Remembering Phil Woods

John Watson pays tribute to the great saxophonist and composer, who has died aged 83.

Phil Woods (Photo © John Watson/

Phil Woods (Photo © John Watson/

I was determined not to mention Charlie Parker when I met Phil Woods for an interview. He had so often been accused, quite ridiculously, of copying Bird’s style that I was sure he would be more than tired of trying to justify his own marvellous music – influenced by Parker, of course, but strikingly individual too.

Also, Phil had been married at one time to Parker’s widow Chan, and he shot down one American interviewer in flames for raising that subject. “Are you seriously  asking me what it was like to be married to Bird’s old lady?” Phil had snapped.

But when we talked in his dressing room at Town Hall, Birmingham, about his long career, Phil was in exceptionally good humour and actually raised the subject of Parker himself. (“I wasn’t going to mention the ‘B’ word,” I told Phil, who laughed and nodded appreciatively.)

Ko Ko was the first Charlie Parker solo I heard,” Phil said. “And it is the one Parker solo that I wrote down. People have sometimes said: ‘Oh, you’ve copied so many Parker solos’, but actually Ko Ko is the only one I copied down. I’ve always said that you’ll get more out of Charlie Parker’s work by copying one solo down yourself than walking around with a book containing all of them.

“I was copying Dizzy, Miles, Bud Powell and Monk. Dizzy once told me: ‘If you can hear it, you can have it!’”

The story was particularly apposite, because Phil and I were talking between rehearsals (in 2008) with the BBC Big Band, and he had brought along his arrangement of his composition Clinology, his tribute to the great Parker recording of Ko Ko, with Bird’s solo written out – an awesome challenge that the band’s saxophone section met admirably.

The Phil Woods story is full of legendary encounters. He told me how the great reedman and composer Benny Carter rang him up one day and said: “Phil, have you time in your busy schedule to do a project with me?” Phil was astonished, humbled and thrilled. The resultant album – Further Definitions (Impulse! Records) – became a jazz classic.

Woods’ roots ran deep. He told me: “I’ve been with guys who were there from the very beginnings of jazz. Saxophonist Budd Johnson, for example, was in Quincy Jones’ band and he used to play with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver. I’ve worked with great musicians, right up to the present.”

Phil was born in Springfield, Mass, and began his saxophone and clarinet studies at the age of 12. While a high school student, he took the bus to New York City at every opportunity, hanging out at jazz clubs and studying with the legendary pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano. Later, he enrolled at the Julliard School Of Music, studying classical styles (“There were no jazz classes in those days,” he told me).

Phil went on to work with many of the greats of jazz, (not to mention recording with pop stars including Paul Simon) but his own style really blossomed when he quit the United States in 1968 in frustration at the state of the music business, and formed his quartet The European Rhythm Machine, based in Paris. The original rhythm section was pianist George Grunz, bassist Henry Texier and drummer Daniel Humair (heard on the album Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine Live At the Montreux Jazz Festival, MGM).  Later, Britons Gordon Beck and Ron Mathewson replaced Grunz and Texier in the line-up, and this group is heard on the confusingly-similar titled Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine Live From Montreux (Verve), and on Pierre Cardin Presente Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine (Pierre Cardin Records).

In 1974, Phil returned to the USA, and settled in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, forming his great quintet with pianist Mike Melillo, guitarist Harry Leahey, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. Great recordings followed, including the rare Song For Sisyphus, recorded Direct To Disc for Century Records, and a stupendous performance at The Showboat Lounge in Silver Spring, MD, The Phil Woods Six Live From The Showboat (RCA double LP, later reissued on CD).

Sadly, Phil became seriously ill with emphysema (when we met he had already given up soprano sax and clarinet, but added: ‘The alto is still my friend.”)

His final concert, earlier in September, was in Pittsburgh, and was a tribute to the classic recordings made by Charlie Parker with strings, featuring members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Phil died on Tuesday September 29.

He was a great individual improviser, not in Parker’s shadow, but continuing and developing Bird’s musical legacy. As Phil told me about his Clinology tribute to Parker: “It’s a doff of the cap to the maestro. I mean, I have to!”

  • For more of John Watson’s writing and photography go here.

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