Long-time great Phil Woods to Appear at the Scranton Jazz Festival

by Randy Shemanski, Electric City Weekend
July 24, 2008

There are a lot of music fans that have no idea that one of the greatest saxophone players in history lives in the Delaware Water Gap.

Thanks to that proximity to Scranton, local music fans will get to hear that jazz star in person at the Scranton Jazz Festival on Sunday, Aug. 3 at 8 p.m. That's when jazz legend Phil Woods will play with the Festival Big Band, giving the audience a taste of why he's considered one of the greatest saxophonists ever.

Woods, who is 77, studied the clarinet at The Julliard School in New York City before transitioning to the saxophone. Thanks partly to the influences of Charlie "Bird" Parker, Woods quickly became one of the top bebop saxophonists.

"I started playing the saxophone when I was 12," Woods said during a phone interview last weekend. "I got out of high school when I was 15. I heard Charlie Parker; I saw Johnny Hodges; I was aware of Benny Carter's solos. I was studying with (Lennie) Tristano in New York and I wanted to be on the scene. ... At night I'd do my homework and put the radio on and listen to Bird broadcast from Birdland on 57th street."

Since his mid-20s, Woods has mainly worked with his own bands, but has also spent time working with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Billy Joel, for whom he played an alto sax solo on the pop single "Just the Way You Are."

Woods also played alto sax on Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu," from the band's critically acclaimed album Katy Lied, which was released in 1975.

"Quincy Jones, I worked with him in '56. He was my mentor," Woods said. "He had me for the Dizzy Gillespie Band. Billy Joel was quite a bit later and I got probably more attention from that. But that was strictly a commercial date. ... And Steely Dan, too. I do gigs and occasionally I'll hear somebody from the audience (say) 'Doctor Wu' because I am Doctor Wu, that song was composed for me."

Woods, who lists Jon Gordon, a jazz musician in New York City, as one of his favorite saxophonists and a musician on the rise, has won four of the seven Grammys he has been nominated for. He also received a Jazz Masters award for composition from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007.

Despite the many awards Woods has won, he remains humble.

"I'm a professional musician. I have to make a living. I can't do a Kenny G imitation, but I can play a tune," he said.

He also knows how to give back to the music community. Along with Rick Chamberlain and Ed Joubert, Woods helped to found what would eventually become known as Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, which will be holding its 31st annual festival on Sept. 5-7.