Phil Woods died today, less than a month after he announced his retirement from playing. He was 83. Woods’ longtime drummer Bill Goodwin told me this afternoon that the veteran alto saxophonist “went out on his own terms,” electing to stop treatment for the emphysema that for years slowed—but did not stop—his career as a performer and bandleader. One of the most renowned of the saxophonists inspired by Charlie Parker, Woods was a perennial poll winner. His quartet with bassist Steve Gilmore, drummer Goodwin and, most recently, pianist Bill Mays, won frequent awards as the best small group in jazz.
Woods began playing the alto saxophone as a 12-year-old in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. Following studies in New York with Lennie Tristano and further education at the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, Woods became a professional musician before he turned 20. His early career included work with Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Raney, George Wallington, Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham. He went on to become one of the music’s busiest freelancers, recording with fellow alto player Gene Quill and with George Russell, Neal Hefti, Jackie Cain Roy Kral, Manny Albam, Al Cohn & Zoot Sims, Benny Goodman, Quincy Jones and Thelonious Monk—among many others. During late 1960s and ‘70s in Paris he led his European Rhythm Machine with George Gruntz, Henri Texier and Daniel Humair.
Shortly after making Musique du Bois with an all-star rhythm section, Woods formed a permanent quartet with Gilmore and Goodwin, expanding it for a time to a quintet with the addition of trumpeter Tom Harrell in the 1980s. Toward the end of the 1990s he toured with his own big band. Late in his career, Woods insisted that in personal appearances quartet his perform acoustically. The banishment of amplification reflected his devotion to keeping the music as pure as possible and went hand in hand with the passion he brought to his playing. Here’s Phil in a 1986 New Years Eve club appearance with the Cedar Walton Trio. Ray Brown is the bassist, Mickey Roker the drummer
Phil Woods, RIP.
Rob D says
He’s been a constant all my jazz listening life.
Too many great records to list. Too many memories indelibly left in the mind.
God rest his soul.
Charlton Price says
Some of us sensed a year or more ago that Phil’s ability to breathe and to blow was waning. He and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, I believe, were nonpareil second-generation bop alto saxophonists because of their energy, ideas and distinctive styles. Charlie Parker, of course, was in a different, incomparable dimension. Phil in his long career, and Cannonball in his tragically few years, seem to me to have been the best at their distinctive ways of making music.
Along with his brother-in-law drummer Bill Goodwin and other close friends and colleagues, Phil for years has been influential in jazz education. Together in the Poconos they have staged memorable living-legacy musical events. Their concerts and teaching clinics have helped to keep alive the achievements and influence of other giants such as Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry and the big bands in which Phil and these eminent colleagues worked together. Phil’s and Bill’s musical fraternity will now, I hope, hold Phil Festivals like the regular tributes to Al, Zoot and others.
Thank you, Phil. You were and are the most and the best..
Michael Robinson says
A few Phil Woods anecdotes: Charlie Colin once told me that when Phil Woods, as a teenager, took lessons at Charlie’s studio in Manhattan, his teacher there was very hard on him, causing the young Phil to cry on at least one occasion after being reprimanded for not doing well enough on his lessons. Whatever tactics that teacher used surely worked! Subsequently, I asked Phil about this in-between sets at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Los Angeles, and he said it was true.
In the mid-seventies, I went with a date to see Phil in Manhattan, and we sat right in front at a small table. During his ballad performance, Phil walked right up to our table, and while he played Body and Soul in typically ravishing and breathtaking form, the bell of his alto was just above the middle of the table in-between us.
The one time I was at Phil’s house, his wife came home, and Phil got up instantly, walking across the living room while improvising with his voice in a musical rhythm: “Give me some sugar!” and then kissing her.
A friend told me how he once went to hear a big band play for free at an outdoor park on Long Island, and they were sounding pretty good. Then, one of the alto players got up and played a solo that made his jaw drop and his eyes bulge. That was his introduction to Phil Woods.
He took the alto saxophone to places it’s never been before and will never be again. Thanks, Phil, for filling the world with your rapturous sound and music.
Bill Crow says
Playing with Phil was a wonderful, legal way to get high. I met him at rehearsals for a record date with Jimmy Raney, and we became fast friends. Whenever he turned up on a gig, it was musical party time. He occasionally subbed for Gene Quill on the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, and always made the band sound great. He shocked Benny Goodman, was adored by Dizzy, Clark and Benny Carter. And at the Zoot Fests, first at the New School and then in East Stroudsburg, he always carried the day. I never knew any musician more sure of himself. He was amazing, a fountain of energy even in his waning days. Thank you, dear Phil, for all the good times.
charlie shoemake says
Phil Woods was simply one of the greatest jazz musicians in its history. Sandi and I were fortunate enough to be involved in three recordings with him and those recordings had some very intricate and challenging material. I never heard him make one error in any of them…EVER! Truly amazing. One of the all time giants.
larry hollis says
I remember staying up all night in the eighties talking with Phil about jazz, especially sax players. It was after a gig in Norman, Oklahoma at the club owner’s pad and although I had him typecast as a prototypical bebopper, he surprised me with his erudite comments and open ears. He said some insightful things about Ornette Coleman. In other words, a great cat.
