A legend, and all that jazz

Clinic: Saxophonist Phil Woods shares his music and wisdom with Towson High School students.

March 27, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Phil Woods, the legendary jazz saxophonist who jammed with Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, walked into the auditorium of Towson High School yesterday, amazed that a water main break that closed area schools hadn't canceled his appearance.

"Did you get special dispensation from the emperor?" Woods asked music teacher Barry Karow.

"Sir," Karow replied, "you are the emperor."

Woods, wearing his customary bebop cap, proceeded to educate and entertain 22 students and their teacher for two hours, spinning yarns about the days of avant-garde jazz, tinkling at the piano and playing an alto saxophone.

"He's a genius," said junior Will Bleser, a baritone sax player in the school jazz ensemble. "You can't see his fingers move when he plays - he's that subtle."

Woods, a four-time Grammy winner who has cut more than 200 albums, also was to appear with his quintet last night at the high school. He was paid $10,000, raised by a parents group that has for several years brought professional musicians to the school, Karow said.

Although Towson High was closed because of the water main break, Principal Jane Barranger received permission for Woods' clinic and the concert to go on.

Woods sat on a piano bench and spoke with a gravelly voice. Sprinkling his language with cats, dig and man, he told the young musicians tales of six decades in jazz. He exchanged sax riffs with a former Towson High student, Patrick Breiner, who is studying music in New York City.

The students, appreciating who was in their midst, were rapt, bodies leaning forward.

Woods started humbly.

"I've been playing music since I was 12," Woods said. "I'm 72 now, but I have the body of a 71-year-old."

He grew up in Springfield, Mass., where one day he found his sick uncle's saxophone under a wicker chair. That was the beginning. After graduating from high school at 16, he attended the Juilliard School in New York for four years. But, he said, his real musical education began before that.

"I heard Parker swing in the Village in New York when I was 14, sat on the floor with Bird and some other young musicians and ate cherry pie."

After gigging at strip clubs playing bump-and-grind tunes with his horn, he would be jamming with Parker and Gillespie in clubs such as the Three Deuces and Birdland.

"I learned at the feet of the master," Woods said.

He told the teen-agers about a 1962 State Department-sponsored trip to the former Soviet Union with Gillespie.

"To show you that jazz is an international language, we were not allowed in the Cold War days to meet with the Russian people. So we would go to Gorky Park with our instruments and play after our official appearance," Woods said. "That's when the bushes would start talking - locals hiding, whispering to us, `Play Thelonious Monk.'"

Woods later moved to Paris where he formed his own group, the European Rhythm Machine, and returned home in 1972 where younger artists such as Billy Joel, Carly Simon and the members of Steely Dan invited him to play with them.

Mark Schminke, a Towson High senior and alto sax player, found Woods to be insightful.

"His life story of jazz was nice to hear," he said. "We heard that you have to work very hard to reach his level."

Woods now lives in northeastern Pennsylvania. He is founder and board member of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts and plans benefits, lectures and fund-raisers.

He gave the young musicians advice.

"Stop looking for magical equipment like expensive instruments to make you better," Woods said. "You must practice 26 hours a day. And you must practice listening because that is something that can't be taught."

Woods said the American songbook - including Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hammerstein - still offers a musical banquet that can be enjoyed in jazz, which he called "a democratic conversation."

He urged the students to enlarge their cultural interests to include art and writing and to strive to develop good habits. He also expressed concern for today's music, saying jazz is losing its distinctive regional sounds.

"You can go study Coltrane in college, but you'll wind up playing Britney Spears in the Ramada Inn," he added. "Music has been corrupted by greed, like many other things in our country. Young cats can't do gigs like we used to. I would tell you, `Go catch a tramp steamer to Europe, play in the streets for your supper and see what you're made of, where your passion lies.'"

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