Phil Woods' peers remember a jazz legend
PITTSFIELD — Jazz great Phil Woods ended his career on a high note before a debilitating respiratory disease took his last breath.
Following a concert in Pittsburgh last Labor Day weekend, the legendary alto saxophonist suddenly announced his retirement, leaving his woodwind instrument on a stand as he left the stage — forever.
Three weeks later, on Sept. 29, the 83-year-old Western Mass. native died from complications due to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) silencing a man who for 60 years travelled the world — including three stops in the Berkshires within the past decade.
He was hooked up to portable oxygen wherever he went. His fellow band members of The Phil Woods Quintet knew what it took for him to perform.
"He would bring his oxygen on stage and say 'This is my amplifier,' he had a great sense of humor," said long-time friend and drummer, Bill Goodwin, in a telephone interview.
On Saturday night, Goodwin, along with pianist Bill Mays, Brian Lynch on trumpet and bass player Steve Gilmore, will breath new life into Phil Woods' music with a memorial concert at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage on Union Street. Completing the quintet is Woods' protégé, Grace Kelly. a young alto sax player whose career is on a fast track, as a member of the house band, John Batiste and Stay Human, on "The Late Night Show with Stephen Colbert."
Kelly and Woods first performed together during the Pittsfield CityJazz Festival 10 years ago, forging a lasting relationship. Woods would play the festival again in 2011 and three years later the Berkshire Gateway Jazz Festival in Lee.
Kelly, who hails from the Boston suburb of Brookline, is honored to pay homage to her mentor.
"When the music starts, I'll be into it," she said by phone. "No one can be like Phil, I'll just try to do his music in my own way.
"He will definitely be smiling down on us."
Berkshires Jazz Inc., the folks who stage the Pittsfield CityJazz festival every fall, is sponsoring the tribute concert that Berkshires Jazz president Ed Bride expects to be a crowd-pleaser.
"I can't tell you how many Grammys are in this group, it might as well be an all-star gathering," Bride said in an interview. "The eyes of the jazz world will be on Pittsfield that night."
Born Nov. 2, 1931 in Springfield, Woods honed his craft in New York City. By the mid-1950s, he was fronting his own bands and touring with others before heading to Europe in 1968 for a four-year stint in France. He returned to the U.S. in 1972. Two years later, he formed the Phil Woods Quintet, with Goodwin as a founding member. Woods also crossed over onto the pop music scene, performing on songs by Paul Simon, Steely Dan and, most notably, Billy Joel. Woods' alto sax solo is featured on Joel's 1977 hit, "Just the Way You Are."
While Woods wasn't a household name like Jimmy Dorsey, David Sanborn or Charlie Parker, Kelly says he belongs in their company.
"He's the king, one of the last alto sax legends," she said. "I've been really blessed to know Phil as he helped shape my career."
Goodwin believes Woods could have made a killing as a studio musician, but chose to be a globe-trotting jazz player.
In studio or on stage, Goodwin was always in awe of Wood's talent.
"Every time we played together, there was a rush of excitement," he said in an interview. "We got old, but our music never got old."
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233
What: Phil Woods Memorial Concert
Who: Phil Woods Quintet with Brian Lynch (trumpet), Bill Mays (piano), Steve Gilmore (bass), Bill Goodwin (drums) and Grace Kelly (alto saxophone)
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage (Barrington Stage Company), 30 Union St., Pittsfield
How: in person at box office; (413) 236-8888; BerkshiresJazz.org
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