his hand and he put his hand on my shoulder.  I'll never forget it.  For thirty seconds, I was the coolest guy in the bar.

Phil Woods was the architect of the modern jazz alto sound.  He played with a tone as big as the room.  His time, language, and phrasing were definitive.  It's also worth noting that his solo on Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," is possibly one of the most perfect improvised solos in the history of pop music.  He was a solid composer, contributing several pieces of core repertoire for saxophone/piano and saxophone quartet.  He performed with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Paul Simon, and he won multiple grammy awards with his own groups.

Phil had a reputation for being tough, and he certainly had a low tolerance for anything that smacked of jive.  I was lucky enough to have a few encounters with him, all of which showed him to be a kind and generous soul.  Only a few weeks ago, I played "Cheek to Cheek" from my vinyl copy of LIVE AT THE SHOWBOAT for a couple of students.  That track still gives me a particular thrill.  The master is now gone, but he gives us seven decades of recordings that leave his permanent footprint in jazz history.  He also taught us how to wear a hat.  Rest well, Brother Phil.

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