A couple of years ago, The Republican, Springfield’s daily newspaper, reported on the spotty location and neglected grounds around the statue of Samuel Chapin in Merrick Park. The Puritan, 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 Puritan in downtown Springfield.
Speaking of Springfield, another of its native sons, the jazz great Phil Woods, will be featured at the Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival on August 9. Phil grew up in Springfield during the ‘30s and ‘40s with a group of fellow teens who read from jazz scripture (or as Phil puts it, “the music of the streets”) before making their mark in the world, among them Sal Salvador, Chuck Andrus, Hal Serra, and Joe Morello, the renowned drummer long associated 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 teen-aged Woods was even treated to a slice of Bird’s cherry pie on one of his frequent Saturday jaunts to New York. But as Phil sings in his tune Hodges, “Before I heard/the music of Bird/the Rabbit/was my first habit.” Rabbit, in case you don’t know, was Johnny Hodges, the great alto saxophonist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
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 the Bay State’s jazz history. I rattled off the names of prominent Massachusetts natives like Hodges and Harry Carney and Jaki Byard before enthusing over Milford-born Henry “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, then held his alto aloft and announced, “I’m Boots Mussulli!” Years later, when I mentioned this to Phil, he said, “I’m glad somebody got it.”
Woods offered an especially poignant memorial to Benny Carter in 2004. While performing in New York with Kenny Barron, Rufus Reid, and Billy Hart, Phil asked to have the mics 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 SRO crowd in January 2004, Phil proclaimed, “This is for ‘The King’,” then proceeded with a ravishing performance of Carter’s “Summer Serenade” that left few dry eyes in the house. (The King was the jazz world’s nickname for Carter, who never enjoyed the fame of Duke, Earl, and Count, but he was their equal among musicians.)
In addition to his exquisite saxophone and clarinet playing, Phil Woods is a vivid storyteller, witty, self-deprecating, and candid. He gave an extensive interview to the Smithsonian Oral History Program in 2010 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 iconic solos with Billy Joel (Just the Way You Are) and Steely Dan (Dr. Wu), and his droll recollections of touring the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman.
Here’s Phil and his living peer Clark Terry in a 1958 performance of Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser.
Here’s a master class with Phil, in which he declares that jazz as a profession is for those with “no choice. You gotta have the fire in the belly.” At 18:45, he recounts the seminal experience of hearing Johnny Hodges play “Mood to Be Wooed” with Ellington in Springfield around 1946. Woods turns 83 in November, and the fire’s still in him. Hear it for yourself when he appears with Greg Caputo’s hard-swinging big band on August 9 around 2 at Court Square in Springfield. He’ll be feted with a special hometown welcome, every word and cheer of which will be richly deserved. And while you’re marveling at Woods & Co, think of how cool it would be to have a statue of Philip Wells Woods standing beside Reverend Chapin on State Street.
[Note: This article has been revised and expanded from its original publication in 2011.]