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Alto Sax Legend Phil Woods Has Died At 83

By , Editor | The Jazz Line

Just three weeks ago, jazz legend and saxophonist Phil Woods gave a historic performance of Charlie Parker’s classic ‘With Strings’ album alongside the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

However, right before launching into his last song of the night, Gerry Mulligan’s “Rocker,” he explained that his emphysema had worsened and as a result the song would, in fact, serve as his last performance ever.

On September 4, 2015 Phil Woods left his alto saxophone on stage at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, officially marking the end of an illustrious 70-year career making incredible music and serving as inspiration for countless future musicians.

Phil Woods

Now, it is with great sadness we report that Woods has passed away.

The Bensing-Thomas Funeral Home in Stroudsburg, PA confirmed that Woods died this morning (September 29) to The Jazz Line. He was 83.

Arrangements are currently being made for what is expected to be a private service for family and close friends.

Woods was born in Springfield, MA on November 2, 1931. Rather amusingly, after being gifted his first instrument – a saxophone, obviously – at the age of 12, his first instinct was to melt it down to make more toy soldiers for his collection. Thankfully, his mother stopped that from happening and insisted he use the instrument as it was supposed to be used. So he found a music teacher in the phone book, Harvey LaRose, who used the works of Benny Carter to start Woods on a musical path. Incidentally, Carter would later become a close friend and mentor to Woods.

After building a solid foundation on the instrument, Woods sought an academic foundation for his talents and attended Julliard School of Music in New York. The school had yet to introduce a saxophone program in 1948, so he was mentored by close friend clarinetist Joe Lopes while studying clarinet performance and music composition at the conservatory.

He spent the following years establishing himself as a powerhouse bandleader and a diligent sideman, performing with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, and Billy Taylor before testing more experimental sounds and spending some time in France, where he married Chan Woods (who was best known as Chan Parker, saxophonist Charlie Parker’s widow) and spent almost 20-years with her.

Woods’ name became familiar to even casual rock and pop listeners after he was featured as a soloist on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” which served as Joel’s first Top 10 hit and went on to be covered by countless other artists. Most notably by Barry White.

Phil spent much of his adult life living in Pennsylvania with his wife Jill Goodwin, where they raised their children. He stands as a named performer or bandleader on well over 100 albums. He won a total of four Grammys and was named an NEA ‘Jazz Master’ in 2007.

In a statement made after receiving the accolade, 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.”

Rest In Peace Phil Woods.

Phil Woods in 1978. Photo by Tom Marcello.
Phil Woods in 1978. Photo by Tom Marcello.

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