Phil Woods

Composer, Arranger, Saxophonist, Bandleader, Educator
Portrait of Phil Woods holding saxophone

Photo by Tom Pich/


Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Philip Wells Woods devoted himself to the alto saxophone since the age of 12. As a teenager, he briefly took private lessons in improvisation from Lennie Tristano and also studied for a summer at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1948, he enrolled in the Juilliard School, where he remained through 1952, majoring in clarinet performance. While at Juilliard, he played for a brief period in Charlie Barnet's dance band. Subsequently, he worked with leaders including George Wallington (replacing Jackie McLean), Kenny Dorham, and Friedrich Gulda and then, joining with one of his musical idols, traveled to the Near East and South America with Dizzy Gillespie.

By now established as one of the most brilliant alto saxophonists in jazz, Woods went on to perform in Buddy Rich's quintet and toured Europe with Quincy Jones (1959-60) and the U.S.S.R. with Benny Goodman (1962). From 1964 to 1967, Woods took a summer break from the bandstand, teaching at the Ramblerny performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, still much in demand, he performed in New York in 1967 both as the leader of his own quartet (featuring Hal Galper, Richard Davis, and Dottie Dodgion) and as a member of Clark Terry's big band.

In 1968, Woods moved to France and formed the European Rhythm Machine quartet, with George Gruntz on keyboards, Henri Texier on bass, and Daniel Humair on drums. His talent as a composer blossomed during this period, when he wrote music for Danish and Belgian radio and composed a ballet for French television. After disbanding the quartet in 1972, Woods returned to the United States, settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and formed a jazz group with Mike Melillo, Steve Gilmore, and Bill Goodwin. With this ensemble, he staked his claim to being the finest alto saxophonist in mainstream jazz, a reputation confirmed by his performances on Images (1975, with Michel Legrand), Live from the Showboat (1976), and Billy Joel's 1977 hit recording, "Just the Way You Are," all of which received Grammy Awards.

In 1975, he received an NEA Music grant that he used to compose the work "The Sun Suite," one of more than 200 songs Woods composed. He recorded several albums with new arrangements of famous composers—such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Tadd Dameron, Quincy Jones, and Henry Mancini—and in 2006 released a well-received album of standards, American Songbook.

Selected Discography

Rights of Swing, Candid, 1960
Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, MGM/Verve, 1969
I Remember, Gryphon, 1978
Blues for New Orleans, Philology, 2005
The Children's Suite, Jazzed Media, 2007

Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
October 26, 2006
Edited by Don Ball, NEA


Q: I find with a lot of musicians that there was some pivotal experience or two when they were young where they either heard a recording or heard a live concert that turned them on to jazz. Did you have any?

Phil Woods: I discovered a saxophone when I was about 12 years old under my grandmother's record chair that belonged to an uncle-in-law who was dying of cancer at the time. At the time I was busy melting lead and making toy soldiers, which was my main thrust for my existence at 12 years old, baseball and football and melting lead and, you know, fighting the axis powers. And I discovered the saxophone and I opened it up and I mean I said, "Oh, this is gorgeous." I mean it all just looked gold and pearl and I'm saying to myself, "Man, I could melt this sucker down. I could make Genghis Khan's golden warriors look like wusses," you know what I mean? People mistook this nefarious intent for an interest in music, so I was given the saxophone in his will. My mom wouldn't let me melt it down obviously.

A couple of weeks went by and my mother said, "You know, Philip, your uncle went to a great deal of trouble to leave you this saxophone," and at 12 years old I realized that dying could be construed as a great deal of trouble. It's one of the reasons I'm saving it for last. So I said, "Okay, I'll find out about lessons." So I went to the Yellow Pages and it said The Drum Shop, saxophone lessons, State and Main Street in Springfield, Massachusetts. I said "I know where that is. I can grab the trolley for that." We had trolleys then. And I got a teacher by the name of Harvey LaRose and that's where my life changed because I was going for lessons and I was faking it. I wasn't practicing, but I'd go back the following week and I could play the lesson. Now if I'd had one of those more or less straight-laced teachers, he might have said, "Okay, kid, you're faking it." Mr. LaRose said, "You're using your ear to play music. This ear thing is your most important gift." He realized that immediately. Mr. LaRose played alto clarinet, violin, guitar, piano, taught all of those instruments, repaired all of those instruments, and arranged with the local big bands. He was not a jazz man but he recognized that I had something to say on the saxophone because he drew me in. Within three, four months I was hooked. I loved it.

Q: And how did he draw you in?

