By Devon Wendell
Phil Woods was not just a musician; he was a force of nature to be reckoned with.
He was tough, full of grit, and always ready to defend the music that he loved and played so effortlessly with all of his might. I’ve seen Phil reduce mere mortals to ashes when they questioned his motives or made some amateur remarks about his immortal music or the music of Bird, Monk, and Dizzy.
I’m not saying he was a mean man, not at all. He had a charm that was irresistible. Woods was a rare breed of human; the kind who had a set of principles that he lived by and some strong set boundaries that fast talking, unknowing fools were forbidden to cross. I knew the first time I met Phil at The Blue Note in NYC in the mid-‘90s that the best thing to do was to let him talk and tell his amazing stories about Monk, Bird, Dizzy, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Bill Evans. He was a master story teller, and he was there among all of this great music, adding to it with originality, wit, and depth.
My introduction to Phil Woods’ music was on that incredible live album by Al Cohn and Zoot Sims released in 1959 called Jazz Alive; A Night At The Half Note (on Blue Note). I was in high school at the time and was blown away. After that, I went out and bought all of those fantastic records on Prestige like Pot Pie, Woodlore, and my favorite of that era; Pairing Off with Donald Byrd and Kenny Dorham.
Woods was of course influenced by Bird, as all alto-sax players were that came out of the 1940s and 1950s. You could always hear it in that rich tone and on those early records but he took Bird’s inspiration to new places. His phrasing could at times be tough, hard, and confident, and then be sweet, agile, and supremely lyrical. No matter what setting, Phil Woods always swung hard and he did so both live and on record throughout his entire life. Struggling with emphysema, he only announced that he was retiring a month ago.
His last studio album in 2011, Man With The Hat, was recorded with a newcomer alto-player on the jazz scene; the amazing Grace Kelly. He was so respectful and appreciative of Kelly’s mastery and understanding of the music at such a young age. It invigorated him. The last time I saw him perform was at The Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl in 2012 with Kelly. After their set, I rushed backstage to see if I could get a few words with him but he wasn’t up to it and that was fine.
My memories drifted back to hanging alongside of the wood railed bar at The Blue Note in New York as he told a crowd of wide-eyed fans (including myself) about Thelonious Monk: “He wasn’t fucking crazy at all. Your generation is so obtuse when it comes to understanding shit like that.” He was right. He then proceeded to tell us of the unbelievable energy, work ethic, and dedication of Monk and Bird and never mentioned any of the tabloid crap that people usually hear first when these masters are mentioned. Phil understood that devotion because he had it in spades.
And so it’s time for this jazz lover to face reality. Phil Woods passed away on Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at the age of 83. In a time of yes men and women who bend so freely to please anyone and don’t stand for anything at all, it’s obvious that no one will replace Phil Woods; not as a musician or a human being.
They truly don’t make them like that anymore, not even close.