Legendary Saxophonist Phil Woods Dies At 83

Phil Woods, the legendary alto saxophonist, passed away Tuesday afternoon. Woods, a longtime staple on the jazz scene since the 1950s, lost his battle with emphysema. His agent, Joel Chriss, confirmed the passing. Woods was 83. According to the New York Times, Phil died in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

Woods was loved and appreciated in jazz circles for his clear, bright, crisp sound. The last concert Phil Woods performed was earlier this month in Pittsburgh. Along with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Phil Woods paid tribute to the Charlie Parker With Strings album. Woods was one of the leading alto saxophonists in the generation that followed the death of Charlie Parker.

Parker had set the bar high for the instrument. He redefined the style of bebop, with complex rhythms and phrases. Phil Woods was often called “the new Bird” early in his career. Woods made it no secret that he idolized Parker. Many jazz purists overlooked Woods creativity and originality, due to his uncanny similarity to Charlie Parker.

The fact that Woods mirrored Parker was also evident through his contacts. Parker’s former band mate, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, mentored Phil Woods. Gillespie invited Woods on a world tour. Woods even married Parker’s widow, Chan Parker. Woods relocated to France with her. The marriage ended in divorce. Chan remained there until her death in 1999.

Phil Woods toured with many legends. Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman are just a few of the greats he encountered. He frequently recorded as a bandleader and a sideman.

NPR reports that Phil Woods made it to the Juilliard School, where he studied classical music for four years. A young Woods would commute to New York and check out the late night jazz scene. He would then catch an early morning bus back to his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. The New York connection paid off. He began hunting the clubs, playing gigs, and getting noticed.

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After moving to France, Woods felt his creativity leaving. He returned to the United States and resumed his career as a bandleader and performer.

Recommended by producer Phil Ramone, an old classmate at Juilliard, Phil Woods was featured on Paul Simon’s 1975 album, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” playing on the song “Have a Good Time.” Woods’ solo at the end of the song is eerily similar to Charlie Parker.

That same year, Phil Woods played a solo on the Steely Dan tune “Doctor Wu.” In 1977, Woods was featured on Mr. Joel’s ballad, “Just the Way You Are,” which became a Top 10 hit and won two Grammy Awards.

Phil Woods didn’t want to play the saxophone.

The first saxophone he had was one he inherited from his deceased uncle. Per NPR, Woods admits he actually wanted to melt it down and sell it for scrap. After taking his first lesson, he was hooked. He began the lessons at 12-years-old and found out he had an ear for picking up rhythms.

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“I mean, I put it in the closet where I thought it really rightfully belonged. And my mother said, ‘You know, Philip, you should at least take a lesson. Your uncle went through a great deal of trouble to leave you the saxophone.’ And even at the age of 12, I realized that dying could be construed as a great deal of trouble.”

Woods won four Grammy Awards, beginning in 1975 with “Images.” In 2007, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received a Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center.

Woods was performing with his oxygen tank when he gave his last concert. It had become a regular sight as he battled with his condition.

[Photo via NPR]