Leading Jazz Alto Saxophonist Phil Woods Dies At Age 83

Phil Woods, a leading alto saxophonist in mainstream jazz for more than 60 years whose piercing solos could also be heard on hit records by Billy Joel and Paul Simon, has died. He was 83.

Photo: PhilWoods.com

Woods died Tuesday in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, said Philip Bensing, owner of the Bensing-Thomas Funeral Home.

Woods gave his last concert on Sept. 4 in Pittsburgh, using oxygen to complete a performance of the classic album “Charlie Parker With Strings” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. That night he announced he had emphysema and was retiring.

Woods grew up in the Swing Era where his early influences included alto saxophonists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. He made his name as a fiery disciple of bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker, earning the nickname “the new Bird” after Parker’s untimely death in 1955. He was married to Parker’s widow, Chan, for 17 years.

Woods released more than 50 albums as a leader and many more as a sideman with such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Clark Terry. He won four Grammys.

But Woods was perhaps best known outside the jazz world for his alto sax solo at the end of Joel’s 1977 hit recording “Just the Way You Are.” He also performed on recordings by Paul Simon (“Have a Good Time”) and Steely Dan (“Doctor Wu”).

Philip Wells Woods was born on Nov. 2, 1931 in Springfield, Mass. After inheriting an alto sax from his uncle, he began taking lessons at the age of 12. As a teenager in 1945, he heard Parker’s bebop recordings with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

“It was some truly new music and just completely freaked me out,” Woods recalled in a 1992 AP interview.

After graduating high school, he moved to New York where he studied classical music by day at Juilliard and jazz in the clubs at night.

In the mid-1950s, Woods began leading his own combos. He got his big break when Quincy Jones asked him to join a 1956 State Department-sponsored world tour with Gillespie’s big band.

“There was a very specific reason Phil played on nearly every album I’ve made since 1956, because he not only was the best jazz alto sax player there was, he was a truly beautiful person,” Jones said in a statement released Tuesday.

Woods toured Europe with Jones’big band in 1959, and three years later took part in Benny Goodman’s historic tour of Russia.

Back in the United States, Woods found fewer chances to play pure jazz and grew disenchanted with studio work. In 1968, he moved to Europe where he formed his more adventurous European Rhythm Machine which incorporated some electronic and free-jazz elements.

In the mid ‘70s, Woods and his wife and manager, Jill Goodwin, settled in Delaware Water Gap in eastern Pennsylvania, where he co-founded the long-running Celebration of the Arts festival.

Woods was voted the top alto sax player nearly 30 times in Downbeat magazine’s annual readers’poll starting in 1975. His quintet – which included brother-in-law drummer Bill Goodwin, bassist Steve Gilmore, and other musicians such as trumpeter Brian Lynch and pianist Bill Charlap – was named the top small combo several times.

Woods, who was also a prolific composer and arranger, was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2007.

Upon receiving the nation’s highest jazz honor, Woods said, “Jazz will never perish, it’s forever music, and I like to think that my music is somewhere in there and will last, maybe not forever, but may influence others.”