My Lesson With Phil

Although I primarily play tenor sax nowadays, I started out on alto. As a young alto player I loved Charlie Parker, who doesn’t? Also Cannonball Adderly. And Johnny Hodges. And Paul Desmond. And Marshall Royal. And Jerome Richardson. There were many other alto players I checked out, but before them all, there was Phil Woods. I was fascinated by his playing from the moment I first heard him on Oliver Nelson’s “Blues and the Abstract Truth” record. What a gorgeous sound, great rhythmic drive, and what a melodic improviser he was (is). I loved everything about the guy. I eventually went on to discover the other great alto sax players mentioned above, and others, but Phil was my main man. I bought every record, and listened to them for hours on end. So when I heard the news that my hero had recently moved to Los Angeles, and was actually accepting students, I leapt at the chance to schedule a lesson. My friend John Yoakum had taken a lesson with him, and it went very well, so I figured, hey call the guy up! I can still remember standing in the hallway at my parent’s house when Phil returned my call. Standing there, talking to Phil Woods! And he says, “Sure man, Saturday morning is cool, see you then.”

Phil was staying with Los Angeles woodwind player Vic Morosco at the time, so that Saturday, I show up at Vic’s house, alto in hand, ready to impress my idol with my accomplishments. I go in, unpack my horn, and after a few minutes, Phil comes out. And he doesn’t look too good. “Hung over?” I wonder to myself. Who knows, but it’s clear there were other places he wishes he was at, other than this particular room, with this particular kid. “Play something,” he says, so I take a deep breath and start ripping into my hottest bebop licks. Phil stops me, like quick, and says, “No man, play a song. A song!” OK, he wants a song. No problem, I knew some songs –so I started playing “Here’s That Rainy Day.” I get to the 8th note of the tune, and, in an attempt to stylize it a bit, I put a little grace note at the top of the opening line, on that high D. At which point Phil stops me again by saying, “No, man, why’d you do that?” By now, I figured things were going seriously wrong with this whole experience. Understand, I was no hack player at this point in my life. I had just graduated high school where I had won numerous awards for playing and composing. I had just returned from playing in the Monterey Jazz Festival high school honor band, and had made the “A” Jazz Band at Cal State University Northridge as a freshman, not a common occurrence in those days. But I was clearly sucking from Phil’s point of view.

So, then Phil says “Give your horn to Vic.” Vic? Who’s Vic? I turn around to see this Vic standing there, who takes my alto and runs down a few scales and arpeggios on it. He hands the alto back to me and says “Horn’s fine.”

Uh, oh. Phil’s next words were destined to ring in my ears for years to come: “You gotta get your shit together before you come to me, man. I’m turning you over to Vic.” So, this Vic guy, whoever he is, says, “Your main problem is your embouchure. It’s screwing up your sound big time. You need to roll your lower lip out more, so that there is more cushion for the reed. Then the reed can vibrate more freely, and your sound will improve. Try it –roll your lip out and play me a low Bb.” Now, the thing is, any horn player will tell you, when you change your embouchure, you lose control for a while. So, here’s my first low Bb with my new and improved embouchure: BLATTT!

Vic: “OK, keep that lip rolled out –try it again, and sustain it longer” BLAATTTT!

So, in about 5 minutes, I had gone from some fairly cool bop licks, and “Here’s That Rainy Day” to “BLAAATTT!” And Phil’s sitting there, looking at me. With an expression on his face that says, “What is this stuff on the bottom of my shoe?”

I studied with Vic for the next few months, and he (along with Bill Calkins my new sax teacher at CSUN) fixed me up. My sound got better, as did my breath support. These were new concepts to me. I never had a private teacher in high school, and though I’m sure my band director Robin Snyder noticed my technical problems, I was the least of his worries. I’m writing charts, helping rehearse the band, had a natural gift to play fast and exciting, and never gave a lot of thought to sound production. The thing is, Phil was right –the sound on your instrument is the first thing people hear. If your sound is unappealing or out of tune, it’s hard to hear past that to get to the content of what you are playing. Conversely, there are numerous players one could name that have gorgeous sounds that tend to camouflage their lack of interesting ideas when they improvise. Now, all these years later, I could take issue with the manner that Phil conveyed the information to me. Or maybe not –jazz has a rich tradition of a Darwinistic approach to success. Sometimes you gotta go through the trial by fire, and it has a tendency to thin the herd so that only the real dedicated are left standing. I would never choose to blast a student the way Phil did me, but you gotta be tough if you want to hang in there in the music business. The sooner I straightened out my technical problems the better. Incidentally, it would take me another 10 years before I got a piano teacher to fix my problems on that instrument!

It’s a moving target, how you handle students. Some respond to pressure and frank criticism, and others need a little cajoling, and gentle suggestion. Sometimes a combination of both works. I remember judging a jazz festival where I, and another judge were working with the band after their performance. And this judge ripped into this girl playing piano saying, ”Who told you to use the sustain pedal? This is jazz! NEVER use the pedal! Who’s got some duct tape –I’m gonna tape your leg to the piano bench! No pedal!” Now, this young lady was clearly someone with limited jazz experience. For all we knew she was playing in the jazz band for kicks, or because they had no better option, and perhaps she had no desire to become a professional jazz player, or who knows. That judge was correct in the substance of his comments, but not, in my view, in his manner. That girl didn’t deserve to get reamed out like that, in that environment. If she had gone to that judge for private lessons, like I did with Phil, well, OK she gets what she gets. I think that frank and honest criticism can be presented in a professional and measured manner, with the proper respect for whatever level the student is at.

The coda for my Phil Woods story happened 9 years after my traumatic lesson. I had written a piece for trombonist Bill Watrous that was being premiered by the New American Orchestra at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown LA. And guess who else is on the program? So, after the concert, Bill Watrous is introducing me to various folks backstage: “Gordon, I’d like you to meet Quincy Jones, and, oh, this is Phil Woods.” And Phil looks at me and says, “I see you got your shit together.”

It’s a work in progress, Phil, a work in progress.

4 thoughts on “My Lesson With Phil

  1. I think about this a lot, as a teacher and a music store owner. Almost all of the music teaching and coaching we do are for students that have little intention or ability to play at the highest levels. Most of the time, we are teaching students that I hope will go on to be supporters of music. Go to concerts, get their own kids involved etc…. Maybe only “serious” students should approach people like Phil Woods for lessons because you are right in telling students that this is a profession only for dedicated musicians. I have also watched masters such as Eugene Rousseau, Edgar Meyer and Scotty Barnhart do incredible sessions for typical students and improve their playing but more important, engage them to be life long supporters of good music.
    Phil Woods and Vic Morosco’s lesson was important, but it sounds like your high school director was the real star in getting you to a place for those next serious make or break steps.
    It sounds like you have your shit together in more ways than just saxophone sound.

  2. I’ve been playing for years now, multiple great private teachers, but I’m just now really spending some time on this lip out embouchure, never having really played into a mirror until a few days ago.

    End of my sophomore year in high school, I’ve spent way too muc money and time on sax to decide not to put the time in to fix this, but I really have time getting the same support with my lip out in the upper range as i can with some jaw presure and part of my lip in…. and a few hours a day of practicing in a mirror hasnt helped much so far.

    Any tips would be great, but hearing the results others have had from changing their embouchure and steadily putting the time in to learn to hold their lip out successfully makes me think that it will be worth it to continue.

    Great hearing about your experience with Phil… my teacher bought him some reeds once, maybe I’ll get the chance to learn something by having him shatter my dreams of learning from him next time he comes around just like you did