Remembering Phil Woods – DownBeat 2015/10/02

Remembering Phil Woods – DownBeat Posted 2015/10/02

Phil Woods, a trail blazing bebop saxophonist and an NEA Jazz Master, died Sept. 29 in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He was 83.

The cause of death was complications from emphysema. Woods, who had battled respiratory problems for years, announced his retirement from music on Sept. 4 after a concert at Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. That Sept. 4 concert was a tribute to Charlie Parker’s album Bird With Strings. It was, perhaps, a fitting conclusion to the career of an alto saxophonist who was deeply influenced by Parker. But Woods developed his own voice and subsequently became one of the most revered alto players of his generation. Over the course of his illustrious career, Woods toured with jazz icons such as Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Clark Terry and Benny Goodman.

Born Philip Wells Woods in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1931, he began playing saxophone during childhood. As a young man, Woods studied improvisation with pianist Lennie Tristano, and he studied classical music at The Juilliard School in New York City. In 1968 Woods moved to France, where he formed the European Rhythm Machine and composed music for Danish and Belgian radio. Upon his return to the United States in 1972, he recorded the seminal albums Images (1975, with Michel Legrand) and Live From The Showboat (1976), both of which won Grammy Awards. One of Woods’ most well-known solos was on Billy Joel’s 1977 hit single “Just The Way You Are,” which earned Joel two Grammy Awards. Woods also played on recordings by Paul Simon and Steely Dan.

Other albums in Woods’ discography include Dizzy Gillespie Meets Phil Woods Quintet (1987), All Bird’s Children (1990), The Rev & I (a 1998 Blue Note date featuring Johnny Griffin) and Man With The Hat (a 2011 collaboration with saxophonist Grace Kelly, to whom he was a mentor). Woods topped the Alto Saxophone category in the DownBeat Critics Poll seven times between 1970 and 1980.

In a January 1982 cover story for DownBeat, Woods reflected on his career and the origin of his style: “Jazz has been good to me, it really has, but I would hate to think that any young man would feel that by copying the Phil Woods sound he could have the same life and career. I never began by imitating. I began by trying to become a musician and an alto sax player. I never thought I sounded like Charlie Parker, though he was an inescapable shadow in the ’40s or in the ’50s, if you were a sax player. You couldn’t be a musician without having his licks pop up. And without Louis Armstrong, we wouldn’t have any jazz licks at all; Bird would be the first guy to tell you that’s the truth.”

In addition to his contributions to jazz as an artist and bandleader, Woods was also a jazz educator who frequently worked with college students at institutions such as DePaul University. Woods was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2007. In a 2006 interview with the NEA, Woods described his first saxophone lessons: “I got a teacher by the name of Harvey LaRose and that’s where my life changed because I was going for lessons and I was faking it. I wasn’t practicing, but I’d go back the following week and I could play the lesson. Now if I’d had one of those more or less straitlaced teachers, he might have said, ‘OK, kid, you’re faking it.’ Mr. LaRose said, ‘You’re using your ear to play music. This ear thing is your most important gift.’ He realized that immediately. Mr. LaRose played alto clarinet, violin, guitar, piano—taught all of those instruments, repaired all of those instruments—and arranged with the local big bands. He … recognized that I had something to say on the saxophone because he drew me in. Within three, four months I was hooked. I loved it.”

(Note: DownBeat will publish a tribute to Phil Woods in our December 2015 issue. To read a DownBeat 2007 interview with Woods, click here. To read a review of Woods’ performance at the 2013 Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, click here. )

This is Phil Woods in mid-career before his chronic lung disease forced him to use canned oxygen on stage just so that he could play.  He literally performed right up to the end. He announced his retirement September 4 and died September 29th. Remarkable eh!


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