Jazz Fans Still Flip Over 74-Year-Old Saxman Phillips
When tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips was traveling with the Jazz at the Philharmonic all-star troupe in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the group’s founder and producer, Norman Granz, used to introduce him as “The Exciting One.”
And with good reason, for Phillips was renowned for bringing JATP audiences to their feet with his energized, foot-stomping renditions of such tunes as “Perdido” and “I Got Rhythm.”
Phillips, who appears tonight at Paramount Studios as part of radio station KLON’s “Jam Session at Paramount,” says he still gets a charge out of heating things up.
“I like to play like that, so when it’s swinging, hey, let it out,” the 74-year-old saxophonist said with typical gusto in a conversation from his home in Pompano Beach, Fla.
“There’s an old expression: When you want to make a dollar, make the people holler,” he said in the thick accent that natives of Brooklyn, Phillips’ hometown, rarely lose. “So, if the rhythm section is swinging, I’ll swing along with ‘em, and if it gets goin’, it’s the greatest thing in music.”
That tonight’s engagement--which will feature former JATP members pianist Arnold Ross, bassist Red Callender and guitarist Herb Ellis, along with saxman Allen Eager and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco--will be an organized jam session, as JATP concerts were, brought back memories of Phillips’ halcyon days, when he was heard in the company of such greats as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and others.
“Well, let me tell ya,” he said, his voice emitting an air of confidentiality, “there were some nights that it was the greatest thing that ever happened and it wasn’t recorded. (Many JATP concerts were taped and released on such Granz-owned labels as Clef, Norgran and Verve). That’s when it made you want to pull your hair out. These nights were when everybody was on and it was just as exciting as it can be. You couldn’t beat it no how.”
One night that was recorded was Sept. 17, 1947, when Phillips and fellow tenorman Illinois Jacquet played a rousing version of Juan Tizol’s “Perdido” with JATP in New York’s Carnegie Hall. The rendition, on which Phillips received a standing ovation, brought him a substantial degree of fame, at least in jazz circles, when the subsequent recording was released.
“Yeah, it turned my career around, because a lot of radio stations, all over the country, were playing the record,” he said. “Eventually, I had to sort of memorize the choruses that I played. When I had a band at different clubs, when JATP wasn’t on the road, people would come up and say, ‘You’re playing it wrong,’ so I memorized some of the cliches, some of things they’d recognize.
“If people want to hear it, I play it, but I change it around,” he said. “That’s the one thing about jazz, you can turn it around and play how you feel, play some different things. There’s a lot of notes to be played. It’s all according to how you feel.”
But as much as he’s been known as a “jump” tenor player, Phillips has also always been a redoubtable ballad artist, and his versions of such standards as “Sweet and Lovely” and “Embraceable You” also found favor with listeners. “My playing had, and has, two sides,” he said.
From the late ‘40s until 1957, when Granz disbanded JATP (there have been occasional revivals), Phillips spent at least six months a year touring the States, Europe and Japan. These days, he’d rather spend more time in Florida, where he moved in 1956 and where his golf game gets as much attention as his music.
“I work enough to keep busy, but I don’t do the one-nighters anymore,” said the musician, who has also served tenures with Woody Herman, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman during his five-decade career. “I can make them, but I won’t. They’re too much for me. I like three nights in a club, that’s plenty. When I was younger, I used to jump over buildings in a single bound, but as you get older, six nights is hard. I want to be choosy about what I take. Life is too short, you know. I want to enjoy myself, whatever I got left. So I do the things that make me comfortable.”
Phillips, whose latest LP is “A Real Swinger” (Concord Jazz), said he’s happy to have chosen music for his life’s work.