Woody Shaw, Jr. was born in Laurinburg, N.C. on December 24th, 1944 to Rosalie Pegues Shaw and Woody Shaw, Sr. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and began playing trumpet at the age of 11. Shaw attended Arts High School in Newark where he studied trumpet and music theory with Jerome Ziering. Newark has a rich Jazz history and many notable Jazz artists are originally from there, including Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, Eddie Gladden, Larry Young, and Grachan Moncur III. His first and perhaps greatest inspiration, in terms of the trumpet, came from listening to Louis Armstrong and, not long after, Clifford Brown.
Woody found out later that he had picked up the trumpet during the same month and year that Brown passed away. This was an auspicious sign for him and he felt that there was a "higher" reason for this; that it confirmed a deeper connection and purpose regarding his place within the lineage of the trumpet masters. His other primary influences were, of course, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Booker Little, Freddie Hubbard, and Lee Morgan. Woody particularly felt a strong connection to Dizzy because of the fact that his father (Woody, Sr.) and Dizzy had gone to high school together at Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. Woody Shaw, Sr. had been a Gospel singer with the Diamond Jubilee Singers in the 1930s.
In 1963, after many local professional jobs, Woody worked for Willie Bobo (with Chick Corea and Joe Farrell) and also performed and recorded as a sideman with Eric Dolphy. The following year, Dolphy invited Shaw to join him in Paris, however, Dolphy suddenly died shortly before Shaw's departure. He decided to make the trip nonetheless, and found steady work in Paris with close friend Nathan Davis and such musicians as Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Johnny Griffin, and Art Taylor.
In 1963 Woody performed frequently in Paris, Berlin, and London with a group that included Nathan Davis, Larry Young, and Billy Brooks. Young, Brooks, and Shaw were childhood friends back in Newark, and they would further develop their rapport as friends and as musicians when Shaw finally brought them to France that same year. The following year, Shaw returned to the U.S. to play in Horace Silver's quintet (1965-1966) and eventually recorded with Chick Corea (1966-1967), Jackie McLean (1967), Booker Ervin (1968), McCoy Tyner (1968), and Andrew Hill (1969). In 1968-69 he worked intermittently with Max Roach, with whom he appeared at a festival in Iran, and during the same period he began to work as a studio musician and in pit orchestras for Broadway musicals.