By John Stevenson
Phil Woods, who owed his style of playing to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, died aged 83 on September 29th 2015.
He was one of the most accomplished and admired technicians of the alto saxophone and distinguished himself in jazz and popular music.
Philip Wells Woods was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He inherited an alto saxophone from his uncle when he was 12. He took lessons, while he was still in high school, from pianist Lennie Tristano and frequented the jazz clubs in New York City. This led to his enrolling at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
After graduating from Juilliard, Woods soon became part of the fertile New York City jazz scene of the early 1950s, eventually joining trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and taking the spot occupied by Charlie Parker in 1956, a year after the eminent altoist passed away. Woods was a devotee of Parker and married Parker’s former partner, Chan Richardson.
Phil Woods also worked in bands led by Quincy Jones, Benny Goodman, Clark Terry and Buddy Rich and played on countless recording sessions, including, notably, Thelonius Monk’s Monk at Town Hall (1959).
In 1968, he and Chan moved to Paris, France, where he formed the Rhythm Machine which for a time featured British jazz pianist Gordon Beck. Woods returned to America in 1972 and settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, launching a quartet and later a quintet.
He was known for his fleet-fingered Bird-like improvisations and lyrical, well-crafted soloing. Among his most outstanding albums (as a leader) are: Woodlore (1955); Rights of Swing (1961); Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine Live at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival (1970) and; Altology (1976). He made at least a hundred albums as a leader and scores of records as a member of several aggregations over the course of his stellar 70 year career.
Outside of jazz, Phil Woods’ most memorable contributions can be heard on Billy Joel’s 1977 pop hit, ‘I Love You Just the Way You Are’, Steely Dan’s ‘Dr Wu’ (1975 ), and Paul Simon’s ‘Have a Good Time’(1975).
Toward the last decade of his life, he suffered from emphysema and needed the assistance of an oxygen tank. His last concert was at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild in Pittsburgh, on September 4.
After his divorce from Chan Richardson in 1977, he married Jill Goodwin (the sister of his drummer Bill Goodwin). He is survived by a son and three stepdaughters.
Shortly after news surfaced of his death, protégé Richie Cole said:
“For me, Phil Woods was the world’s greatest alto saxophone player. He was nothing but supportive and a great influence and inspiration to me.”
Philip Wells Woods – born November 2 1931, died September 29th 2015