Phil Woods: Just by being a great teacher, and starting to make it interesting. I mean, I'm not a religious man but I think fate, kismet, all that sort of thing—I'm supposed to be a saxophone player because I'm a good one, and I love it. But without Harvey LaRose, without that first experience...

After I learned the horn, he would give me the four pop tunes of the week with these little folios that came out, like the hit parade, and in the '40s that would be Gershwin, Porter, Harold Ireland, Duke Ellington, what have you and he would play piano and I would play these songs. It was little folios that was the concert part, B-flat part and E-flat part, the trombone part and he encouraged me to start decorating, that I didn't have to play the melody straight, started to show me about chords. The first jazz I played, he gave me Benny Carter, which I analyzed and I started to play. He said, "Learn the keyboard." And books to read for breathing and all that. It was wonderful.

Okay, so after I got into the hit parade songs, he started to give me jazz, urged me to improvise because I had a good tone. I learned rapidly, and the first jazz I ever saw or played was Benny Carter. And then one week he gave me a Duke Ellington piece called "Mood to be Wooed" and the following week Duke Ellington's band came to Springfield, Massachusetts. A bunch of us kids that I grew up with, people like Joe Morello who played with Brubeck, we were all kind of bebop children. We went to see Duke's band, and a great alto soloist Johnny Hodges stepped forward and he played "Mood to be Wooed," the song that Mr. LaRose had me working on, and that was a pivotal moment. I said, "Ah, that's how it goes." You know, the lights all went down to blue. It was really romantic and I remember that moment very much. And then I heard Charlie Parker. So between Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and then Charlie Parker, that did it. That did it. I mean I said "This is it." I knew it as soon as I heard it after being weaned on Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, the triumvirate of the alto saxophone. Charlie Parker just rang a bell as he did with everybody on the planet. I mean he changed the world's music, he and Dizzy.


Q: Then at 16 years old, you went up to New York?

Phil Woods: Yes, I went to New York. I started studying with [Lennie] Tristano just after high school with my friend Hal Serra, the piano player that became Julie London's musical director. He lived up the street and he kind of had a couple of years on me, and he was kind of looking out for me. He knew my family and all that. So we go to New York. I wanted to be where Charlie Parker was, but I also wanted to further my studies.

Tristano was like the new guru. He was the first cat that would play free jazz, very bold kind of stuff he was doing. I think it's like the early Third Stream. I mean he would throw a Robert Schumann lick into his jazz solos.

So we'd go to take a bus to New York. It's about a five-hour bus ride, then a subway, then another bus to Lennie's house and take a lesson, and then we'd go back to Manhattan, get some spaghetti for, I don't know, 25 cents and then we'd go to Mainstem Records and get all the latest 78s, you know, and get about ten pounds. They used to weigh a ton.

And then if we still had a dollar left, we'd go to 52nd Street. Coca Cola was $1 and the guy got to know us there, the waiter, and we had good seats; not the best seats but they were kind of over by the drums and nobody bothered us. Nobody hassled us, you know. No cover, we'd have our little Coca Cola, and we'd sit there all night and groove. And then at four o'clock in the morning our bus would go back to Springfield. So when I hear young students talk about field trips, I say, "You don't know about field trips, man. This was a field trip to the big city, you know."

Q: You were 16 when you were doing this?

Phil Woods: Yeah, yeah.

Q: What did your parents say?

Phil Woods: Well they knew Hal. Hal was about 18 and, you know, it was a different time. It was a bus ride. I mean, they'd love to go to New York and see shows. It was not a big deal from Springfield. It was only 180 miles, something like that.

One time we went to Tristano's for a lesson. He lived in Flushing, in Long Island somewhere. It's a long time ago, back in '48, '47, something like that. He said, "Are you kids going down to 52nd Street tonight?" and we said, "Yeah, why do you ask?" He said, "Well I'm opening for Charlie Parker. I thought maybe you'd like to meet him." And I said to myself, "Yeah, always wanted to meet God." We held back on [buying] records so we could buy two Coca Colas and came and heard the first set, and then his bass player came and got us. Lennie was blind so he didn't move around. The bass player came and took us backstage and there was the great Charlie Parker backstage. Those were speakeasies, you know, just a little curtain and a place to sit. And Bird was on the floor with a big cherry pie and he said, "Hi kids. Would you like a piece of cherry pie?" And I said, "Oh, Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor." I mean, what a thing to say to the genius of the bebop world, of the jazz world, but I said, "Yes, it's my favorite," and he said, "Well you sit down here, son, and I'll cut you a big slab of this cherry pie. It's good, just got it from Bickford's." Man, I sat down. No plates, handed me a slab of pie. We chatted. We played saxophone; what a world the accessibility of the jazzers to the young players. It is kind of overlooked, but, I mean, it is a tribal tradition. It's an oral tradition. There were no jazz rules in those days.

