An Appreciation: Phil Woods

September 29, 2015
Devon "Doc" Wendell

Devon “Doc” Wendell

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.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon Wendell click HERE.

An Appreciation: Gunther Schuller

June 24, 2015

By Don Heckman

I was so sorry to hear that Gunther Schuller had passed away on Sunday. A composer, teacher, world-class French Horn player, journalist, author, and much more, he was a true Renaissance man who had a powerful effect on music, worldwide, from the last part of the 20th century and well into the new millennium.

Neither jazz nor classical music will ever be as limited as they were before Gunther found the common ground between both musics in a still-compelling genre he called Third Stream.

I was fortunate enough to have had Gunther as a teacher, a mentor and a friend. And his impact upon my career as a music journalist and a composer will continue to be present in all my creative work.

I’m sure you’re making some heavenly sounds where you are now, Gunther. R.I.P.

Ornette Coleman: A Remembrance

June 12, 2015

By Devon Wendell

Ornette Coleman; they called him “atonal”, they said he played “out”, and was “avant-garde.” People tried to force these labels on me as I was discovering his music in my youth. They did the same thing when I got my first records by Monk, ‘Trane, and Dolphy, and Bird. All I knew is that the music took me to amazing places and fed me vivid images and fantastic colors.

Ornette Coleman UCLA 2When I first heard Ornette’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come album, I remember thinking that he played great blues and I could also hear great traditions of jazz in his playing. I heard a lot of Bird’s influence in his early work. Ornette had this lyrical beauty to his music that people don’t mention much. His composition “Lonely Woman” is a perfect example of this. I saw Ornette perform this piece many times and it always made me cry.

I met Ornette in New York twice. I think it was at The Village Vanguard. He was someone I felt I had to talk to. He was very approachable then and we discussed Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein, and musical frustration and how to use it to create.
I recall him wearing an all red suit. Everything matched from his socks to his jacket.

He never appeared to be trying to look or act hip. He was who he was, a consummate professional and intellectual. Ornette was always seeking, always curious, and always growing in the face of constant labeling and controversy.

What courage it must have taken this man to not let all of that talk stop him. I would play Charlie Parker or Monk’s music for some people and a lot of them reacted the same as they did to Ornette’s music. “That has no melody” they would say or “That makes no sense and has no structure.” And I always asked “Compared to what?”

I still don’t know who made the rules so rigid and I suppose I never will. I do know that I will miss Ornette Coleman’s musical statements.

Ornette Coleman passed away at the age of 85 on June 11, 2015, and despite those who continue to not “get it”, there are those of us who will always love all of the incredible music he left behind.


Ornette Coleman: An Appreciation

June 12, 2015

by Brick Wahl

A jazz promoter asked a fascinating question:
Do you think Bird would have dug Ornette? I have wondered about this. Not that Bird is the ultimate arbiter of good and bad, but Ornette was arguably the next major innovator in the music and Bird died JUST before Ornette came on the national scene.

And the consensus was yes, Bird would have dig it.



But I think maybe the commentators, nearly all of them jazz musicians, were looking at this from our own perspective today, thinking Bird thinks like we do. I’m not so sure. Bird might have appreciated it, as a concept, maybe, but I think he wouldn’t have liked the delivery. Ornette was a huge jump from be bop, a totally different philosophy. Bird was reworking the rules of swing, but still within the rules. Ornette rejected those rules. That is a gigantic conceptual leap and there’s no reason to assume that Bird would have dug it. Don’t forget Max Roach punched Ornette out, sucker punched him, it’s said, in the green room after a set. Max was not pleased.

I remember when I used to have long conversations with old be boppers – they’re few and far between now – I was struck by their conservatism, jazz-wise. It’s a generational difference. I’m not so sure that Bird would have been able to reject his own ideas and embrace Ornette’s rejection of be bop. Revolutionaries rarely accept the next revolution, especially as it is nearly always a reaction to what they had themselves created. Today we still see Louis Armstrong as a reactionary, as revolutionary as he was, because he loathed be bop and all it represented. I doubt Bird would have hated Ornette, but I can’t see him taking it too seriously.

I’m not a jazz musician, though, so I really don’t know. I’m just riffing, off on a tangent, doing my own thing. The ideas come and the words just flow with them. Let go of the narrative and let pure free thought express itself, see where it goes. That seems appropriate somehow.

So long, Ornette.

Ornette Coleman: An Obituary

June 12, 2015

By Don Heckman

Obituaries are never fun to write.  Especially when the subject is something more than a public figure.

Ornette Coleman was a lot more than that for me.  He was a musical inspiration, a creative challenge, a true pathfinder.

And a good friend.

But his obituary had to be written for the L.A. Times.  And it was.  With Ornette’s music flowing through my mind as I wrote.  And as it will continue to flow through my mind for years to come.  Either when I’m writing, or when I pull my alto saxophone out of its case to actually experience Ornette’s music in its expressive essence.

