Phil Woods was my first hero. I heard a recording of his when I was 16, and had that magic moment where I realized, “Now that’s why I’m playing this instrument!” I followed him around NYC to hear him and ask for lessons. But he told me he wasn’t teaching. So I pestered him over several months, showing up and asking, “Have you started teaching again yet?” or “Could I send you a tape?” After the last of these attempts he looked at me long and hard and said, “Well? Can ya play!?” I said, “Um, well, I, er….” He threw his business card on the table at the Blue Note and said, “Call my wife. Ya gotta pay me whether you can play or not!” I grabbed the card and dashed off, ecstatic, only half-registering Phil muttering, “Geez, can ya believe this kid? Can’t get rid of ’im!”
The lessons were a mix of sheer terror and elation from me, and brilliant insight and comedic timing from him. As tough as he was, he was also extremely supportive, kind, and funny! And he was very proud of the history of the music that he was trying to pass on to me and others, and of the people he’d worked with and learned from. He’d say things like, “Monk and Dizzy called me for gigs, so I ain’t no bum!”
But things changed at the third lesson. His step-daughter, Kim Parker, picked me up at the bus stop in the Poconos as usual. But she told me that Budd Johnson, one of Phil’s heroes and mentors, had died the night before. They’d called to tell me not to come, but I didn’t get the message. I saw that Phil was just heartbroken. At one point he said, “Man, you better know why you’re playing this music! I know too many people who’ve lived and died for it! If you’re not trying to change the world with it I’m not interested!” That registered with me deeply. Why else do we play music, or try to create anything in this insane world?
I spent all day with him. One minute he’d tell me to play the opening of The Rite of Spring, then write a rondo. Or “Let’s listen to Petrouchka, and you better be able to show me where we are in the score!” And then, “Play me Bird’s solo break on ‘Night in Tunisia’!” Gulp! I didn’t know it, but he said, “Go!” so I faked it after the first few beats. He started to laugh soon enough to cover up for my faking, and slowly said, “Ok, I’m takin’ you in. You never have to pay me again. But don’t let me down—and don’t get cocky!”
I began to sit in with his band. He started to hire me to sub in the band when Tom Harrell, Hal Crook, or Brian Lynch couldn’t make it. He became as good a friend and mentor as you could ever want. He wasn’t perfect. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. And you’ve never seen anything like Phil angry at a table of people talking during his set! But he was all heart! He was tough, and he was honest. You didn’t have to wonder where you stood with him. And his integrity meant more to him than any gig or any political BS in the music scene.
Phil played with the greatest jazz musicians that ever lived. He won the DownBeat poll countless times, and was the most emulated alto player in jazz for decades. Quincy Jones spoke of him as family. Benny Carter once told me, “In the whole history of the alto, to me Phil is the guy—he’s the one we all should be emulating!” From The King himself! You could have no higher praise!
I’m especially thankful that I got to speak to him just before he passed at the end of September. And that I was able to tell him, for myself and the thousands of fans and students of the music all over the world that he was important to, “Thanks, Phil!”