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date: 13 November 2019

Woods, Phil(ip Wells)free

  • Barry Kernfeld

(b Springfield, MA, Nov 2, 1931; d East Stroudsburg, PA, Sept 29, 2015). American alto saxophonist and leader. He devoted himself to the saxophone from the age of 12 and briefly took private lessons in improvisation from Lennie Tristano when he was about 15. In summer 1948 he went to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music, then in the autumn he enrolled at the Juilliard School (where he was obliged to major in clarinet); while completing his studies (BM 1952) he briefly played in Charlie Barnet’s dance band. In 1955–6 he worked with George Wallington (in whose band he replaced Jackie McLean), Kenny Dorham, and Friedrich Gulda and travelled to the Near East and South America with Dizzy Gillespie. For the next decade he led a number of small jazz groups, among them a quintet with Gene Quill as co-leader, known as Phil and Quill (intermittently, 1957–8), one with Teddy Kotick and Nick Stabulas in the rhythm section, and another whose rhythm section included Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter. Woods also performed in Buddy Rich’s quintet alongside Willie Dennis and John Bunch (April 1959), toured Europe with Quincy Jones (1959–60) and the USSR with Benny Goodman (May–July 1962), and worked as a studio musician, playing various reed instruments for recording sessions, television, films, and advertising jingles. During the summers from 1964 to 1967 he taught at the Ramblerny performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1967 he performed in New York as the leader of a quartet consisting of Hal Galper, Richard Davis, and Dottie Dodgion and played in Clark Terry’s big band.

In March 1968 Woods moved to France, which marked his return to playing small-group jazz. In Paris that same year he formed the quartet the European Rhythm Machine, with George Gruntz (later Gordon Beck) on keyboards, Henri Texier on double bass, and Daniel Humair on drums; he also wrote for Danish and Belgian radio, and he composed a ballet for French television. The European Rhythm Machine remained intact until 1972, when Woods organized an experimental electronic quartet in Los Angeles; this was given a cold reception and soon disbanded. Woods then moved to the East Coast and settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. In October 1973 he formed an outstanding acoustic jazz group with Mike Melillo, Steve Gilmore, and Bill Goodwin. With this ensemble he won acclaim during this period as the finest alto saxophonist in mainstream jazz, a reputation confirmed by his performances on Images (1975, with Michel Legrand), Live from the Showboat (1976, recorded with an expanded group including the guitarist Harry Leahey and a percussionist), and I love you just the way you are (1977, with the popular singer Billy Joel), all of which received Grammy awards; the last named introduced Woods’s sound (albeit anonymously) to an audience far larger than the normal reach of jazz.

For about 18 months in the mid-1970s Leahey stayed with the group, but he preferred not to tour on a regular basis; otherwise the quartet remained intact for nearly eight years, achieving a level of cohesion and group interplay that the typically ever-changing circumstances of the jazz life rarely allows. This stability has continued into the new century, with Gilmore and Goodwin surviving as permanent members, although the piano chair passed successively from Melillo to Hal Galper (1980 – July 1990), Jim McNeely (August 1990 – late 1994), and Bill Charlap (from April 1995). In 1983 the group once again became a quintet when Tom Harrell joined; at this point Woods began to play clarinet on a regular basis, especially in combination with Harrell’s muted trumpet. From that time he continued to work with a brass instrument, with Hal Crook (on trombone) replacing Harrell in 1989, and then Brian Lynch (on trumpet) succeeding Crook in 1992. The group continued to tour internationally and to record.

In 1978 Woods was the key figure in the founding of an annual festival, the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, which has continued into the new century. At the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1989 he participated in Benny Carter’s re-creation of his famous album of 1961, Further Definitions (on which Woods had played); that same year he initiated a permanent autobiographical column, ‘Phil in the Gap’, in The Note.

Woods acknowledged a profound debt to Charlie Parker, and his effortless virtuosity, bright tone, witty quotations, gruff ballad style, and frequent references to the blues invited comparison between the two musicians, as did Woods’s renditions of tunes associated with Parker (Patterns of Jazz, 1957). His melodic lines, however, like those of Cannonball Adderley, were more continuous and chromatic than Parker’s (Cottontail, Body and Soul, 1961), and he often repeated ideas, sometimes displacing them within the meter or developing them sequentially (A Bit of Blues, 1956). In later years these features remained central to his style of improvisation. His repertory expanded to include not only bop (Airegin, 1974), but also, with the European Rhythm Machine, funk (The Meeting) and occasional passages of free jazz (Riot) (both 1970), and, with his new group, Latin jazz (Brazilian Affair, 1976). In the 1970s Woods began to make his instrument sound like a tenor saxophone, developing a larger and brighter tone and adding a carefully controlled, many-shaded growl reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins (A Sleepin’ Bee, 1976). He wrote large-scale suites such as Rights of Swing (1961) and I Remember (1978) which, like his shorter jazz pieces, serve as vigorous frameworks for improvisation; a volume of transcriptions of his performances, Phil Woods: Improvised Saxophone Solos, has been published (Hialeah, FL, 1981). In 1984 he recorded an album with Chris Swansen on which the latter attempted to achieve the sound of a big band on a synthesizer, but it was poorly received. On his other, highly successful, recordings of the 1980s (above all the album Integrity), Woods continued to play in an unamplified but fiery hard-bop style.

