Phil Woods: Is Your Work Beneath You?


Phil Woods Saxopohone

I was frustrated the other day, thinking about how I need a better computer. Some of my software is out of date and my machine just doesn’t have the speed and the memory to support some of the the new tools I want to use. I could work so much faster and do so much more. And I hate some of the projects I have to take on! We all take on bread-and-butter jobs, but I’ve been at my profession for decades. I’d rather spend my time solving more meaningful problems.

And then I came across this story:


Phil Woods was an alto saxophonist who studied at the Julliard School of Music in the late 1940s. Back then, they didn’t even have a sax program; he majored in clarinet. One of Phil’s musical heroes was Charlie “Bird” Parker, who, along with Dizzy Gillespie, innovated a fast and complex jazz style known as “be-bop” during the mid-1940s.

Phil told the story of the first time he got to play with his idol in 1952 in New York’s Greenwich Village. He had just graduated from Julliard, was playing at a club, and with all that education behind him, he was frustrated to be playing “crowd pleasers” and “popular favorites” all night.

On top of that, Phil did not like his saxophone—not the horn, not the reed, not even the strap. I’m an accomplished player. I want a better instrument that won’t limit my ability to express my musical ideas.

One night, a friend came into the club where Phil was playing and said, “Hey, Charlie Parker’s jammin’ across the street at Arthur’s Tavern. Ya gotta go hear Bird play, man.”

Phil rushed over to listen during a break between sets. Some ancient guy was playing a beat up piano. Parker’s father kept time with a tiny snare drum and little pie plates for cymbals. And there was the great Charlie “Bird” Parker—playing a borrowed baritone sax. (If you don’t know anything about saxophones, the baritone sax is the tuba of the saxophone family—or perhaps the cello.)

Parker knew all the kids who were coming up. He smiled when Phil came in.

“Mr. Parker,” said Phil Woods, “perhaps you’d like to play my alto sax?” (The alto sax plays more in the trumpet or violin range, up high where a soloist likes to be.)

“That would be great, Phil,” replied Parker. “This baritone’s kickin’ my butt.”

Phil ran back across the street and grabbed the alto sax that he hated. He returned, jumped on the tiny bandstand, and handed his horn to Bird.

As he listened to the great Charlie Parker play his horn, he had a sudden revelation: Nothing is wrong with my horn! Nothing is wrong with the reed. Nothing is wrong with the mouthpiece. Even the goddamn strap sounds good when Bird plays it.

As soon as Bird finished, he handed the horn back to Phil and motioned for him to take a solo. AFter a few choruses, Parker leaned over, smiled, and said, “Sounds real good, Phil.”

Encouraged, Phil Woods returned to his gig across the street. From then on, he gave every tune his all. He stopped thinking about his instrument or the music he was hired to perform as “beneath him.” “That’s when I stopped complaining and started practicing.”

Phil Woods went on enjoy a long and successful career in jazz and pop music. He toured and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. He played the saxophone solos on hits by Billy Joel, Steely Dan, and Paul Simon.

Have you ever felt that a job was beneath you or that you couldn’t do your best with the tools available? That could be true. Even the great Charlie Parker struggled to play that borrowed baritone sax. But Charlie Parker’s virtuosity did not come from his instrument; it came from within. And even though he was a jazz legend, he saw playing with unspectacular players and instruments in a tiny club as an opportunity to make music—the thing he was born to do. True virtuosos find ways to let their talent shine even when the venue, the audience, and the tools are less than ideal.

I confess I still want that new computer and maybe some more exciting projects, but I’m not going to let that keep me from playing the music I was born to play. It’s time to stop complaining and start practicing.

Here's a 1954 Charlie Parker interview by Paul Desmond who played saxophone with the Dave Brubeck quartet.

Charlie Parker: There’s definitely stories … and stories that can be told in the musical idiom. Music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm, but … people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive…
Paul Desmond: Yeah, and you always do have a story to tell. It’s one of the most impressive things about everything I’ve ever heard of yours.

Charlie Parker: That’s more or less the object. That’s what I thought it should be.


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