Alto saxophone giant and NEA Jazz Master Phil Woods, an unrepentant bebopper who parlayed a love for the music of Charlie Parker into a six-decade career as a highly respected leader and first-call sideman, died today, Sept. 29, in East Stroudsburg, Pa., at age 83. The cause of death was emphysema. Woods’ death was confirmed online by his agent, Joel Chriss.
Woods had announced his retirement from live performance earlier this month, after finishing a performance of the music from Charlie Parker With Strings featuring a local trio and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Until that time, he’d remained an active performer.
Philip Wells Woods was born Nov. 2, 1931, in Springfield, Mass. He began playing alto at age 12, taking private lessons from Lennie Tristano. He studied at both the Manhattan School of Music and Juilliard, where he concentrated on clarinet. Woods played in Charlie Barnet’s dance band while at school, then, after graduating in 1952 and having become known for his alto sax skills, worked with Kenny Dorham, George Wallington and Dizzy Gillespie. In the late ’60s, Woods performed in Buddy Rich’s quintet and toured Europe with Quincy Jones and the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman.
From 1964-67, Woods taught at an arts camp in New Hope, Pa., then returned to live performance both as leader of his own quartet and as a member of Clark Terry’s big band.
Stating that the United States, due to political turmoil, had become too difficult to live in, Woods moved to France in 1968, where he formed a band he called the European Rhythm Machine. He returned to the U.S. in 1972, settling in Delaware Water Gap, Pa., which he continued to call home until his death. There he became a co-founder of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts festival and formed a quartet with pianist Mike Melillo, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin.
Woods’ first albums as a leader were released in the 1950s, first for the Prestige label, and subsequently for Candid, Verve, Impulse!, Muse, Concord and other labels. He ultimately recorded more than 50 albums under his own name. He received the first of four Grammy awards (he was nominated for seven in all), in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance category, for the 1975 album Images, which featured him with Michel Legrand and his Orchestra. (His subsequent wins were for 1977’s Live from the Show Boat, 1982’s More Live and 1983’s At the Vanguard, all in the category of Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group.)
Woods’ most high-profile recording, however, was not one he released under his own name but rather his solo on Billy Joel’s 1977 hit “Just the Way You Are,” which peaked at number 3 on the Billboard pop chart. Prior to his solo on the Joel recording, Woods had contributed alto saxophone to recordings by Steely Dan and Paul Simon.
Most of his sideman work was for jazz artists though, and over the years his playing could be heard on releases by Thelonious Monk, Herbie Mann, Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Oliver Nelson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Smith, Ben Webster, Stephane Grappelli, Gil Evans, Ron Carter and many others.
His last significant recording was 2011’s Man With the Hat, a co-leader session with fellow alto saxophonist Grace Kelly.
A Phil Woods documentary film, A Life in E Flat-Portrait of a Jazz Legend, was released in 2005 by Jazzed Media.
Woods was married for some time to Chan Parker, the widow of Charlie Parker.
In 1975, Woods received a National Endowment for the Arts grant that he used to compose the work “The Sun Suite,” one of more than 200 songs he composed in all. The organization named him an NEA Jazz Master in 2007.