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Phil Woods, Top Jazz Saxophonist, Has Died

Phil Woods.
Phil Woods.

Alto saxophonist Phil Woods, a leading jazz performer since the 1950s, died Tuesday afternoon. The cause was related to emphysema, his longtime agent, Joel Chriss, confirmed. Woods was 83.

As a teenager, Woods would commute to New York City for lessons with pianist Lennie Tristano, then check out jazz performances all night and take the early bus back to his hometown, Springfield, Mass. Woods eventually studied classical music at the Juilliard School and found his way into the New York jazz scene.

The new style of bebop captivated Woods, and like many of his generation, he was greatly inspired by pioneering alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. One of his earliest big breaks came when trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie — one of Parker's chief collaborators in the development of bebop — invited Woods on tour around the world. Woods also toured with Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones and Benny Goodman, among others, and recorded frequently as both a bandleader and sideman.

Sensing his creative outlets drying up, Woods moved to France in 1968, composing frequently and leading a new experimental band called Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine. But after five years, he returned to the U.S., settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pa. and resumed his career as a straight-ahead bandleader and performer. In addition to his many jazz works, he was also known for solos on rock and pop songs — Billy Joel's "Just The Way You Are," for one.

Though his health declined in recent years, Woods performed all the way up until earlier this month. In 1999, he told NPR's Liane Hansen that he was far from done.

"But I plan to go — be dragged off screaming and crying all the way because I have a lot more projects I want to do," Woods said.

He also told Hansen the story of how he first picked up the saxophone after inheriting one from his deceased uncle. Though he admits his initial interest in it was to melt it down for scrap metal, he eventually took lessons and was hooked: "I mean, I put it in the closet where I thought it really rightfully belonged," he said. "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."

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