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What Is This Thing Called Soul

Conversations on Black Culture and Jazz Education


Damani Phillips

How does academic jazz education impact the Black cultural value of soulfulness and esthetic standards in contemporary jazz music? Through candid conversations with nine of the country’s most highly respected jazz practitioners and teachers, What Is This Thing Called Soul explores the potential consequences of forcing the Black musical style of jazz into an academic pedagogical system that is specifically designed to facilitate the practice and pedagogy of European classical music. This work tests the belief that the cultural, emotional and esthetic elements at the very core of jazz’s unique identity, along with the music’s overt connection to Black culture, are effectively being "lost in translation" in traversing the divide between academic and non-academic jazz spheres.

Each interviewee commands significant respect worldwide in the fields of jazz performance and jazz pedagogy. Noteworthy subjects include: Rufus Reid, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and Wycliffe Gordon—along with the late jazz masters Marcus Belgrave and Phil Woods. Interviews are supplemented by original analysis of the nature and validity of these issues contributed by the author.

What Is This Thing Called Soul offers a candid and objective look into pressing issues of race, culture and ethnic value in relation to both jazz music and jazz education. Sensitivity, marginalization and even a fear of offending others has limited open discussion of how the soul of jazz music can be lost in technical boundaries. What Is This Thing Called Soul is the first attempt to directly address such culturally urgent issues in jazz music.

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Chapter 10. Music is Music: Phil Woods Interview (1931–2015)



Music is Music

Phil Woods Interview (1931–2015)

One of the last surviving elder statesmen of jazz music at the time of our conversation, saxophonist, clarinetist and composer Phil Woods passed away just nine short months after this interview. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Woods studied music with Lennie Tristano and briefly enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music before moving on to spend four years as a clarinet major at the Juilliard School. Although he did not necessarily copy Charlie “Bird” Parker’s style, he was widely regarded as the “New Bird” – a label which was also attached to other alto players such as Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley at one time or another in their careers. Woods coincidentally married Charlie Parker’s widow Chan Parker and became stepfather to Bird’s daughter Kim.

As a recording artist, Woods’ activity has been prolific over the course of his 60+ year career. He has recorded well over 35 albums as a leader (3 of which received Grammy awards), and appears as a sideman on over 30 albums. He debuted as a leader in 1954 and has since recorded for Prestige, Savoy, RCA, Mode, Epic, Impulse, Verve, RCA, and Concord just to name a few. Perhaps his best known recorded work as a sideman is a pop piece, his alto sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”. He also played the alto sax solo on Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu” from their 1975 album...

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