Born on November 2, 1931, in Springfield, MA; married Chan Parker, 1950s (divorced); married Jill Goodwin. Education: Attended Manhattan School of Music; Juilliard School of Music, B.M., 1952. Addresses: Office---Box 278, Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327.

During a career that has spanned more than 50 years, saxophonist Phil Woods has earned a reputation as a supremely talented bebopper and one of the hardest-working, most prolific musicians in jazz. Long regarded as an heir to legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, Woods has toured and recorded with many of the biggest names in his field and has led his own ensemble, the Phil Woods Quartet (or, at times, Quintet or the Phil Woods Six) since the early 1970s. Although long retired from studio work, he earned a name for himself among a broader audience with his 1977 sax solo on the Billy Joel hit "Just the Way You Are." An Italian record label, Philology, has been named after him and has released as many as 27 of his recordings.

Woods was born on November 2, 1931, in Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of Clara (Markley) and Stanley Woods. He began playing the saxophone at the age of 12 and took private lessons for a time from saxophonist Lennie Tristano. In the summer of 1948 he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and the following fall he enrolled in the prestigious Juilliard School, where he was required to major in clarinet. He graduated from Juilliard in 1952 and then played briefly in saxophonist Charlie Barnet's dance band. From 1955-56, he played with pianists George Wallington and Friedrich Gulda, as well as with trumpeter Kenny Dorham. In the summer of 1956, he also joined trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on a U.S. State Department tour of Latin America and the Middle East. Woods later recalled that Gillespie served as a profound influence. "Dizzy is pivotal to the whole core of my being," Woods once told Nat Hentoff in an interview for Jazz Times online. "He used to say, 'I'm a rhythm man. The rhythm is the foundation of the building. If you lose sight of the foundation, the building topples.'"

By the late 1950s Woods was leading his own ensembles, including a quintet with saxophonist Gene Quill, called Phil and Quill, from 1957-58. Another ensemble included keyboardist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter. Woods toured Europe with arranger/composer Quincy Jones in 1959-60 and the USSR with clarinetist Benny Goodman in 1962. From 1964-67 he taught at Ramblerny performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He also worked as a studio musician in the 1960s and 1970s, lending his sound to recording sessions, television and film soundtracks, and advertising jingles. One of his best-known contributions as a studio musician was his solo on Billy Joel's 1977 hit "Just the Way You Are."

In 1968 Woods moved to France with his wife, Chan Parker, Charlie Parker's widow. He recalled to Ed Berger of Jazz Times that politics, in part, spurred the move. "It was hard to be an American in 1968," he remarked. "Chan was very active and we both felt we had to make a statement. But it wasn't only political dissatisfaction. I was getting sucked into the studio thing and wasn't playing any music." Parker and Woods later divorced and he married Jill Goodwin, the sister of Phil Woods Quartet drummer Bill Goodwin. Soon after moving to Paris, Woods formed the European Rhythm Machine with keyboardist George Gruntz, bassist Henri Texier, and drummer Daniel Humair. He did not escape studio work. During his time in Europe, Woods wrote for Danish and Belgian radio and composed a ballet score for French television.

Woods returned to the United States in the early 1970s, and after forming a short-lived experimental electronic quartet in Los Angeles, he settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, in 1973 and formed the Phil Woods Quartet with drummer Goodwin, pianist Mike Mellilo, and bassist Steve Gilmore. The group has seen some personnel changes, and has at times been the Phil Woods Quintet and the Phil Woods Six, but has remained intact since its formation. Their 1976 album (as the Phil Woods Six with guitarist Harry Leahey and percussionist Alyrio Lima) Live from the Showboat won a Grammy Award in 1977 for Best Jazz Instrumental Group Performance, the first of three for the core ensemble. Woods discussed the advantages of steady ensemble work with Jerry De Muth in a 1979 issue of Down Beat. "I did my share of going out, working with the local rhythm section," he said. "I don't think I'd ever do it again. If I couldn't sustain a group I think I'd go teach. . . . Otherwise you carry around a little library and you have a rehearsal and it never gets off the ground. That would be such a bringdown after having my own rhythm section. I don't think I could stand it. I played 'Stella by Starlight' enough to last me a lifetime."

Woods began playing clarinet again, in addition to the saxophone, in the late 1970s. In 1978 he helped found the annual Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts. He also continued to teach workshops, although in a 1982 interview with Down Beat's Dan Morgenstern, he had harsh words for university jazz programs. "There's a certain musical need gravitating from the streets to the universities. Jazz is alive and well; why, we have jazz courses in all the schools. It's wonderful. I don't know man---maybe it is and maybe it ain't. And maybe we should examine it. There's an assumption by the jazz departments that there is a jazz business. There's Las Vegas and L.A. They graduate, go out with [trumpter] Maynard [Ferguson] for two weeks, realize it's ridiculous, then go back and teach some more cats to graduate and see how ridiculous it is." Woods told Berger that he tries to engage students in a more useful course of study. "When I go to universities, I always try to tell them the full import of what they're getting into," he said. "If you want to be a jazz musician, you have to be a cultured human being. [Saxophonist] Mr. [Benny] Carter taught me that, and so did Charlie Parker. Know something about the world, about food, wine, speak a language, go to a play, get some pastels and try to draw a stick figure. Don't just say you're 'into Trane, man.'"

Despite health problems, Woods has continued to perform with his ensemble, and he told Berger he intends to keep going for many more years. "Benny Carter has always been my role model, and he played into his 90s," Woods observed.

by Kristin Palm

Phil Woods's Career

Member, saxophonist Charlie Barnet's dance band, early 1950s; member, ensembles of pianists George Wallington and Friedrich Gulda, and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Dorham, 1955-56; bandleader, 1957--; co-leader, Phil and Quill (with saxophonist Gene Quill), 1957-58; member, arranger/composer with Quincy Jones's European touring ensemble, 1959-60; member, clarinetist, with Benny Goodman's USSR touring ensemble, 1962; studio musician, 1960s--; member, trumpeter with Clark Terry's big band, 1967; instructor, Ramblerny performing arts camp, 1964-67; founding member, European Rhythm Machine, 1968-72; leader, Phil Woods Quartet (later the Phil Woods Quintet), 1973--; performed on singer/pianist Billy Joel's hit "Just the Way You Are," 1977; founder, Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, 1978.

Phil Woods's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Instrumental Jazz Performance Group, 1977, 1982, 1983.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…