Woody Shaw

Woody Herman Shaw Jr. (December 24, 1944 – May 10, 1989) was an American jazz trumpeter, flugelhornist, cornetist, composer, arranger, band leader, and educator. Born with a photographic memory and perfect pitch[1], Shaw is credited with advancing the technical and harmonic conventions of modern jazz trumpet playing. In his time he was viewed as a leading innovator on his instrument. He was an acknowledged virtuoso and mentor among musicians, and worked and recorded with many notable jazz legends."[2][3]

Woody Shaw
Background information
Birth nameWoody Herman Shaw Jr.
Born(1944-12-24)December 24, 1944
Laurinburg, North Carolina, United States
OriginNewark, New Jersey, United States
DiedMay 10, 1989(1989-05-10) (aged 44)
Manhattan, New York City, United States
GenresJazz, bebop, hard bop, post-bop, modal jazz, avant-garde jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, bandleader, composer, educator
InstrumentsTrumpet, flugelhorn, cornet
Years active1963–1989
LabelsColumbia, Muse, Elektra, Blue Note, Fantasy, Contemporary, Concord Music Group
Associated actsArt Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Andrew Hill, Lionel Hampton, Chick Corea, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Zawinul, Jackie McLean, Dexter Gordon, Louis Hayes, Hank Mobley, Mal Waldron, Tyrone Washington, Larry Young


Early life and background

Woody Shaw was born on December 24, 1944 in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He was taken to Newark, New Jersey by his parents, Rosalie Pegues and Woody Shaw, Sr., when he was one year old. Shaw's father was a member of the African American gospel group known as the "Diamond Jubilee Singers" and both his parents attended the same secondary private school as Dizzy Gillespie: Laurinburg Institute. Shaw's mother was from the same town as Gillespie: Cheraw, South Carolina.

Shaw began playing the bugle at age nine and performed in the Junior Elks, Junior Mason, and Washington Carver Drum and Bugle Corps in Newark. Though not his first choice of instrument, he began studying classical trumpet with Jerome Ziering at Cleveland Junior High School at the age of 11. In a 1978 interview, Shaw explained:

The trumpet was not my first choice for an instrument. In fact, I ended up playing it by default. When we were asked what we wanted to play in the Eighteenth Avenue School Band, I chose the violin, but I was too late since all the violins were taken. My second choice was the saxophone or the trombone but they were also all spoken for. The only instrument that was left was the trumpet, and I felt why did I have to get stuck with this "tinny" sounding thing.

When I complained to my music teacher that I didn't think it was fair that all the other kids got to play the instruments they wanted, he told me to just be patient. He said he had a good feeling about me and the trumpet, and he assured me I'd grow to love it. Of course my teacher was right, and it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the trumpet. In retrospect, I believe there was some mystical force that brought us together.[4]

Ziering encouraged him to continue his study of classical trumpet playing and pursue an education at the Juilliard School of music with trumpet instructor William Vacchiano, but Shaw had a deep interest in jazz. His first influences were Louis Armstrong and Harry James. After skipping two grades, he began attending Newark Arts High School (alma mater of Wayne Shorter, Sarah Vaughan, Melba Moore, Savion Glover, Larry Young, and many others), from which he graduated.[5]

As a teenager, Shaw worked professionally at weddings, dances, and night clubs. He eventually left school but continued his study of the trumpet under the influence of Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard. He later discovered that he had picked up the trumpet during the same month and year that Brown died: June 1956.

Paris and Eric Dolphy (early 1960s)

In 1963, after many local professional jobs, Shaw worked for Willie Bobo (with Chick Corea and Joe Farrell) and performed and recorded as a sideman with Eric Dolphy, with whom he made his recorded debut, Iron Man. Dolphy, who had moved to Paris around this time, unexpectedly died in June 1964. Shaw was nonetheless invited to Paris to join Dolphy's collaborator, Nathan Davis, and the two found steady work all over Europe. While living in Paris, they frequented the club Le Chat Qui Peche, and Shaw crossed paths with musicians such as Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon, Art Taylor, other lesser known musicians such as John Bodwin, and notable French musicians like Jean-Louis Chautemps, Rene Urtreger, Jacques Thollot and Jef Gilson. After some time, Shaw demanded that two of his contemporaries, organist Larry Young and drummer Billy Brooks, be brought to Paris. The four young musicians – Davis, Shaw, Young, and Brooks – continued living and performing in France, intermittently touring other cities in Europe, including London and Berlin.

Blue Note Records (mid-to-late 1960s)

By the mid-1960s, Shaw had successfully absorbed the concepts and influence of his mentor and friend, saxophonist Dolphy, and was meanwhile exploring the harmonic innovations of saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner. Both musicians contributed greatly to the development of Shaw's style as a trumpeter and composer.

