Flip Phillips

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The Independent Online

Joseph Edward Filippelli (Flip Phillips), tenor saxophone player: born New York 26 March 1915; twice married; died Fort Lauderdale, Florida 17 August 2001.

"If you don't get better, you should quit," said the tenor sax player Flip Phillips in 1993. Fortunately he did get better, for he made his best album in 1999 when he was 84. It came as the climax to one of the most illustrious of jazz careers. It had begun before the Swing Era and took Phillips to the top of the tree, where, apart from claiming a fundamental role in the success of Woody Herman's First Herd, his everyday associates were to be Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson and Bill Harris.

His appearances as a prime rabble rouser in Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts led to his being miscast for a time as a tasteless monster. In reality he was on his instrument one of the most imaginative and sensitive interpreters of worthwhile ballads:

The tenor is the most beautiful instrument in the world, excepting perhaps the guitar. You can be angry, you can be soulful, you can play soft, you can play loud. I love the different moods you can get, and you can hit a lot of home runs.

The home runs came when, as a gladiator in Norman Granz's touring Jazz at the Philharmonic unit between 1946 and 1957, his job was to light the fire in the various auditoriums. Among the tenor players who partnered him in these jousts were Illinois Jacquet, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. "I like my players to be friends off-stage," Norman Granz told me, "but, when they're on stage, I want blood."

He got it, most notably in Phillips's famous version of "Perdido", as the tenor man honked and roared and generally blew up the kind of fervour that was to become a commonplace of rock 'n' roll a few years later. This playing to order set back Phillips's prestige with the music critics although it helped him to win 10 annual awards as first or second choice in Downbeat's tenor player of the year poll between 1945 and 1954.

After lessons on clarinet and alto saxophone from his cousin, Phillips's first professional job came in 1934, playing in the band at Schneider's Lobster House in Brooklyn. When he took more lessons from the alto saxophone player Pete Brown, Brown persuaded another black player, the trumpeter Frankie Newton, to let Phillips join the two in Newton's band. Phillips thus became one of the first white musicians to play regularly in an otherwise black band.

He stayed as clarinettist at Kelly's Stables, where Newton played, from 1940 until 1942, when he moved to join Larry Bennett's group at the Hickory House, making a permanent change at the same time to the tenor saxophone. His warm, full sound on the instrument was largely influenced by that of Ben Webster.

Phillips worked variously after that with bands led by the trumpeter Wingy Manone, the vibraphone player Red Norvo and Benny Goodman. Goodman, by then renowned as the King of Swing, was a perfectionist who still practised for hours every day.

"First thing in the morning," said Phillips, "I'd have coffee and he'd have clarinet." On one occasion Goodman had an untypical bout of nerves before a concert. "Pops," Phillips told him, "you're the greatest clarinet player in the world." Goodman thought for a moment. "You know, Pops," he said, "you're right."

Phillips made his most famous move in 1943 when he joined what later became known as Woody Herman's First Herd as a replacement for Vido Musso. Newly cleaned up recordings confirm that this was one of the most exciting big bands ever, burgeoning as it was with new stars and new musical thinking. Phillips joined the never-to-be-matched team of Herman, Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Pete Candoli, Chubby Jackson, Dave Tough and, a giant who was to become Phillips's closest lifelong friend, the trombonist Bill Harris. Phillips and Harris were the band's major soloists and soloed on most of the many records. Phillips's heartfelt variations on "Sweet and Lovely" with the band became a a jazz classic. He and Harris went on to work in Jazz at the Philharmonic together and often led their own quintet.

It was one of the bands that Phillips and Harris had put together, this time an octet with trumpeter Jack Sheldon, that Goodman took over to be his own band in 1959. They all toured together in the United States and Scandinavia.

After this Phillips and Harris both moved to Florida. Phillips took on an undemanding job managing Sea Haven, a housing development in Pompano Beach, and otherwise spent his time playing locally with his quartet and with his hobbies of golf, which he claimed was an acronym for "Go On Living, Flip", and woodwork. He made an elegant coffee table that was inlaid with musical notes and his 10 medals from Downbeat. As another diversion he took up playing the bass clarinet.

This period lasted for 15 years until 1975 when demand for his work brought Phillips back into full-time playing. He toured as a soloist, played in a variety of all-star groups and was in demand for jazz parties and Woody Herman and Benny Goodman reunions. He made many more albums under his own name and for other leaders. The illness of his wife Sophia, which lasted for eight years and concluded with her death in 1988, curtailed his playing. For her last years Sophia Phillips had been cared for by "Miki", a Japanese nurse. In 1989 Phillips married her.

In 1995 a couple of dozen of the top jazz musicians came together in a Florida Hilton hotel to play for an audience drawn from across the world for a weekend in celebration of Phillips's 80th birthday. He revelled in the fun and led the good-humour with typical Brooklyn wisecracking and shaggy-dog stories.

In 1999 Phillips recorded his final album, Swing is the Thing, with Joe Lovano and James Carter, two younger saxophonists from the contemporary scene. A similar rhythm section included his long-time partner, albeit 43 years younger, the guitarist Howard Alden. Alden, an outstanding virtuoso, worked and recorded often with the tenor saxophonist. "You're an inspiration and a joy to work with, my friend," Phillips told him. Appropriately the album included some of the tenor player's most beautiful improvisations.

Steve Voce