The following year, I went to New York to live, but I had to go to school. I couldn't just tell my parents I'm moving to New York, you know what I mean? I was 17 or something, 18 maybe. I forget. It's a bit of a blur. But I enrolled in Juilliard and did four years of classical music, and then at night I turned the radio on and you'd hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie broadcasting from somewhere. So I had the best of both worlds, you know. And after the war, of course, the arts were exploding. Dylan Thomas was around. Leonard Bernstein was writing West Side Story, Ferlinghetti, Jackson Pollock, I mean everything was exploding, you know, film noir, and it was a great period.


Q: I wanted to talk to you about Dizzy Gillespie.

Phil Woods: I was 24 years old. Quincy [Jones] was organizing a band for the State Department to go to the Mid East. Our first port of call was Abadan, Iran, and we went to Beirut and Syria and Turkey and -- where else did we go? Greece, East and West Pakistan (before Bangladesh). So there I am, 24 years old, and I'm playing "Groovin' High" with Dizzy Gillespie. I mean after having a piece of cherry pie with Charlie Parker, now I'm playing Charlie Parker's part with Dizzy at 24 years old on my first road trip. I came up at the wonderful time.

Q: Had you traveled out of the country before this trip?

Phil Woods: No, never, never. My only flight was to Florida, never been anywhere, so that was a thrill. When we picked up Dizzy, he was on Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour. We landed at Rome airport for some more fuel and we could hear a trumpet playing "Sweet Lorraine" because Dizzy's wife Lorraine was on the plane, and they brought Dizzy out on a baggage cart. Here we are. We're sitting on the plane. We're smoking and waiting for Dizzy and he comes in a baggage cart. They put some gas in and we were off and running to Baghdad, and then we stopped in Abadan, Iran, and the next day I'm playing with Dizzy. I mean he didn't know who the hell I was.

Q: Was he welcoming to you?

Phil Woods: Oh, yeah, generous, generous, generous man. He loved the band that Quincy picked out for him. School was always open with Dizzy too. We became very, very good friends. He was a guest at my quintet later on in life and I mean we were working together right up to the end on some project, this thing called Rhythm Stick.

Q: What was he like to play with?

Phil Woods: If you didn't get it right, he would in a very nice way, he'd say "You having a little trouble with the pick-ups to "Birk's Works," aren't you?" I'd say, "Yeah, I am, Birk. Us people got no rhythm." He says, "I don't want to hear about that nonsense, you know."

One time he actually kidnapped me. I was in Birdland. The band had come back and I was getting a little reputation and he and Art Blakey were there, and I had too much to drink and I was in a maudlin period. I wasn't getting anywhere and I'm crying the blues, and they threw me in a cab and took me out to Dizzy's pad in Corona, Long Island, and they said "Now what's your problem?" I said, "Oh, man, you know, I'm not working. I'm playing for striptease. I'm not doing anything." They said, "Well, if you clean up your act you might be somebody." I mean, they weren't quite that kind about it. I said, "Well, you know, how am I going to be a jazz musician? I'm a white guy." And Dizzy said, "Oh, time out. Hey, Woods, Charlie Parker did not play this music for black people. He played it for everybody in the world. It was his gift and you can't steal a gift. And, if you can hear it, you can have it, but get your act together, you know what I mean?" And I listened. I mean, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie did most of the talking, but [Dizzy] says, "Yeah, you can play but, straighten your path out a little bit. Don't be like Bird. Don't be excessive." I listened, and he said, "Yeah, you got it. That's why you were in my band, kid."


Q: Tell me about your time in France.

Phil Woods: I went to Europe the first time with the Quincy Jones band in 1959 and we were in Europe for a year, based in Paris. In '68, I was getting trapped into the studio scene. I wasn't really playing much jazz. I was working but I had a family. I had two, three kids, and I had to pay the groceries, so I was selling Coca-Cola and Buicks and stuff on TV commercials. The jingle market in New York always used jazz bands. I mean, they used to have Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and me and a whole bunch of guys. It was a good-paying gig, went for an hour and pick up $100, and there were some very hip Madison Avenue offices that liked to use jazz in those days. But that's not what I had in mind. I played a lot of different stuff, but it was all studio work. It was all written music and I wanted to improvise more. So in '68 with all of these things happening, I said, "I'm going back to Europe to see if I can make a living playing jazz." Within about two or three weeks, I was invited to play the Newport Jazz Festival. I went to Europe and formed a band called the European Rhythm Machine and we did all the major festivals in Europe and even were invited to play in New York.