Shaw returned to the U.S. from Paris in 1965 and began his career as one of the Blue Note labels regular trumpet players, working steadily with a roster of respected artists. He replaced Carmell Jones in the Horace Silver quintet (1965–1966), and made his Blue Note debut on Silver's The Cape Verdean Blues, followed by Larry Young's Unity (1965); the album with Young featured three of his compositions ("Zoltan", "Moontrane", and "Beyond All Limits"). "Moontrane", dedicated to Coltrane, was written when Shaw was 18 years old and was his earliest composition.

Shaw also collaborated frequently and recorded with Corea (1966–67, 1969), Jackie McLean (1967), Booker Ervin (1968), Tyner (1968), Andrew Hill (1969), Herbie Hancock, and Bobby Hutcherson. In 1968–69, he worked intermittently with Max Roach, touring with him to Iran. Shaw also worked as a studio musician, and worked in pit orchestras and on Broadway musicals.

Contemporary and Muse (early-to-mid 1970s)

In 1970, Shaw recorded his first featured album as a leader, Blackstone Legacy, for Contemporary Records. Blackstone Legacy featured Bennie Maupin, Ron Carter, George Cables, Gary Bartz, Clint Houston, and Lenny White. This was followed by a second release under Shaw's name, entitled Song of Songs. During this time, Shaw moved to San Francisco to explore new opportunities and became closely associated with musicians on the West Coast such as Bobby Hutcherson, Eddie Moore, Eddie Marshall, and Henry Franklin.

In 1974, Shaw returned from California to New York, beginning an association with Muse Records (now High Note) that produced four of his most notable albums – The Moontrane, Love Dance, Little Red's Fantasy and Iron Men, with musicians from the mid-western creative black arts scene such as Anthony Braxton, Arthur Blythe and Muhal Richard Abrams.

Columbia Records (late 1970s)

After working frequently with Hutcherson, Art Blakey, Tyner and others, Shaw emerged as a band leader during the early 1970s, which was a time when many jazz artists began to explore jazz-rock and fewer bands performed in the tradition of hard bop as a result of the popularity of and demand for more "commercial" music. A younger statesman among his elders, Shaw saw himself as an heir to the musical legacy of trumpeters such as Gillespie, Navarro, and Brown, and, being an alumnus of Blakey's Jazz Messengers, felt responsible for upholding the integrity and appreciation of the tradition of "straight-ahead" jazz.

After releasing several albums for the Muse label, Shaw signed to Columbia Records in 1977 following an endorsement from Miles Davis.[6] He then recorded the albums Rosewood, Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard, Woody III, For Sure!, and United.

Rosewood was nominated for two Grammys and was voted Best Jazz Album of 1978 in the Down Beat Readers' Poll, which also voted Shaw Best Jazz Trumpeter of the Year and No. 4 Jazz Musician of the Year.

Collaborations (1980s)

Throughout the 1980s, Shaw continued performing and recording as a leader with sidemen such as pianists Onaje Allan Gumbs, Mulgrew Miller, and Larry Willis, bassist David Williams, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and trombonist Steve Turre, recording a number of more "traditional" but highly lyrical albums (Solid, Setting Standards, In My Own Sweet Way) consisting predominantly of standards and tunes from the hard bop repertoire. During this time he also worked on projects with saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Dexter Gordon, as well as fellow trumpeter Freddie Hubbard on three albums (Time Speaks, Double Take, and The Eternal Triangle), the latter two later reissued on Blue Note as The Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw Sessions.


By the late 1980s Shaw was nearly blind from retinitis pigmentosa, an incurable degenerative eye disease. A user of heroin throughout his adult life, Shaw was in poor health when he returned to the U.S. in early 1989 from a lengthy stay in Europe—he needed a wheelchair at the airport.[7] On the morning of February 27, 1989, Shaw was struck by a subway car in Brooklyn, New York, which severed his left arm and caused other injuries including head trauma. The night before the accident, Max Roach sent a limousine to Newark where Shaw was staying, to take Shaw to the Village Vanguard to see Roach play. After the set, Roach put Shaw into a taxicab at around midnight with enough money to get back to Newark. Shaw did not go to Newark; it's unclear what led to the accident later that morning. During his hospital stay at Bellevue, Shaw suffered kidney failure, was put on a respirator and lost consciousness for more than a month. He died from heart failure on May 10, 1989.[7][6][8] He was 44 years old.


  • Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, Downbeat International Jazz Critics Poll (1977)
  • Jazz Album of the Year, Downbeat Readers Poll: Rosewood (Columbia 1978)
  • Best Trumpeter, Downbeat Readers Poll (1978)
  • Grammy Nomination – Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist: Rosewood (1979)
  • Grammy Nomination – Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group: Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble, Rosewood (1979)
  • Best Trumpeter, Downbeat Readers Poll (1980)
  • Downbeat Hall of Fame (1989)

Legacy revival

The years between 2003 and 2013 saw a resurgence of interest in, and recognition of, Shaw's music. In 2003, Shaw's son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, launched The Official Woody Shaw Website, which helped to reinvigorate Shaw fans and bolster appreciation for Shaw's contribution to music. Since then, many of Shaw's long-out-of-print recordings have been reissued, remastered and repackaged, under the curatorial oversight of Shaw's son and long-time producer Michael Cuscuna.

In 2012, PopMarket, a division of Sony Legacy, released Woody Shaw: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection, and in 2013, Mosaic Records released Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions, for which NPR described Shaw as "the last great trumpet innovator".[9]

Shaw III, the primary inspiration for Shaw's third Columbia album, Woody III (dedicated to Shaw's father and newborn son), is the sole heir to the Shaw family legacy. Today, Shaw III preserves the Shaw legacy through the production, management, archiving and preservation of his father's life's work. As of 2013, he is stated to be authoring the first official biography on his father's life and music. Shaw's legacy is kept active and relevant through the use of social media and the official website. The Shaw name and legacy are administered by Woody Shaw Legacy LLC.


Shaw was noted for his mastery and innovative use of "wide" intervals, often fourths and fifths, which are considered relatively unnatural to the trumpet and difficult to employ skillfully due to (a) the technical facility required to do so, (b) the architecture of the instrument, (c) the trumpet's inherent harmonic tendencies based on the overtone series, and (d) its traditional association with intervals based more commonly on thirds and diatonic relationships.

In both his improvisations and his compositions, Shaw frequently used polytonality, the combination of two or more tonalities or keys (i.e. multiple chords or harmonic structures) at once. In his solos, he often superimposed highly complex permutations of the pentatonic scale and sequences of intervals that modulated unpredictably through numerous key centers. He was a master of modality and used a wide range of harmonic color, generating unusual contrasts, using tension and resolution, dissonance, odd rhythmic groupings, and "over the barline" phrases, yet always resolving his ideas according to the form and harmonic structure of a given composition while adhering to the conventions of jazz improvisation and simultaneously creating new ones.

His "attack" was remarkably clean and precise, regardless of tempo (Shaw often played extremely fast passages). He had a rich, dark tone that was distinctive with a near-vocal quality to it; his intonation and articulation were highly developed, and he greatly utilized the effects of the lower register, usually employing a deep, extended vibrato at the end of his phrases. Shaw also often incorporated the chromatic scale, which gave his melodic lines a subtle fluidity that seemed to allow him to weave "in and out" of chords seamlessly from all "angles".

Shaw was also born with a photographic memory[10] and perfect pitch.[11] Max Roach once stated: "He was truly one of the greatest. I first had occasion to work with Woody on a trip to Iran. One of the most amazing things was his uncanny memory. I was just flabbergasted. After one look, he knew all of the charts, no matter how complex they were."[12]

Shaw's improvisational and composing style bears the influences of his idols Dolphy, Coltrane and Tyner, as well as many European modern classical and 20th-century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton Webern, Erik Satie, Alexander Scriabin, Carlos Chavez, Ernest Bloch, Olivier Messiaen, Paul Hindemith, Charles Ives, Edgar Varese, Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Colin McPhee.[10] Shaw also listened closely to traditional Japanese music, Indonesian Gamelan, Indian classical music, Brazilian music, and various other musics of the world.[10]


Throughout his career, Shaw gave countless clinics, master classes and private lessons to students around the world.

During the 1970s, he and Joe Henderson were faculty members in Jamey Aebersold's jazz camp.

NEA Grant-recipients who studied with Shaw include Wynton Marsalis (Musical Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center), and Ingrid Monson (Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, Harvard University).

Other students and apprentices included Chris Botti, Wallace Roney, and Terence Blanchard.

