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Flip Phillips: Hard Swinging Tenor Star of JATP

SOURCE: Published: 2001-08-21

Flip Phillips was most closely associated with Norman Granz's famous Jazz at The Philharmonic touring productions. The hard hitting tenor saxophonist was a star of these jam session-style revues for almost a dozen years, matching his fierce, honking tenor in cutting sessions with other demonstrative saxophonists of the day, including Illinois Jacquet, Charlie Ventura and Ike Quebec.

Although the critics sometimes disdained the showy, crowd-pleasing approach which Granz fostered in these shows, they remained immensely popular with audiences all round the world, and launched many players on notable careers. Phillips was entirely at home in the hard blowing ambiance which they fostered, although he could also be a subtle player when he chose.

He was born Joseph Edward Filippelli in Brooklyn, where he began his career as a professional musician playing clarinet in a restaurant band as a teenager, beginning in 1934. He joined Frankie Newton's band in 1940, and played with Benny Goodman, Wingy Manone and Red Norvo. He received his first significant break when he was invited to replace Vido Musso in Woody Herman's First Herd in 1944, although he was initially reluctant to give up the security of his job with bandleader Russ Morgan.

Herman's persuasiveness finally prevailed, however, and he spent two years in the Herman band, where he was heavily featured as a soloist, both in the big band and in Herman's smaller recording group, The Woodchoppers, and contributed to the band's arrangements. His exciting style made a powerful impact, and he established a major reputation as a player to watch.

He began his association with Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1946, one which would last until 1957. His most famous feature was his version of Perdido, in which he regularly exhibited his full repertoire of honking and screaming devices (the 1947 JATP recording of that tune is the best known example).

The enthusiasm for the showier side of his playing in this context tended to divert attention from the richness and expressive beauty of his ballad interpretations. Away from the competitive excitements of the JATP, Phillips was also well capable of delivering subtler performances, particularly in small group settings with musicians like trombonist Bill Harris (his closest musical associate), trumpeter Howard McGhee, and pianist Hank Jones.

He worked with Benny Goodman in 1959, then settled in Florida, where he managed an apartment building, and all but retired from active performing, emerging only occasionally to play at festivals and to record the odd album, although he did add bass clarinet to his customary tenor saxophone.

He returned to full time playing in 1975, and began to record more regularly. Several disc captured him in familiar jam session settings on the festival and jazz party circuit, but his releases also included a disc with tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton, A Sound Investment, for Concord Jazz in 1987, and well-recieved album for Verve Records last year, Swing Is the Thing, on which he held his own in the company of contemporary masters Joe Lovano and James Carter.

He is survived by his wife, Miyoko, a sister, and a grandson.

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