I had an international reputation, but I wasn't known in America, so I've always been very grateful to the European audience for giving me the courage of my convictions, that they did recognize that I was a pretty good player and gave me gigs. I needed that at that period. But after five years, if you stay in Europe long enough, they try to localize you. You know, "You've been here a long time now. We've all seen you. Now you got to kind of settle down, lower your price." That's never been in my dream to settle down and lower my price. That's not progress. That's settling for something, and that's what I left America to avoid. So I said, "Okay, I think I'll go back home and see if I can play for my supper in my own country." After the five years in Europe my reputation was such that I came back to the States and it's been great.

Q: And you've been here ever since pretty much?

Phil Woods: Yeah, pretty much. I spent a disastrous year in California; I only made $3,000. There was no gigs and they canceled Japan. I was supposed to go to Japan. That was cancelled and I was actually heading back to France after that. I was getting back into the studio thing, but I really wasn't doing that much. I was staying with Jerry Dodgin and Michel Legrand's manager called and asked Jerry if he had Eddie Daniels, the great clarinet player that was doing the first week of this gig at Jimmy's, a nightclub on the East Side, and they were recording the second week. But Eddie Daniels couldn't make it and they were looking for a reed man, and Jerry said, "Well I can't make it, but Phil Woods happens to be here." So I hooked up. I did the gig. We recorded live at Jimmy's. It made a splash.

Nat Shapiro formed a record company called Griffin Productions, which was an RCA corporation. They gave us a big budget and the next thing we did was a large symphonic piece that Michel Legrand wrote for me called Images, and it won a Grammy. There I was, I was heading back to France, and a Frenchman saved my career again. So I've been lucky, man.

I knew Michel Legrand from 1957 when we did the Granz jazz with Miles and Coltrane and Herbie Mann and Bill Evans and all those great people. As I said, the jazz community is very small. I mean, being with Goodman in Russia in '62, they knew about jazz. Jazz is a force to be reckoned with. I mean, it's street music, man.


Q: How would you characterize the general state of jazz today? Do you think it's in worse shape than it was?

Phil Woods: No, I just heard a little 14-year-old girl from somewhere up in Providence or Boston area, her name is Grace Kelly, and you ought to hear this little girl play. I gave her one of my hats, one of my signature hats. She's great.

Q: What does she play?

Phil Woods: Alto sax. There's Francisco Capisa out of Catania, Sicily. He's 17 now, playing like an angel. I mean there are some great young players and eventually one of them is going to break through, and it's going to carry everybody else along. I mean jazz is just in a very dormant stage at the moment, but it never dies. They've been burying jazz for years. We have more jazz education than ever, but we don't have any gigs and that has to be rectified.

The problem is that the powers that be that have the money and the record companies sometimes want to dumb down the genius kid that wants to play, and they give him a whole lot of money and say, "Oh, just do us one commercial record," and the trap is heavy for a talented young jazz musician, you know. "I'll just make one sell out and then I'll have money and I'll be able to play jazz for a living." We never had that problem; more modest, meager sums were mentioned, and they were little independent labels that don't exist anymore.

You would think that there's a jazz industry since every university has a jazz program. When I came up, no university had a jazz program and everybody was working playing jazz because there was a relevance to the music. People were dancing to it. Now, a kid's got his iPod and he's listening to his thing and Sis has got her iPod and she's listening to something and Gram's still got her Walkman and she's listening to Lawrence Welk, and everybody's into separate parts of their house listening to their thing. In the old days, when I came up, we'd all gather around the radio. We all listened to the same stuff. When I made trips with mom and dad and the grandparents, we all could sing "Easter Parade" and Irving Berlin and George Gershwin songs. We all knew them. They were part of our culture. That's no longer true. I mean, every week there's a new hit and all I hear is the bass part. I don't hear any harmony. I don't hear any words that I want to memorize and it's all dumbing down; they should be almost finished with the dumbing down. I think there's only one direction to go now.


Q: I want to talk to you a little bit about your writing. How do you write and when do you write?

Phil Woods: I'm always writing. We did an album a while ago called The American Songbook of just standards and it achieved great success for a jazz record on a very small label. And so we're going to do another one, and I'm working on that picking some tunes with the quintet.

