Phil Woods – sax in Just The Way You Are

Russ: “Rather than being redundant and pasting in the total breadth of this musician’s career, I’d like to take you down a path leading to his ‘landmark’ alto sax solo in Billie Joel’s very popular 1977 Pop ballad called ‘Just the Way You Are.’

His saxophone sound has an unmistakable yearning quality that is drenched in blues and struggle.

Bringing jazz influence to the Pop music field, he also soloed on Steely Dan’s ‘Doctor Wu,’ from their critically acclaimed 1975 album ‘Katy Lied’, as well as Paul Simon’s 1975 hit, ‘Have a Good Time’.

Note: If you are not too fond of jazz, you may wish to skip this Post.

Phil Woods 1956


Phil Woods 1978

Philip Wells Woods

 (Born November 2, 1931)


A “Trademark”


Easy Living / 1957 [Listen to a perfect example of the melodic, yearning sound of Phil Woods’ alto sax]
Have a Good Time / Paul Simon / 1975 [Listen for the powerful, blistering sax solo at the end of this song]
Just The Way You Are / Billy Joel / 1977

[The solo on this recording was NOT a one-take solo or a played-through solo. It was a combination of SIX different solos that Phil Ramone artfully spliced together into a composite that you hear on the finished recording. It took an entire day for Ramone to edit those solos together. Beautiful… ]

Born Philip Wells Woods November 2, 1931 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Phil is an American jazz alto saxophonist, clarinetist, bandleader and composer.

In 1942 at the age of 12, he came to the alto saxophone almost by accident. His uncle left one to him when he passed away. His mother insisted that he take lessons.

His first teacher was Harvey LaRose, whose gentle unassuming manner changed Phil’s life. Phil became hooked on being a musician and he worked very hard at it.

In 1946 when Phil was just 15, he went to New York to study with Lennie Tristano at the Manhattan School of Music .

Lennie Tristano

Why did he really want to go to New York? – Because Charlie “Bird” Parker, bop’s greatest saxophonist, was there. Studying with Tristano was a good excuse to take a day trip to New York. However, this turned out to be a somewhat rude awakening.

Phil says he learned from Tristano that he knew nothing and had a lot of work to do. He didn’t know what Tristano was talking about. He wasn’t ready for the likes of Lenny Tristano as a teacher. He ended up taking about 6 lessons with Tristano over the summer of 1946.

But his big epiphany came during one of those trips to Tristano’s – he got to meet Charlie Parker… One day after a lesson, he and his pal, who also studied sax, went over to Main Stem, a record store, to buy some of the latest 78s. 

Phil Woods’ story about this special day:

One day Tristano asked, “Are you guys going down to 52d St.?” We said, “Yeah, why do you ask?” Lennie said, “I’m opening for Charlie Parker. I thought you might like to meet him.” I said to myself, “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to meet God.” So sure enough, we went down there.

The Lennie Tristano Trio opened, and when they were through, his bassist, Arnold Fishkind, came to get us. Lennie was blind, of course. So Arnold and Lennie took us behind the curtain—the place was a former speakeasy and too small for a true backstage area. There sitting on the floor was the great Charlie Parker… eating a cherry pie. He said, “Hey kids, you want a Charlie Parker piece of cherry pie?” I said, “Oh Mr. Parker, cherry is my favorite flavor.” And it was. I’ve always loved cherry pie. So he cut me a big slab, and we talked music.

We were there for about 5 or 10 minutes. Then he had to go to work. He had his pie, and then the lesson started. We went back outside and listened to an hour of the genius of the alto saxophone.

Woods went on to study music at The Juilliard School. His friend, Joe Lopes, coached him on clarinet as there was no saxophone major at Juilliard at the time.

Although he did not copy Charlie Parker, Woods was known as “the New Bird“, a label which was also attached to other alto players such as Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley at one time or another in their careers.

Interestingly, Woods married Chan Parker, the widow of Charlie Parker, and became stepfather to her daughter, Kim.


Life After “Just The Way You Are

Phil Woods 1983


Phil Wood on NightMusic – playing off David Sanborn (host) ‘Willow Weep For Me’


1988 Warsaw Jazz Jamboree – Phil Woods Quintet Ya Know


1988 Warsaw Jazz Jamboree – Phil Woods Quintet – Phil Woods – alto sax, Tom Harrell – trumpet, Hal Galper – piano, Steve Gilmore – bass, Bill Goodwin – drums

Willow weep for me



Live Palais Des Festivals, Cannes – Phil Woods sax alto, Hal Galper piano, Steve Gilmore bass, Bill Goodwin drums ‘My Old Flame



All the Things You Are (Modern Jazz Quartet with Phil Woods) Transcription of Phil’s sax part (PDF): Alto Sax Chart



Phil Woods in Concert at Yamaha New York with Capitol Quartet ‘Bohemia After Dark



Tel Aviv International Jazz Festival Phil Woods alto sax, Robert Anchipolovsky alto sax, Tony Pancella piano, Dima Grodsky bass, Pitero Iodichi drums



Phil Woods wrote a documentary, “A Life in E Flat-Portrait of a Jazz Legend”, a film released in 2005 by Jazzed Media. Directed by Rich Lerner, and produced by Graham Carter, the film offers an intimate portrait of Woods during a recording session of the Jazzed Media album This is How I Feel About Quincy.


An Italian label, Philogy (which has some broadcasts and live performances from Woods’ bands), is named after the popular and still brilliant altoist.

Still going strong well into the 21st century, Woods cut a live session with the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra in 2005 that was released by Jazz Media in 2006.

American Songbook, which features Woods’ treatment of pop and jazz standards, appeared from Kind of Blue later that same year.

In 2009, after years of attempting to secure the rights to interpret the work of writer A.A. Milne, Woods released Children’s Suite — a tribute to Milne’s classic book Winnie the Pooh. ~ Scott Yanow, All Music Guide

If you want to hear a whole lot more about Phil Woods, you should check out the following audio discussion.

Jazz historian Gary Giddins talks about the life and career of this Jazz legend. His discourse was in conjunction with the Phil Woods Jazz Master Class from NYU.


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