Saxophonist revered in jazz circles

Jazz musician Phil Woods (left, performing in 1998) died on Tuesday from complications of emphysema.
Jazz musician Phil Woods (left, performing in 1998) died on Tuesday from complications of emphysema.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Phil Woods, an alto saxophonist revered in jazz circles for his bright, clean sound and his sterling technique - and widely heard on songs by Billy Joel, Paul Simon and others - died on Tuesday in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He was 83.

The cause was complications of emphysema, his longtime booking agent Joel Chriss said.

Woods was one of the leading alto saxophonists in the generation that followed Charlie Parker, who had set an imposing new bar for the instrument while defining the terms of bebop.

Rigorous, complex and brisk, bebop's stylistic language would be a constant for Woods throughout his prolific career, as both a leader and a sideman.

For much of that career, he was a sought-after section player in big bands because of his ability, unusual at the time, to read sheet music with as much breezy authority as he brought to his solos. He recorded with composer-arrangers Oliver Nelson, Michel Legrand and George Russell, among many others, and helped trumpeter Clark Terry establish his Big Bad Band.

One of Woods' early supporters was Quincy Jones, who in 1956 brought him on a State Departmentsponsored tour with trumpeter and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Woods quickly became a Gillespie protege, and in some respects, a surrogate for Parker, Gillespie's former frontline partner, who had died in 1955.

Parker's nickname was Bird, and for a while Woods was known to some, admiringly if a little backhandedly, as "the new Bird". The association was solidified when he married Parker's widow, Chan, in 1957. That marriage ended in divorce.

On the recommendation of producer Phil Ramone, an old classmate at the Juilliard School, Woods was featured on Simon's 1975 album, Still Crazy After All These Years, playing a quicksilver bebop cadenza on the song Have A Good Time.

That same year, he played a solo on the Steely Dan tune Doctor Wu. In 1977, he was prominently featured on Joel's ballad Just The Way You Are, which became a Top 10 hit and won two Grammy Awards.

Philip Wells Woods was born on Nov 2, 1931, in Springfield, Massachusetts. After inheriting a saxophone when he was 12, he began taking lessons at a local music shop and discovered that he was a quick study with a gifted ear.

His first hero on the alto saxophone was Benny Carter, followed soon thereafter by Johnny Hodges, a star soloist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and then Parker.

While still in high school, Woods often took the bus to New York City, haunting jazz clubs and studying with pianist-composer Lennie Tristano. He also studied classical music at Juilliard for four years. He moved to France in 1968, frustrated with a working life dominated by commercial jingles and other work for hire. He found success almost immediately, touring with a band he called the European Rhythm Machine.

After five years, Woods returned to the United States an accomplished solo artist. From 1974, he led a band with bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin.

Woods won four Grammy Awards, beginning in 1975 with Images, an orchestral album he made with Legrand. In 2007, he received a Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center.

He is survived by his wife Jill Goodwin, a son, three stepdaughters and a grandson.

His final concert, early last month in Pittsburgh, was a tribute to the album Charlie Parker With Strings. Backed by a local rhythm section and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he brought his oxygen tank with him onstage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2015, with the headline 'Obituary Saxophonist revered in jazz circles'. Print Edition | Subscribe