Q: So do you have like a certain amount of time every day that you set aside for writing?

Phil Woods: When I have a project like a record to do, sure. I mean the record's not until January. I'm writing already. It's only for the quintet. It's not a whole lot of orchestration. But last year I did 15 concerts in the last summer, the summer before last.

We would go to every city and use the local symphony orchestras. I'd take their strings. We had 24 strings where Charlie Parker only had six, and I played a lot of songs that Bird never recorded. I wrote all of that. I arranged all of that stuff.

I’m working on a children's suite. I just got permission from Walt Disney, who owns the rights to Winnie the Pooh. Years ago, in the '60s, I came across this book called Now We are Six by A.A. Milne. I finally got permission. I picked up this book of poems and, man, all of a sudden 15 songs within two weeks just came pouring out. I saw these poems and the songs just happened. And then I got in touch with the A.A. Milne estate and they said, "Oh, no, you can't. Jazz, oh no, no, no." Then Mickey Mouse bought him up and I didn't get any results there either. So I ran across an actor friend called Peter Dennis (we worked on a project years ago in London for Michel Legrand). We hadn't seen each other in years, and he said, "I want to give you a gift." I said, "Great." And he gave me this four CDs of Peter reading the poetry of A.A. Milne, and he recorded all of the books with lovely little clarinet and piano stuff. And I looked at it, and I started to sing one of my songs using the words. And he said, "How the hell do you know that?" I said, "I have a suite that I can't do." He said, "Well I grew up with Christopher Robin [Milne]. I know the family. Let me see what I can do."

This is about five years ago, and finally Disney Corporation has agreed that I can present my children's suite. So it's going to be strings and an orchestra and I want to get all young people. I'm in touch with this young alto player, Grace Kelly, and I want to have young kids in costume. Some of it is kind of classical. Some of it's just kind of fun, circus music. Some of it's jazzy. But it's about a 70-minute piece and we're going to try to do it next year. To record it and do a documentary DVD putting the project together. I'm allowed to do that. I can do a one-time performance and we're going to do it at our local Sherman Theater. We're pretty enlightened in this part of the world.

Q: When you write things, do you write at the piano?

Phil Woods: I write up here in my head usually. Sometimes it's an idea from the saxophone and then I will go to the piano and do a sketch. And when I have some idea of where the piece is going, or at least a start thematic, something to deal with, then I go to the computer and finish it.

I find the computer an asset for completing, for developmental stuff—thematically not so much. You know, when you have two bars and go to bed and that doesn't shut off and, I'm like, "Where am I going to go after that?" It's like an old bad movie. You know, you wake up in the middle of the night and say "Eureka!" Once you finish that part of the work, then to the computer.

I'm not a pianist, and if you write at the piano sometimes you only write what you can play. At the computer I can write anything and hear it, so I know what it sounds. I can't really feel how it sounds because I can't get it up to a proper tempo. Musically I can play the piano pretty well, but not enough so I can realize what it's going to sound like. And this way I don't have to pay a copyist to copy it. I can hear it instantly and I can check all the right notes, the wrong notes. I can try all sorts of different things. See, the hardest part about art are the options you have. I can go here. I can go there. What's the best way to go, you know? The decision-making is the hardest part of art, I think. Being a well-trained artisan first and then knowing all of your options and then picking the very best one for that. Sometimes that's hard, but the computer makes it easy because I can listen to all of my options.

I'm a professional musician, you know. I know how it's supposed to go, and it can go this way or that way, that way, this way, that way, that way. The gestation period can go on a long time, but once I print it out that's it for the most part. I would say maybe there's a ten percent tweaking period as opposed to a 50 percent tweaking in the old days, a pencil and paper.

It's not even November yet and I got a date at the end of January and I'm working already. When I get into the studio, it'll be ready to go and we will not spend a whole lot of money on studio time. It's also a financial element involved. Be prepared. I always tell young people don't get in there and wing it. I mean improvise, yeah, but I mean have your form, your pacing, your rhythmical contrast, your harmonic contrast, see it all through. And this computer is wonderful.

I mean the work is never done and that's the beauty of being an artist, especially if you can support yourself and I work enough that I can. I love making music, but I love writing and composing. Although my emphysema has taught me that was God's way or nature's way of saying, "Well you're playing too many notes, man. Leave some space." So I have to leave some space, and when I pick a note it's got to be the right one, so I'm more selective when I improvise now. I mean before I could play a million notes a minute. Now I can't do that.