Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Woods, Jimmy

Alto saxophonist Jimmy Woods is one of the great, lost artists of 1960s jazz: he made only a handful of recordings before vanishing from the scene in 1966. His sound was penetrating, and his inside-out style aggressive yet cerebral. Because of his ability to incorporate elements of both hard bop and the avant garde, Woods’ conception is unconventional and his direct lineage undefinable.

In contrast to the wild abandon favored by more extroverted and fiery avant-garde saxophonists, Woods pushed the limits of chord-based harmony with a smoldering, tense passion. His phrasing was decidedly un-boppish; it lacked the steady streamlined eighth notes, upbeat articulation, and predictable rhythmic patterns. Instead Woods utilized phrases of irregular length and often ripped from one sustained note to the next, leaping to and from plateaus of sound.

His compositions retained the same qualities of his playing as well, juxtaposing the boundary-pushing elements of the avant-garde, including dissonance and rhythmic and melodic ambiguity, with more traditional song structures. His exploratory manipulations of the blues produced some of his finest work.

Jimmy Woods was born in St. Louis, Missouri on October 29, 1934. He moved to Seattle in 1945 and studied piano and clarinet before switching to both alto and tenor saxophones. At age 15 he played in Bumps Blackwell’s band, for which a sixteen-year-old named Quincy Jones served as an arranger. In 1951 he played in the rhythm 'n' blues band of Homer Carter before entering the Air Force in 1952.

Following his discharge in 1956, Woods travelled with drummer Roy Milton’s rhythm 'n' blues group and in 1958 he worked with blues singers Big Maybelle and Jimmy Witherspoon.

Woods settled in Los Angeles in 1960 where he attended Los Angeles City College and worked in the group of legendary Los Angeles pianist Horace Tapscott. He also made his first record date in 1960 on Teddy Edwards’ Back to Avalon as part of an octet of young, up and coming L.A.-based musicians.

Lester Koenig's Contemporary Records label was looking for an avant-garde replacement for Ornette Coleman, who had recently left the label to sign with Atlantic. They found that replacement in Woods, signing him to their roster in early 1961.

Woods’ first date on Contemporary was on trumpeter Joe Gordon’s Lookin’ Good, recorded in Los Angeles on July 11, 12, and 18 of 1961. Woods’ playing is confident and biting, but he stays in the pocket more so than his in his later work. His phrasing is, however, void of cliché on Gordon’s compositions like “Terra Firma Irma” and “A Song for Richard.” On “Non-Viennese Waltz Blues” Woods displays his very personal take on the blues, his crying style clearly influenced by his work in rhythm 'n' blues groups and with blues singers like Witherspoon and Big Maybelle.

Woods’ first album as a leader, Awakening, was recorded in two sessions on September 13, 1961 and February 19, 1962. Drummer Milt Turner is heard on both sessions and the two groups are filled out with either Joe Gordon or Martin Banks on trumpet, Amos Trice or Dick Whittington on piano, and Gary Peacock or Jimmy Bond on bass. Though all men play on a high level, Woods’ playing is especially tense and exciting. He sounds as if suppressing the urge to break free from his bandmates’ more conventional accompaniment. Woods also introduced himself as a composer of high merit on Awakening with six originals, including “Not Yet.”

Woods’ instrumental and compositional styles blossomed on Conflict, his second and unfortunately final album as a leader, recorded on March 25 and 26, 1963. Woods’ compositions mirror his instrumental approach—traditional yet malleable—and on Conflict he assembled a group particularly well-suited for his music. Andrew Hill’s prodding piano matched Woods’ forward-thinking style and drummer Elvin Jones heightens the album’s intensity at every moment. Tenor saxophonist Harold Land and trumpeter Carmell Jones, both hard-bop stalwarts, fit in surprisingly well along with bassist George Tucker. The consistently impressive Land holds firm to his hard-bop roots while Jones occasionally pushes himself out of his Clifford Brown-influenced comfort zone with exciting results.

On Conflict, Woods’ playing inches further out with increasingly radical phrasing, note selection, and cathartic but disciplined wildness. He is inspired by Jones’ explosive drumming on “Coming Home,” rips passionately through an altered blues on “Aim,” and blows with a violent dissonance on “Apart Together.” Somewhat uncharacteristically, Woods plays in a mellower linear style throughout the album’s only ballad, “Look to Your Heart,” especially on the gorgeous alternate take, allowing his deeply buried bop-roots to momentarily surface.

A close reading of Conflict’s liner notes may shed light as to why Woods cut short his music career. He mentions his ambivalence towards playing and apprehension that his music could not “communicate his feelings.” He also notes the he feels he is at a “crossroad,” battling a continual conflict between his life as a musician and his duties as a husband and father.

However, Woods continued making short-term strides in his music career throughout 1963. He joined Gerald Wilson’s big band and appears on the bandleader’s Portraits. Woods joined drummer Chico Hamilton’s group on January 10, 1964, securing the treasured seat formerly held by esteemed multi-reedmen Charles Lloyd, Eric Dolphy, and Buddy Collette. Lloyd had rewritten the group’s entire repertoire prior to leaving, resulting in Woods having little opportunity to contribute his own compositions after joining. He can be heard on The Film Music of Chico Hamilton: Sweet Smell of Success/Repulsion and on a few tracks on The Dealer.

After his departure from Hamilton’s group in 1965, Woods would make only one more record date, appearing on Gerald Wilson’s The Golden Sword. Then he disappeared from jazz without a trace. Given his burgeoning prominence in the Los Angeles jazz scene, with high profile spots in Wilson’s and Hamilton’s groups and his own well-received solo albums, one can only guess that this retirement was of his own choosing.

SELECT DISCOGRAPHY

AS A LEADER:

Awakening (1962)

Conflict (1963)

AS A SIDEMAN:

Back to Avalon (Teddy Edwards,1960)

Lookin’ Good (Joe Gordon, 1961)

Portraits (Gerald Wilson, 1963)

The Film Music of Chico Hamilton: Sweet Smell of Success/Repulsion (Chico Hamilton, 1964)

The Dealer (Chico Hamilton, 1966)

The Golden Sword (Gerald Wilson, 1966)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic