One less giant walks the Earth: bebop sax player Phil Woods passes.
“The last gig I played with Phil Woods was in April, in Newark, New Jersey,” hometown bebop saxophonist Charles McPherson tells the Reader. “It was one of his last shows. It was kind of a Bird [Charlie Parker] tribute. And at that time, yes, he did have the oxygen tank.”
"Goodbye Mr. Evans"
Phil Woods in concert (Stuttgart, 1989)
Woods announced his retirement at a performance in Pittsburgh on September 4. He died of complications resulting from emphysema on September 29. Known in straight-ahead jazz circles for a time as “the new Bird” for his fluid ability to interpret Charlie Parker’s bebop alto saxophone stylings, Woods was best known to pop culture for his solos on records made by Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and Billy Joel, among others. He was 83.
“He’d had that oxygen tank onstage with him for a long time. He couldn’t play long solos. He wasn’t as powerful as he used to be. But his ideas were fine,” McPherson recalls. “It’s kind of weird, because he looked good in April. His skin looked good, and he was at a good weight.”
Did Woods smoke? “Oh, hell yes. Like a chimney. Plus he drank a lot, too.”
Phil Woods won four Grammys, was a National Endowment of the Arts Master, and was the recipient of a Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center. “I played with him more times than I thought. Since he died, people have been posting pictures of him playing, and I’m in a lot of them. I’d forgotten, I guess.” McPherson calls their relationship professional.
“He will be missed. He was very well respected. He was one of the few people who could understand that language,” McPherson says, referring to bebop, a style of jazz music. “In order to do that music, you had to learn to play the hell out of your instrument. That whole trial of fire was very tough. They were like the Marines, like the Navy SEALs of music, bebop musicians. And once you can play bebop, you can play anything.”
Survivors of that generation? “Lou Donaldson — he’s older than Phil Woods. And Jimmy Heath, he’s almost 90. Those are the bebop guys that are still around. They were around when Bird was around.” McPherson is 76. “A guy in that age bracket was old enough to have seen a lot of the great players. That’s a big advantage. Younger players today don’t have that advantage. The world’s changed. Those were the days when giants walked the Earth — that’s a Phil Woods thing. He said that.”
McPherson repeats the phrase, a bit slower this time. “Those were the days,” he says, “when giants walked the Earth.”