Phil Woods Phil Among the Giants

It always comes back to the band bus . The crucible, the sacred clubhouse where young Phil Woods joined the tribe. That’s how he always saw it, he says — a tribe.

“I always equate the bus with the teepee . On the bus, the young guys and the old guys would be together that’s how we young guys learned . By sharing a family thing .”

“Tribal, man,” he says. “Tribal.”

Twenty years old, first big tour, sitting behind Lester Young and Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughan the giants hearing their stories, his lips to their bottles, listening to them breathe together through the night: the tribe.

That was it, right there.

Music, music, music and busses full of heroes. Learned the language of bebop, became one of Bird’s children.

“I’m one of Bird’s children, absolutely,” Phil says. His moustache jumps. His smile flashes. “It was impossible not to be touched by Bird.”

I wish I could have been in New York in 1947, been “touched by Bird” like Phil, as a player and as a man.

What did it feel like to court and marry your hero’s widow, raise his children? Charlie Parker — legend for me real for them, Chan’s husband, father of her children, young Phil in his shadow They knew Bird’s stained under shirts, sweat rolling off his flesh.

Phil Woods

After he was dead, Phil comforted her. Rumor was Phil even made off with Bird’s horn.

“Tell them it’s not true that I’ve got Bird’s horn,” he says. “Just all his licks.” He laughs a dark, cleansing chuckle in six: “Heh heh heh heh heh heh,” he laughs, “Heh heh heh heh heh heh,” smile pulling tight muscles around his mouth embouchure that twists and shapes soaring notes that gush from the golden bell of his saxophone.

“You gotta take a chance if you wanta be an artist.”

Phil heard. He learned the lore, he learned the craft. He was there, on the bus, among the giants .

 

“Tribal, man,” says Phil Too bad I wasn’t there . 20 years too late to join I know I could have tried to be one of Phil’s children instead didn’t.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t put my horn away had followed Phil instead copied his licks, even wore his Greek fisherman’s cap

Phil’s hair underneath the cap is still virile eager ambitious thick.

I could have tried, but it wouldn’t have been easy being one of Phil’s children.

“It’s a real tough, real hard world to be a jazz musician in, or a poet or a writer or anything, I know,” says Phil. “But that’s where you separate the wheat from the chaff. We’re not meant to have that many great artists .” I nod, get smaller inside. “So I think it’s a burden for the artist — he just has to do better. Heh heh heh heh heh heh. He just has to be stronger . Rather crusty, isn’t it? Ivesian. Heh heh heh. Yeah. But yeah, you just have to get better, I’m sorry. I mean it.”

 

It wasn’t easy being one of Bird’s children, either.

Race was the case in jazz in the ’50s; the problem of the color line are you black or white, fight or flight, east or west, on TV or still eating out the back door of a greasy spoon? Whose music was it?

One night, it really brought Phil down. He was at a club, complaining: “I’m not going anywhere, I’m a white guy in this music.” So Art Blakey and Dizzy overheard and took him to Long Island, to Dizzy’s sober house outside the city, where Phil received the blessing of the giants. ‘Bird gave it to everybody, to all races,” Dizzy said.

But the rejection he felt when race separated his tribe, hurts still.

“It hurts,” Phil says, “but I know in my heart that Dizzy Gillespie liked the way I played, Thelonious Monk liked the way I played, Donald Byrd and Kenny Dorham and Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland liked the way I played .”
He names dark-skinned giants incantation, evidence.

Phil among the giants. Courted Bird’s widow . Became a member of the tribe — artists, hipsters, bohemians the great subculture that runs through history underground surges to the surface and sometimes sinks but always flows alongside the powerful subverting them.

“It’s hard to be a jazz player if you buy the American shit. You gotta be sort of contrary,” says Phil . “You gotta practice 16 hours a day and be determined to be the best. And then you don’t worry about gigs, you don’t worry about preparing yourself for the studio or am I going to teach? You just become the best. You’ll get a gig. It might take forever, but that’s what you need going in. That’s what I had .”

What he had on the bus . What he had among the giants. What gives him authority now.

“I can’t imagine the giants I grew up with compromising anything . Either you believe or you don’t believe. Once you compromise your values, then you haven’t got a chance.”

 

Like in the ’60s, when many did. “It was too rough,” he says . “I just wasn’t surviving as an artist . I played some jobs I wasn’t proud of . I had to go out and be tested by the fires, go out and just play jazz .”

So he left America and landed in Paris.

“We were the first band to go on strike,” he recalls Paris in ’68, marches in the streets, cars on fire. “Heh heh heh heh heh heh. Very exciting.”

Yes, yes, I urge, tear-gassed in the streets, what then?

Then the fires died and Paris turned to be a mortgage on crowded rooms with the sink backing up sitting among strangers in an ordinary city bus . “I felt I was in danger of just becoming another local musician,” says Phil . “But I didn’t think I was a local musician, I was a world-class musician.” Europe, Bird’s family, none of it enough.

“One day, he went out for a pack of cigarettes and just didn’t come back,” said Bird’s widow, Chan Phil’s wife, Bird’s licks.

Phil always felt a stranger in Europe. “I’m an American,” he says. “I wanted to play for Americans.”

A hopeful, believing man But it’s hard, he gets tired. His daughter, Kim, Bird’s daughter he raised with Chan, Kim says “Phil gets tired always being the hero.” Maybe that’s how she explains his leaving them she’s a jazz singer she’s one of Bird’s children, she’s one of Phil’s children, maybe she forgives them.

 

Maybe he left because he was still looking for the band bus, the giants in the teepee that no longer exists. “You gotta take a chance if you wanta be an artist.” He paid for the sin when he returned in ’72. settled in L.A. “They forget you real quick” he says. A disaster. A hole out of which he climbed, won Grammy’s, never dropped out of the polls, got his reputation back years seven, eight, nine .

But by then, they had stolen America from him.

 

“Say what you want, man,” Phil says, remembering a land stalked by giants . “Those guys were wild, they were colorful, real storybook kind of heroes, real folk heroes It’s hard to be a folk hero now because you’ve got to get on TV. Heh heh heh heh heh heh.” Phil laughs. “There’s no folk anymore, man .”

. “I grow tired watching my enemies eat,” native Americans say. Phil is angry — it seemed, in heady bebop years, with the wife of a giant, that they could change the world . could sell their art . Dreams blocked fade. For a while it made him bitter slumped in despair . Hard to go against the grain.

But he just kept doing and believing, and after a while all he needed was some work and some weed to get through afternoons before the gig. Life could be good — as long as there were gigs.

 

Phil and I are looking out the window of a motel room in the hills of Portland. Sunlight flickers through maple leaves. In a temporary teepee we pass a pipe, tell our dreams.

I say, “On Halloween in 1958, when I was 11, I dressed as a beatnik . blacked-in a goatee, wore a beret and sunglasses like Dizzy, like Alan Ginsberg on the cover of Time magazine, like Dizzy, Phil, I wanted to be like Dizzy, but when the citizens opened their doors to Trick or Treat, they saw a clown not a beat.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh,” he laughs.

Phil was practical.

“My dream was just to be a saxophone player in a big band, maybe make a bill and a quarter a week. Heaven And if you got good you went with a jazz record company they had you by the balls anyway, they were ripping you off get these jazz guys a few bucks and they’ll play all day for you. And we would .

“Don’t get mixed up,” he says, swiveling toward me, head down but looking up, “I was aware at age 14 that a jazz musician’s life was precarious .”

 

Neither one of us went far down the road to magic and madness, though . Turned out what I really wanted was the smaller joys meaningful work, good craftsmanship, someone to love.

I couldn’t have found my way without heroes, though, without Phil, who showed how to carry opposition into middle age … who didn’t go very far down the road toward magic and madness, who didn’t dance like Monk, who had a gift, worked hard, learned the code and lived.

“I’ve skirted close to the self-destructive things that go with being a jazz musician I’ve done my part with booze and shit and uppers . But I’ve never doubted me for a minute!” Phil raises his head in triumph, sits up. “I knew I wasn’t meant to end a tragedy. I’m not Chet Baker I’m going to be an old bebopper.”

And he is.

“Just keep playing, keep playing, keep playing I mean, it’s real simple — you keep doing it if you believe what you’ve got is good.”

In the process of seeking heroes, we become like them. We find a bus, learn to get through afternoons. Life is good, we learn, if you’ve got a gig.

“I love the idea of working in music,” says Phil. “I like to fill my days with work I’m a lucky man I’m a lucky man.”