Born in North Carolina but raised in Newark, Woody was at first annoyed that the instruments he preferred to play -- the violin, saxophone and trombone -- were already claimed by other classmates and he’d be forced to play trumpet. But he discovered what he later believed was a “mystical force” that drew them together.
He quickly excelled at the instrument, and was already working as a teenager. A brilliant student with a photographic memory who skipped two grades, he ultimately left high school without graduating because his interests lay elsewhere. He chose instead to study at the university of Eric Dolphy, and later at the colleges of Larry Young, Horace Silver, Max Roach and Art Blakey. It was Young who introduced him to modal scales.
Dolphy’s influence and Coltrane’s examples fueled him melodically and harmonically. The way a trumpet is constructed makes certain intervals inconvenient and overlooked. But Woody broke down those barriers and freed himself to play anything a saxophone or piano could play. His soloing was at the same time intuitive and intentional. There is never the sense that he’s been down the same road many times before, and yet there is such clarity and purpose to his solo lines that it’s clear if he wanted to play something, he played it.