Video oral history material in NCH (HCJA).

Selected recordings

As leader

Woodlore (1955, Prst. 7018)

with D. Byrd: The Young Bloods (1956, Prst. 7080)

Warm Woods (1957, Epic 3436)

Rights of Swing (1961, Can. 9016)

Greek Cooking (c1966, Imp. 9143)

Round Trip (1969, Verve 68791)

Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine at the Montreux Jazz Festival (1970, MGM 4695), incl. Riot

Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine at the Frankfurt Jazz Festival (1970, Embryo 530), incl. The Meeting

Musique du bois (1974, Muse 5037), incl. Airegin

“Live” from the Showboat (1976, RCA BGL2-2202), incl. Brazilian Affair, A Sleepin’ Bee

Songs for Sisyphus (1977, Gryphon 782)

I Remember (1978, Gryphon 788)

Quartet (1979, Clean Cuts 702)

Birds of a Feather (1981, Ant. 1006)

At the Vanguard (1982, Ant. 1013)

with Budd Johnson: The Ole Dude and the Fundance Kid (1984, Upt. 2719)

Heaven (1984, Black Hawk 50401)

Integrity (1984, Red 177)

Gratitude (1986, Denon 33CY1316)

Evolution (1988, Conc. 361)

All Bird’s Children (1990, Conc. 4441)

Real Life (1990, Chesky 47)

The Phil Woods Quintet Plays the Music of Jim McNeely (1995, TCB 95402)

with B. Carter: Another Time, Another Place (1996, Evening Star 104)

As sideman

J. Raney: Jimmy Raney Quintet (1955, NewJ 1103)

G. Wallington: Jazz for the Carriage Trade (1956, Prst. 7032)

[no leader:] The Birdland Stars on Tour (1956, RCA LPM1327–8), incl. A Bit of Blues

C. Payne: Patterns of Jazz (1957, Signal 1204)

T. Monk: The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959, Riv. 1138)

B. Carter: Further Definitions (1961, Imp. 12), incl. Body and Soul, Cottontail

Q. Jones: Live at Newport ’61 (1961, Mer. 60653)

T. Monk: Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963, Col. CS8964)

Q. Jones: Live at Newport ’61 (1961, Mer. 60653)

B. Carter: Further Definitions (1961, Imp. 12), incl. Body and Soul, Cottontail

T. Monk: Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963, Col. CS8964)

M. Legrand: Images (1975, RCA BGL1-1027)

B. Joel: on The Stranger (1977, Col. PC34987), I love you just the way you are

Selected films and videos

The Hustler (1961)

The Great Rocky Mountain Jazz Party (1977)

Jazz in Exile (1978)

Gibson Jazz Concert (c1982)

Celebration: Music in the Gap (c1984)

Ben Sidran: on the Live Side (1986)

Phil Woods in Concert (n.d. [filmed c1988])

Phil Woods Quartet (early 1990s [filmed 1979])

Birdmen & Birdsongs: a Tribute to Charlie Parker, ii (n.d. [filmed 1990])

Flip Phillips’ 80th Birthday Party featuring the All-Stars (c1996 [filmed 1995])

Dexter Gordon: More than You Know (c1996)


  • N. Hentoff: “Phil is Now out of the Woods,” DB, 24/2 (1957), 13
  • I. Gitler: “This is Phil Woods,” DB, 28/9 (1961), 20
  • M. Gardner: “Phil Woods,” JazzM, no.184 (1970), 2; no.185 (1970), 2
  • A. J. Smith: “Out of the Forest into the Woods,” DB, 42/21 (1975), 22 [incl. discography]
  • Z. Knauss: Conversations with Jazz Musicians (Detroit, 1977), 226–61
  • J. DeMuth: “Phil Woods: Working More and Enjoying it no Less,” DB, 46/1 (1979), 14
  • L. Tomkins: “Phil Woods Today,” CI, 19 (1981), no.6, p.20; no.7, p.12
  • D. Morgenstern: “Phil Woods: Chief Alto of the Jazz Tribe,” DB, 49/1 (1982), 16 [incl. discography]
  • “Phil Woods,” SJ, 37/10 (1983), 212 [discography]
  • L. Tomkins: “Phil Woods: Update,” CI, 24/3 (1987), 8
  • J. Levenson: “Phil Woods Quintet: Woodshedding with Phil,” DB, 55/11 (1988), 20
  • F. Bouchard: “Altos on the Adriatic,” DB, 58/10 (1991), 16
  • C. Deffaa: “Phil Woods: Speaking out,” JT, 21/5 (1991), 28
  • J. Bradley: “Phil in Peak Form at 60,” Denver Post (8 May 1992)
  • B. Moody: The Jazz Exiles: American Musicians Abroad (Reno, NV, 1992), 105
  • Chan Parker: Ma vie en si bémol (Paris, 1993; Eng. trans., Columbia, SC, 1999, as My Life in E-flat)
  • M. Bourne: “Phil Woods: Jazz Soldier,” DB, 63/12 (1996), 42
  • S. Voce: “Phil Woods,” JJI, 49/10 (1996), 8
  • G. Jack: “Phil Woods,” JJI, 51/9 (1998), 6
  • <> (2000) [incl. discography]
Jazz Monthly
Jazz Journal International
Crescendo International
Down Beat
Swing Journal
Jazz Times (Washington, 1980-)