To watch Sam Woodis solo on his saxophone is a thing of beauty. Closing his eyes and tilting his head back just a bit, he unleashes a smooth volley of notes that seem effortless, belying the hours and hours of practice he has put into the music.
Woodis, the son of Dexter and Lisa Woodis and Debra Fuller and a senior at Rocky Mountain High School, last week performed with the Wyoming Jazz Educators All-State Jazz Band for the third year in a row, playing the tenor saxophone as a featured soloist during last Thursday night’s concert at Powell High School – part of the 31st annual Northwest College Jazz Festival.
As the concert began, he was honored as the Outstanding Jazz Band Member based on his audition, causing Director Chris Merz to call him “Mr. Jazz.”
As a three-year member of the All-State Jazz Band, Woodis has heard some great headliners: the University of North Texas One O’Clock Jazz Lab in Powell two years ago, Paquito D’Rivera in Casper last year and several headliners year including Kris Berg and the Metroplexity Big Band, the Bobs and the Ray Brown Tribute Trio with guest star Wilford Brimley.
Woodis has also been a three-year member of the Wyoming All-State Concert Band, earning a spot in the elite group on tenor sax as a sophomore, alto sax as a junior and clarinet as a senior.
Although he can play all woodwinds, his favorite is the saxophone, whether the soprano, alto, tenor or baritone sax.
“Each one has a different place in the music, and I like to experience new things,” Woodis said.
The senior will continue his playing in college after he graduates in May, hoping to one day teach music as well as continue performing. He is currently most interested in Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and Utah Valley University in Orem, where his older brother, Jory, is teaching music. But after working with University of Northern Iowa Director of Jazz Studies Merz last week when Merz directed the All-State band, Woodis said his interest in UNI was piqued, as well.
“He’s a great guy and a great saxophonist,” Woodis said. “The sax teacher at BYU is phenomenal, too. He’s one of the best teachers and players out there and their jazz band was voted as the number one (college) jazz band in the U.S. last year.”
He would also like to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following his freshman year of college, and after earning his undergraduate degree he would like to pursue a master’s degree or even a PhD, attending a dream school like the Berklee College of Music, the Eastman School of Music, the University of Indiana or the U of North Texas.
“All of the students at those schools are older, and they’re monster musicians,” he said.
Asked whom he emulates, he noted saxophonists Joshua Redman and Chris Potter, as well as the late Dexter Gordon and Michael Brecker.
How does a boy from Cowley, Wyoming, become a lover of jazz?
Well, it started with his older brother Jory, who is also a saxophonist and is Woodis’ inspiration. Jory got into jazz after hearing a recording of Dexter Gordon playing the Sonny Rollins classic “Doxy” while taking music lessons.
“He fell in love with it and wanted to learn more,” Sam Woodis said. “I grew up with him, listening to him play, and I just wanted to play like him. When I got into sixth grade, I wanted to mimic him.”
Asked what he loves about jazz, Woodis replied, “I love the creative process a really good musician can demonstrate in their improvised solos. I like taking a simple melody and developing it into something more.”
The best way to learn to improvise, Woodis said, is to transcribe recordings of the jazz greats, but it’s also important to experiment.
“It’s about 75 percent emulating someone else and 25 percent experimenting,” he said. “And no matter how hard you try to emulate someone there will always be you in whatever you play.”
Woodis said he’s not concerned about losing ground during his LDS mission, noting that Jory told him he was a better player when he returned because a musician loses his playing habit, including the bad habits, while away, allowing him to get a fresh start.
“It all really comes down to practice and whether you’re willing to put in the time to make yourself a good player,” he said. “I like to put in as much time as I can, anywhere from one to four hours a day.”
That means after school, during home room or evenings at home. He also said he has learned a lot from RMHS Director Nick Tolman, who he described as a “great jazz musician who is always willing to answer questions or just play some music.”
Woodis has put in a lot of time during the summer, as well, attending Summer Fest at BYU, the NWC Yellowstone Summer Music Camp and the Yellowstone Jazz Camp.
Sadly for local music and jazz lovers, the high school career of Sam Woodis is coming to a close with his graduation, but the future is bright for the young man.
When Woodis plays, it is certainly not hard to imagine another boy or girl in a small Wyoming town someday listening and hoping to emulate the great Sam Woodis. For Woodis, the sky’s the limit.
By David Peck