Phil Woods, at 83; saxophonist on Billy Joel hit

Phil Woods at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.
Phil Woods at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan.Hiroyuki Ito/New York Times/2009

NEW YORK — Phil Woods, an alto saxophonist revered in jazz circles for his bright, clean sound and sterling technique — and widely heard on songs by Billy Joel, Paul Simon, and others — died on Tuesday in East Stroudsburg, Pa. He was 83.

The cause was complications of emphysema, Joel Chriss, his booking agent, said.

Mr. Woods was one of the leading alto saxophonists in the generation that followed Charlie Parker, who had set an imposing new bar for the instrument while defining the terms of bebop. Rigorous, complex, and brisk, bebop's stylistic language was a constant throughout Mr. Woods's prolific career, as both a leader and a sideman.


For much of that career, he was a sought-after section player in big bands because of his ability, unusual at the time, to read sheet music with as much breezy authority as he brought to his solos. He recorded with composer-arrangers Oliver Nelson, Michel Legrand, George Russell, and many others, and he helped trumpeter Clark Terry establish his Big Bad Band.

One of Mr. Woods's early supporters was Quincy Jones, who in 1956 brought him on a State Department-sponsored tour with trumpeter and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. Woods quickly became a Gillespie protégé, and in some respects a surrogate for Parker, Gillespie's former front-line partner, who had died in 1955.

Parker's nickname was Bird, and for a while Mr. Woods was known to some, admiringly if a little back-handedly, as "the new Bird." The association was solidified when he married Parker's widow, Chan, in 1957. The marriage ended in divorce.

On the recommendation of producer Phil Ramone, an old classmate at Juilliard, Mr. Woods was featured on Simon's 1975 album, "Still Crazy After All These Years," playing a quicksilver bebop cadenza on the song "Have a Good Time." That same year he played a solo on the Steely Dan tune "Doctor Wu." And in 1977 he was prominently featured on Joel's ballad "Just the Way You Are," which became a Top 10 hit.


Philip Wells Woods was born on Nov. 2, 1931, in Springfield, Mass. After inheriting a saxophone at age 12, he began taking lessons and discovered that he was a quick study with a gifted ear. His first hero on the alto saxophone was Benny Carter, followed by Johnny Hodges, a star soloist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and then Parker.

While still in high school, Mr. Woods often took the bus to New York City, haunting jazz clubs and studying with pianist-composer Lennie Tristano. He also studied classical music at Juilliard for four years.

He moved to France in 1968, frustrated with a working life dominated by commercial jingles and other work for hire.

After five years, Mr. Woods returned to the United States an accomplished solo artist.

Mr. Woods won four Grammy Awards .