Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Philip Wells Woods devoted himself to the alto saxophone since the age of 12. As a teenager, he briefly took private lessons in improvisation from Lennie Tristano and also studied for a summer at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1948, he enrolled in the Juilliard School, where he remained through 1952, majoring in clarinet performance and composition. While at Juilliard, he played for a brief period in Charlie Barnet’s dance band. Subsequently, he worked with leaders including George Wallington (replacing Jackie McLean), Kenny Dorham, and Friedrich Gulda and then, joining with one of his musical idols, traveled to the Near East and South America with Dizzy Gillespie.
By now established as one of the most brilliant alto saxophonists in jazz, Woods went on to perform in Buddy Rich’s quintet and toured Europe with Quincy Jones (1959-60) and the U.S.S.R. with Benny Goodman (1962). From 1964 to 1967, Woods took a summer break from the bandstand, teaching at the Ramblerny performing arts camp in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, still much in demand, he performed in New York in 1967 both as the leader of his own quartet (featuring Hal Galper, Richard Davis, and Dottie Dodgion) and as a member of Clark Terry’s big band. In 1968, Woods moved to France and formed the European Rhythm Machine quartet, with George Gruntz on keyboards, Henri Texier on bass, and Daniel Humair on drums.
His talent as a composer blossomed during this period, when he wrote music for Danish and Belgian radio and composed a ballet for French television. After disbanding the quartet in 1972, Woods returned to the United States, settled in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, and formed a jazz group with Mike Melillo, Steve Gilmore, and Bill Goodwin. With this ensemble, he staked his claim to being the finest alto saxophonist in mainstream jazz, a reputation confirmed by his performances on Images (1975, with Michel Legrand), Live from the Showboat (1976), and Billy Joel’s 1997 hit “Just the Way You Are,” all of which received Grammy awards.
Woods, along with Rick Chamberlain and Ed Joubert founded the organization Celebration of the Arts (COTA) in 1978 late one night in at the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap. The organization would eventually become the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts. Their initial goal was to help foster an appreciation of jazz and its relationship to other artistic disciplines. Each year, the organization hosts the Celebration of the Arts Festival in the town of Delaware Water Gap in September.
In 2007 he was given the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts “Jazz Master” award. Woods passed away in September of 2015, and the camp continues to honor his legacy and love of jazz.