Woody Shaw at 75: A Birthday Tribute Special, in Take Five

Dec 23, 2019

Woody Shaw, the groundbreaking trumpeter, would have turned 75 on Dec. 24.

Though he was born in North Carolina, Woody grew up in Newark from age one — eventually studying classical trumpet at Cleveland Junior High School and  jazz at Arts High. So it’s only fitting that the anniversary of his birth would occasion official proclamations from both Mayor Ras Baraka and Gov. Phil Murphy. And of course, only appropriate that we’d celebrate his music at WBGO. 

Gary Walker, our music director, remembers him in this News feature:

Below, find a whirlwind tour of music from across Shaw’s monumental career. (We noted recording dates, rather than release dates; some of this music took a while to see the light of day.) And for more where this came from, Shaw’s son, Woody Shaw III, just launched the Woody Shaw Streaming Archive for iOS devices. 

Eric Dolphy, “Iron Man” (1963)

Woody Shaw was mentored by Eric Dolphy, making his first recorded appearance on the multi-reedist’s 1963 album Iron Man, for Douglas International. That album, which was reissued with newly unearthed material by Resonance Records last fall, captures a remarkably self-assured young Woody, 18 at the time of the session. On Dolphy’s title track, which has a characteristically sharp-cornered melody, listen for the way Shaw begins his solo at 3:24 — as if elbowing his way into a heated discussion. (Dolphy keeps at his alto solo for a while, in a contrapuntal jangle surely influenced by Ornette Coleman’s rapport with Don Cherry.)  Woody was still forming his style, but he already sounds utterly undaunted. (Nate Chinen)

Woody Shaw, “Joshua C” (1979)

Arriving in 1982 for an interview at WBGO, Woody Shaw was doing Tai Chi, which he said provided deep relaxation, both for playing and for our chat. His instructor, Joshua C. Whiting, would be the inspiration for “Joshua C”, captured in December of 1979 for the album For Sure! (Columbia). With saxophonist Carter Jefferson and pianist Larry Willis soloing alongside bassist Stafford James, saxophonist Gary Bartz, trombonist Curtis Fuller and drummer Victor Lewis, Shaw soars — perhaps with some reminiscence of his first New York gigs with Willie Bobo. (Gary Walker)

Larry Young, “The Moontrane”

One of Woody’s closest collaborators from Newark was Hammond B-3 organ master Larry Young, an old classmate at Arts High. As a testament to their bond, consider Young’s iconic album Unity. It opens with a Shaw original called “Zoltan,” and includes two more of his tunes, including “The Moontrane.” The composition, which would become a trademark, reflects the extent to which Woody had internalized the modal language of the John Coltrane Quartet. That connection is made clear by the thrum of that group’s drummer, Elvin Jones, and Young’s chord voicings, which nod toward McCoy Tyner. The first solo is by Shaw, who warms up the plate before handing it off to tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. (Chinen)

Woody Shaw, “Rosewood” (1977)

Rosewood, produced by Michael Cuscuna for Columbia, marked Shaw’s debut for a major label. Featuring his music for a sextet — with collaborators like Frank Wess on flute, Steve Turre on trombone and Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone — the album met with grand enthusiasm: it was voted Jazz Album of the Year in the DownBeat Readers’ Poll, and garnered two Grammy nominations. For a sense of what made it so appealing, all you need to do is settle into the title track, which builds on the crossover groove of Freddie Hubbard’s work on CTI, but with Shaw’s distinctive tone colors lighting the path. (Chinen)

Woody Shaw, “Stepping Stone” (1977)

Let’s close with a burner: Woody on the bandstand at Keystone Korner in 1977, playing a full-tilt original called “Stepping Stone.” First released on a HighNote album titled Woody Shaw Live, Vol. 1, it’s a furious showpiece for his working band at the time, consisting of the aforementioned Jefferson, Turre, Willis, James, and Lewis. There’s so much to marvel at here, beginning with the tightrope-walk syncopations of the melody, and very much including the trumpet playing. (Listen to the first stretch of Woody’s solo, from 0:50 to 1:13, and you’ll hear just how much the young Wynton Marsalis learned from his example.) But the core attraction is simply the intensity of the band’s performance, which doesn’t convey the image of a stepping stone so much as a rocket hurtling through the atmosphere. (Chinen)