Phil Woods, Springfield's Jazz Pilgrim
Last Sunday’s Republican reported on the spotty location and neglected grounds around the statue of Samuel Chapin in Merrick Park in Springfield. “The Pilgrim,” named for Chapin, the Congregational minister who was a founding father of Springfield, is one of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ most renowned works. It was unveiled in 1887, and a cast of the statue was displayed at international expositions and salons in Paris around the turn-of-the-century. I’ve been drawn to this Irish-born sculptor’s work for years, often making pilgrimages to his Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Beacon Hill, and I’ve paid a couple of visits to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. I would heartily endorse any efforts made to give greater prominence to “The Pilgrim” in downtown Springfield.
Speaking of Springfield, another of its native sons, the jazz great Phil Woods, turns 80 today, and we’ll mark the occasion in tonight’s Jazz à la Mode. Phil grew up in Springfield during the ‘30s and ‘40s with a group of young musicians who read from jazz scripture before making their mark in the world, among them Sal Salvador, Chuck Andrus, Hal Serra, and Joe Morello, the renowned drummer with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. They traded on local legend in calling themselves The Springfield Rifles and woodshedded on Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton before discovering Charlie Parker. The teenaged Woods was even treated to a slice of Bird's cherry pie on one of his frequent sojourns to New York. But as Phil sings in his tune “[Johnny] Hodges,” ‘Before I heard/the music of Bird/the Rabbit/was my first habit.’
I recall a couple of choice Phil Woods moments whenever he comes to mind. One occurred around the 1999 Marciac Jazz Festival in France. I accompanied a WFCR travel group to the festival, and along the way was asked to speak about jazz in the Bay State. I rattled off the names of prominent figures like Hodges and Harry Carney and Jaki Byard before enthusing over the Milford, MA native Boots Mussulli. Boots, who died in 1967, was a great alto player who toured with Stan Kenton, jammed with Bird, and recorded with Serge Chaloff on Boston Blow-Up. But his name drew a collective blank from the travel group. So imagine our surprise when the following night at Marciac, Woods concluded his big band’s performance by naming all the cats on the band and then held his alto aloft and announced, “I’m Boots Mussulli!”
Phil offered an especially poignant memorial to Benny Carter a few years later. While performing in New York with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Billy Hart, Phil asked to have the mikes turned off while he and Kenny played a duet. Carter, who died in 2003 at age 95, was a huge influence and great friend of Woods. In a recent issue of The Note, Phil recalled, “The first jazz pieces I ever played were Benny Carter transcribed solos…[My teacher] Harvey LaRose would teach me the chords of all of Benny Carter’s oeuvre. These were getting a little more complex than just playing a song.” Years later, Phil got the call from Benny to join Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Rouse for Carter’s 1961 masterpiece, Further Definitions, and he and Benny reunited for several dates and recordings in the mid-90’s. When recalling Benny before a hushed
In addition to his exquisite saxophone and clarinet playing, Phil is a vivid storyteller, witty, self-deprecating, and candid. He gave an extensive interview to the Smithsonian Oral History Program last year that’s now been published in two, lavishly-illustrated editions of The Note. Published out of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, The Note is available free-of-charge, though subscriber donations help sustain it. Click here for more information, and by all means get your hands on Issues 55 and 56 to read Phil on his Springfield background, encounters with Bird and Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones and Lennie Tristano, his hit-making solos on Billy Joel and Steely Dan records, and his memories of being on tour with Benny Goodman in the Soviet Union.
Listen to Phil, read his story, and enjoy this performance of “Straight No Chaser” by Woods and Clark Terry. While you’re doing so, think of how cool it would be to have a statue of Philip Wells Woods standing beside Reverend Chapin on State Street.