The Band Room
Volume 115, No. 11November, 2015
Phil Woods spent his last years suffering with emphysema, but he still managed to play the saxophone with his customary brilliance. When it finally got too tough for him, he ended his career with style. He played one last concert, reprising the arrangements from the “Charlie Parker with Strings” book, then announced that it was his last public performance. He played the last number, left his alto on the stage and walked off into retirement. Not long afterward, his health took a turn for the worse. Phil stopped his medical treatment and slipped quietly away on Sept. 29 (see Requiem).
I met Phil in 1954 on a record date that Jimmy Raney put together. Joe Morello was the drummer and John Wilson the trumpeter. Phil amazed us all, and the date went very well. We became good friends immediately. Phil went on to record many albums of his own.
I was lucky to be able to play with him now and then, and it was always a musical party. Phil often subbed for Gene Quill when I was in Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band. We made the tour of the Soviet Union with the Benny Goodman band. And I always enjoyed playing with him at the Zoot Sims festivals at the New School and in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.
During the busy recording years, Phil was one of the first call reed players, but when recording conditions changed, he chose to stay on the jazz scene. On a record date, he discovered that the rest of the band had recorded their part the day before, and he was alone in the studio, overdubbing with headphones. He was disgusted. “Who am I supposed to laugh with?” he asked.
Since the news of Phil’s death spread, the Internet has been filled with comments by friends, colleagues and fans mourning the loss. Bill Bray sent me a consoling e-mail from Boston when he heard the news. He included this story:
“Around 1990, while I was waiting for Emilio, Boston’s famous sax doctor, to bring out my repaired Selmer, in walked Phil Woods to collect his alto. In awe, I stepped aside while Emilio brought out Phil’s horn. Phil stood it up on the counter and proceeded to blow the most gorgeous “something” imaginable. Then he turned toward me, smiling, and said; ‘What the hell, it beats working!’ and left us all in stunned silence.”
Dan Levinson sent me the following story. It’s long and will take up the rest of my column…but it’s worth it.
New York clarinet legend Sol Yaged, who will turn 93 on Dec. 8, famously gives out candies and mints – the kind that restaurants offer free to customers – to people when he greets them. He often takes a handful of them when he’s leaving a restaurant and puts them in his pocket.
Twenty years ago, Sol came to hear Dick Sudhalter’s big band, who was playing for the Chartwell Booksellers’ “Holiday Tea at Three” concert series at Park Avenue Plaza in Manhattan. I was one of four reed players in the band. During the break, I was talking to Ray Beckenstein, who was playing lead alto.
Suddenly and alarmingly, Ray, looking over my shoulder, said, “Hey, some guy just took your clarinet off the stand and is playing it.” I turned around and said, “Oh, that’s Sol Yaged. He sometimes shows up to big band concerts without his horn. If he’s asked to sit in, he borrows one from one of the reed players.”
Ray said, “Well he’s not borrowing mine. Nobody plays my horn but me. But I guess I should go over and say hello. I haven’t seen him in about 30 years.”
When Sudhalter invited Sol up during the next set, Sol picked up Ray’s clarinet. Ray didn’t even flinch. Sol played it for his feature. At the end of the number, I said to Ray, “I don’t understand…I thought you told me no one played your horn but you.” Ray replied, “I did say that. When Sol asked me if he could play it, I told him I had a cold. He said he didn’t care and gave me a cough drop.”
Three years ago, I was once again playing at Park Avenue Plaza, this time with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. It was Sol’s 90th birthday, and he was there, this time with his clarinet. During the break, Vince asked him to sit in.
As Vince began to announce Sol on the mic during the next set and talk about his lengthy career, Sol was warming up in an area to the right of the bandstand where I could see him, but the audience couldn’t. I happened to glance over just as the bottom half of his clarinet fell off and hit the ground hard.
I watched as he picked it up, put it back on, and tried in vain to get a sound on it. Nothing came out. No one else in the band had seen what happened.
Just then Vince said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sol Yaged!” I saw the look of panic on Sol’s face and said, “Here, Sol – take this one!” I handed him my horn while taking his, all in one seamless motion.
Sol walked to the front of the stage with my clarinet and played “Where or When” on it. When it was over, he thanked me, handed my horn back to me, and gave me a mint.
– Dan Levinson
Thanks, Dan, for that story.