Admiration among musicians

As a musician and trumpeter, Shaw was held in high esteem by his colleagues and is today seen as one of the most technically and harmonically advanced trumpet players in the history of jazz and of the instrument itself. Miles Davis, a notoriously harsh critic of fellow musicians, once said of Shaw: "Now there's a great trumpet player. He can play different from all of them."[13] Trumpeter Dave Douglas stated: "It's not only the brilliant imagination that captivates with Woody Shaw – it's how natural those fiendishly difficult lines feel... Woody Shaw is now one of the most revered figures for trumpeters today."[14] Shaw is credited with having extended the harmonic and technical vocabulary of the trumpet. Upon hearing of Shaw's death in 1989, Wynton Marsalis stated: "Woody added to the vocabulary of the trumpet. His whole approach influenced me tremendously."[4]

Multi-genre producer, instrumentalist and rapper, Madlib, also cites Shaw as an inspiration for his music. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Madlib listed Shaw as his favorite trumpet player, saying of his music: "It’s electric and acoustic, traditional and non-traditional — that’s what I’m all about."[15]


Shaw was a devout practitioner of a Chinese martial art known as T'ai chi ch'uan (Wu-style t'ai chi ch'uan). He also practiced meditation or self-hypnosis, and Sirsha-Asana – a form of Yoga.


Throughout his life, Shaw travelled all over Europe. He first moved to France at 19. As a sideman with Roach, he traveled to Iran in 1969. He also toured such places as Japan, England, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Brussels, and the Czech Republic.

During a 1980s tour for the United States Information Service, Shaw ventured to such countries as Egypt, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Recently, it has been discovered that Shaw spent significant time performing and giving clinics in India, working in cities such as New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, and Calcutta. When asked by film producer Chuck France in an interview whether he thought traveling was important, Shaw responded: "Most definitely. I think every great artist should share his music with the world."[16]


As leader/co-leader


As sideman

With Gary Bartz

With Walter Bishop Jr.

With Art Blakey

With Roy Brooks

With Joe Chambers

With Chick Corea

With Stanley Cowell

With Nathan Davis

  • Peace Treaty (1965)
  • Happy Girl (1965)

With Eric Dolphy

With Booker Ervin

With Sonny Fortune

  • Serengeti Minstral (1977)

With Kenny Garrett

With Benny Golson

With Dexter Gordon

With George Gruntz

  • For Flying Out Proud (1977)
  • GG-CJB (1978)

With Lionel Hampton

  • Music of Charles Mingus (1977)

With Louis Hayes

With Joe Henderson

With Andrew Hill

With Bobby Hutcherson

With Azar Lawrence

With Jackie McLean

With Hank Mobley

With Pharoah Sanders

With Horace Silver

With Buddy Terry

With McCoy Tyner

With Mal Waldron

With Carlos Ward

With Tyrone Washington

With Harry Whitaker

  • Black Renaissance (1976)

With Buster Williams

  • Pinnacle (1975)

With Larry Young

With Joe Zawinul


  1. Roach, Max. ""He was truly one of the greatest... One of the most amazing things was his uncanny memory. I was just flabbergasted! After one look, he knew all of the charts, no matter how complex they were."". Quotes on Woody Shaw, Official Woody Shaw Website. woodyshaw.com.
  2. Ramsey, Doug. "Recent Listening: Woody Shaw". Retrieved August 20, 2013. Shaw reached a level of expressiveness, headlong linear development and freedom from post-bop conventions that was not only ahead of his time; this music from three and four decades ago is ahead of much of the rote, formulaic jazz of our time. The Mosaic box set makes it clear to what an extent Shaw was at once a liberator of the music and a preserver of tradition.
  3. West, Michael. "Woody Shaw: The Last Great Trumpet Innovator". NPR. Retrieved August 20, 2013.
  4. Gibert, Lois. "Interview with Woody Shaw, WRVR, 1978" (PDF). Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  5. "A Brief History of Arts High" Archived October 29, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Arts High School. Accessed October 24, 2013.
  6. Collar, Matt. "Woody Shaw Biography". Allmusic. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  7. Spencer, Frederick J. (2002). Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats. University of Mississippi Press. pp. 55–57. ISBN 9781578064533.
  8. Obituary on the L.A. Times
  9. West, Michael J. (August 14, 2013) "Woody Shaw: The Last Great Trumpet Innovator". npr.org. Retrieved October 24, 2013.
  10. Shaw III, Woody. "The Official Woody Shaw Website: Biography". Archived from the original on March 23, 2010. Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  11. Berg, Chuck. "Woody Shaw: Trumpet In Bloom". Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  12. Parker, Jeffrey. "Woody Shaw Obituary". Retrieved March 5, 2010.
  13. Feather, Leonard (December 1982), "Miles Davis' Miraculous Recovery From Stroke", Ebony, Johnson, p. 64, retrieved March 4, 2010
  14. Douglas, Dave (September 19, 2008). "Woody Shaw, 1979". The Greenleaf Music Blog. Greenleaf Music. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
  15. Sharp, Elliot (March 27, 2017). "Madlib Reveals His Ultimate Jazz Supergroup". Red Bull. Maria Jose Govea/Red Bull Content Poo. Retrieved July 30, 2019.
  16. France, Chuck. "Jazz in Exile". Retrieved March 5, 2010.
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