Here’s the direct link to the Ornette obit I wrote for the Times.

Ornette Coleman L.A. Times Obituary.


An Appreciation: Remembering The King

May 15, 2015

By Devon Wendell

I just cannot process the fact that B.B. King is no longer on this earth. How can it be? It’s like trying to imagine life without oceans, trees, and air to breathe.

No one in history changed the approach and sound of the electric guitar like B.B. King. Sure, there were T-Bone Walker and Charlie Christian before B.B. came along, but no one made the guitar sing like the king did. That bright tone, that fast vibrato, those trills and string bends all made the electric guitar sound even more vocal than the human voice.

B.B. King

B.B. King

B.B. played with a confidence and finesse that has influenced generations of guitarists such as Freddie King, Albert King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Green, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and just about every blues and rock guitar player that I can think of, including myself. Even Miles Davis claimed to be inspired by B.B. King’s guitar voicings in his autobiography.

My greatest memories of B.B. are personal. After I got my first guitar at the age of 12, I would obsessively practice along with his records, trying to learn every lick. The albums that I focused on the most were Live At The Regal Theater, Live At The Cook County Jail, and Live And Well. I wore those records out. I knew that if I could learn to play that clean and with that much finesse that I could not only be taken seriously by adults, but I could also play in any genre of music.

I was right. After a lot of hard work, I was taken seriously and I could make that B.B. King style fit anywhere. But no matter how much so many of us have tried to imitate his style, there was only one B.B. King. Anyone can discern the copy cats from the real thing by listening to one note. That’s all it takes.

On my 21st Birthday, I spent at least a couple of hours upstairs at The Blue Note in N.Y.C. hanging with B.B. after one of his spectacular performances there. We spoke about music, life, the road and women. He briefly let me play his beloved guitar Lucille and warned me about how the music business can wear you down in time. He was right about everything. I know that more today than I did then. But at that time I felt completely lost. I was head first down in the bottle and had briefly considered quitting music. That changed for me on that cold January night with B.B., and I decided not to stop playing for anything.

B.B. King never gave up in any situation and displayed more true dignity, strength, and humility in the face of adversity and hardship than any musician I have ever met.

That memory still keeps me going strong, even when the chips are down. I still go back to that night when I think of putting down the guitar. What B.B. had passed on to me that night was not mere wisdom, but the strong spiritual connection felt within the heart of the blues. B.B. King’s sound is reminiscent of that feeling we get when we first fall in love. No one could get to that mournful yet celebratory place that is the blues quicker and more gracefully than him.

B.B. King may have passed away on May 14th, 2015 at the age of 89, but his spirit and music will live on forever. I pray that the true king of the blues shall rest in peace. Thank you B.B., for giving me and so many around the world a true purpose in life.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Devon “Doc” Wendell click HERE.

An Appreciation: Lew Soloff, R.I.P.

March 11, 2015

By Don Heckman

I’m still experiencing some of the stunned feelings I had last weekend when I received an email from Bobby Colomby telling me that Lew Soloff had died. And to say that I couldn’t believe it doesn’t at all describe my reaction.

Lew Soloff

Lewie died?! How could that be? This great trumpet player, irresistible humorist, incomparable character gone? But it was true. It is true. And music and the world will both be a little emptier than they were when Lewie was still with us.

Bobby knew Lew longer than I did. Bobby was the founder and the first drummer of Blood, Sweat & Tears. And Lewie was the band’s lead trumpet in their salad years from 1969 – 1973. During which time Bobby and the B,S&T players gathered a virtual book-sized collection of Lewie stories – all of which became told and retold memorabilia, and which will no doubt be with us forever (and probably gathered into what would be an immensely entertaining book).

“Possibly the most beloved person I’ve ever known,” wrote Bobby in another email he sent the day after we got the news,“and most beloved musician. I can only smile when I think of him. It’ll be a while before I’m able to process that he’s no longer with us”

I first met Lew in 1971 when I was co-producing Blood, Sweat & Tears 4 with Bobby and Roy Halee. At which time I, too, became one of the many members of his array of friends and admirers,. And over the following decades I gathered my own Lewie memories – musical, humorous and otherwise — along with my own collection of Lewie tales. At times, he was a little kid in a grown man’s body; at times he was an imaginative jazz trumpeter with the skills and the ideas to place him on the Olympia of jazz greats. But he was always lovable, always humorous, always warm and supportive of young players, and always a pleasure to hear.

Ordinarily, I would have written his obituary for the Los Angeles Times, but budget glitches at the paper intervened, and the obit was written by a staffer. I regret not having had the opportunity to write about some of the real Lewie story, reaching beyond the list of celebrity stars he backed.

Even so, the memories of Lew  Soloff, himself, will always be with me, as they will with everyone –- musicians, fans and friends – who had the good fortune to spend time within his captivating, unforgettable aura.


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