Don Conner says
My listening career pretty much paralleled Phil’s playing career. I’ve heard Stitt, Cannonball and many other great reedmen, but Phil was always my man. No surprise that he went out the way he did, for he lived for his music. RIP Phil. There will never be another you.
Rick Megahan says
In all the obituaries and comments about Phil Woods, none has mentioned how I first encountered his distinctive sound. He made an excellent album with Rob McConnell in 1987, Boss Brass And Woods.
Carol Sloane says
I feel the emptiness of the world without Phil. I was proud to call him my friend, and I was thrilled that he played on two of my cds. It’s difficult to say just how much he meant to me. He once “saved me bacon”, an unexpected gesture I’ve never forgotten. I wrote thanks at the time (c.1984), but I felt I needed to tell him one more time of the significant impact his remarks had made, so I wrote him just weeks ago. His response was terse and sweet.
Doug Ramsey says
In an email exchange late today Ms. Sloane explained,
John Birchard says
The first big-name jazz band I ever saw in person was the Dizzy Gillespie State Department Band. There was a sandwich board outside Birdland advertising the band. I had an hour to kill so I went down the stairs. As I entered the club, the band hit. It was like nothing I had ever heard. The energy it produced was akin to standing close to the tracks when a big freight train comes thundering through. It was pure joy. Dizzy was himself—joking, singing, dancing, bouncing tambourine off his butt and playing brilliantly. But my attention was captured by a young white guy in the sax section. When Phil Woods was introduced to play “Yesterdays”, he held the crowd spellbound. He played with such fire, energy and humor. It was that November night that opened a door to great music for the rest of my life. I’ve seen Woods many times since in a variety of settings. He was never less than brilliant and, as good as his sidemen were, Phil was head and shoulders above them. His recorded work with the Quincy Jones band, with his European Rhythm Machine, with Lew Tabackin, even with Benny Goodman’s Russian tour, never departed from his high standard. He was a hero of mine. To say that he will be missed doesn’t cover half of it.
Gary Babbitt says
I first became familiar with Phil’s music listening to the album Warm Woods years ago and became instantly hooked. I have played the alto for 50 years always trying to achieve that wonderful tone but never quite succeeding. I will miss his stunning technique but also his great sense of humor.
Rich Juliano says
The quintet Phil led in the ’80s with Tom Harrell sharing the front line was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Phil’s career (of which there were obviously many other high points). The charisma of that group was palpable. The Jazz Showcase in Chicago, located during those years at the Blackstone Hotel, was the perfect place to hear them. As has been noted elsewhere, they played largely without amplification. As Phil stated in a radio interview at that time, their book primarily consisted of “neglected American music.” This included lesser-played standards, Ellington, pieces by old friends of the band members, fresh interpretations of compositions by jazz masters (Oliver Nelson, Sam Rivers, Charlie Mariano, Randy Weston), originals by the band members themselves (especially Harrell) and other surprises. If you were lucky enough to hear them after they had already been on the road a few weeks, the sets were generally spectacular. Their arrangement of Neal Hefti’s “Repetition,” originally recorded by Charlie Parker, was a particular favorite, and you could tell the group enjoyed playing it. The rhythm section of the time included Hal Galper along with Phil’s 40-year associates Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin. Their best recordings were the live album Integrity on Red, and the studio session Gratitude on Denon. Those years alone would have made Phil’s reputation, but of course his longevity and accomplishments across the decades were a gift to all of us. RIP, sir…
Michael Robinson says
There was always an air of unreality when listening to Phil Woods play, as if it simply wasn’t possible that someone could get the alto saxophone to sound so good, as he transported us to some wondrous dreamland. One friend hearing him live remarked that Woods was the sexiest musician she had ever heard. Myself, I hear the melodic, rhythmic and expressive influence of Dimitri Shostakovich in Phil’s music more so than in any other jazz artist. And given how my own melodic, rhythmic and expressive tendencies were nurtured by Shostakovich, it is evident that my intense attraction to the style and substance of Phil Woods stems from a like musical granulometry.
Now left with recordings and videos, the musical legacy of Phil Woods will continue to grow, and given the powerful numinosity of those fortuitous capturings, I’m glad to say that Phil Lives.