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.