Sax Legend Phil Woods:
A New Lease on Musical Life
"I don't think one has to innovate to stay fresh. I don't think you have to change with every new fad and function. I remain Phil Woods, I find my strong suit and I play songs and that's what I've always done."
So says Yamaha saxophonist and legendary jazz musician Phil Woods, who came close to hanging it up not long ago but found that a change of instrument gave him new creative energy.
One of the most respected jazz saxophonists in the world, Woods is also one of the most prolific, having played with numerous bands and artists throughout a long and respected career.
"I play with everybody," he says. "I want to enjoy every experience I can. These are the riches in life and I've had a bunch, but it's not over yet." Among his credits are performances and recordings with Benny Goodman, Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, The European Rhythm Machine, Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Lena Horne.
Born in Massachusetts, Woods began saxophone lessons at age 12 and after graduating from high school at age 16, he went to New York City and spent one summer at Manhattan School of Music and four years at The Juilliard School. "My first influences were Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and Charlie Parker," says Woods. "And I still study the old guys. The masters. That's where I came from; they set the bar pretty high and I'm still trying to jump over it."
A firm believer in technology and new tools, Woods has managed to stay relevant and active for more than 50 years, an increasingly difficult feat in today's jazz world. Yet he is quick to acknowledge the influence of today's players.
"The young players keep me fresh," he says. "I hear them playing stuff I never thought of doing, and I want to go home and try it! We borrow from each other." It's this attitude which has most certainly contributed to the longevity of Woods' career.
In the 50's and 60's Woods performed with his own working bands; in the mid-1950's Quincy Jones hired him to play lead alto in the big band that Dizzy Gillespie took to the Middle East for the State Department; and in 1959, Jones himself hired Woods in the same capacity for the musical show Free and Easy.
Almost as busy today as he was 50 years ago, Woods says he is a product of his environment and the conditions of the world affect the way he plays. "As an artist, I try to reflect the times we live in," he says. "That's always in a state of flux. It's not any one revolutionary moment. Life is a voyage. It's always an evolution and I'm always writing."
When asked why he decided to switch to Yamaha, Woods replies, "I was going through some health problems and got to the stage where I couldn't play my old horn. It was just too hard. And that's the horn I'd had all my life. I said ‘All right, 50 years is a pretty good number to retire.' But when I tried the Yamaha [unlaquered] 82z, all of the sudden I could play those low notes and the high notes effortlessly. And I changed right there. I didn't have to worry about my disabilities. It's very kind to an old man with disabilities. It's got to be great for a young guy that's got all of his pieces. It's a great instrument. It's the vintage horn of the future."
As a result of his outstanding work on his own solo recordings and as a featured guest artist with other top musicians, Woods has achieved recognition as a renowned composer with various arts societies. His numerous accomplishments include a 1994 Induction into the American Jazz Hall of Fame, four Grammy® Awards, including one in 1983 for At the Vanguard by the Phil Woods Quartet, and Grammy Award nominations as soloist and/or group in 1971, 1980 and 1994. The recipient of an honorary Doctorate of Letters Degree from East Stroudsburg University, Phil is proudest of his accomplishments as a leader of The Phil Woods Quintet.
Woods recently received the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters award at the International Association for Jazz Education conference in New York City. He was also honored at the 2007 Grammy Salute to Jazz tribute in Los Angeles, and at the Legends of Jazz tribute at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a presentation made by Billy Taylor, this past March.
Currently, Woods is working on the Charlie Parker piece "Bird with Strings." Having played all over Europe, he reorchestrated the piece for 24 strings, and added flute and clarinet to the original oboe in the woodwind section. He also added a jazz rhythm section. He has a new DVD out, "Life in E Flat," and his latest album, The Gershwin Affair, with pianist Franco D'Andrea, was released in 2005.
When asked what he feels he can teach young players, Woods says, "Follow your passion. Follow your dream. But make sure it's what you want before you commit. Because once you commit, it's for a lifetime."
"There's always something new to learn," he notes. "It keeps you young. I do believe that even with my physical problems, being able to play the saxophone has made my lungs stronger so I don't suffer quite as much. Life goes by so fast. Don't just settle. Don't settle for something that you don't want."