Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Herman, Woody (Woodrow Charles Thomas)

For fifty years, clarinetist and alto saxophonist Woody Herman led the most remarkable orchestras in jazz. His music was like a subjective mirror: while most mirrors show everything that is put in front of them, Herman’s mirror only reflected what it saw as artistically valid.

                           Woody Herman, by Tom Marcello

Yet history, which is a more formal term for hindsight, confirms that what Herman’s mirror saw was often accurate: his bands played the best possible example of what was happening musically at their given moment.

Herman’s bands incorporated everything that happened in jazz. He drew on players and composers as well as trends and ideas which ranged from Dixieland to Swing, Bebop to Fusion. Under his baton, “The Band that played the Blues” was also the band that played Stravinsky. Herman’s own musical contributions were monumental: he was a fine instrumentalist, and an even better vocalist - in fact, he was easily the most successful of all singing bandleaders.

Herman modestly described his job as that of an editor: he would take a piece of music and giving the composer the feedback he needed to make it just right, or take a 21-year-old saxophonist who had never been on the road and shape him into a major player. In the five decades Herman kept his band going in various incarnations (one of his later albums was titled Road Father) he “graduated” more great musicians than Juilliard.

Even his name was something special: whoever heard of a guy with two middle names? Woodrow Charles Thomas Herman was born in Milwaukee, on May 16, 1913. “My father was a frustrated singer [and he] decided that I would be the completion of his ambitions,” Herman later told Herb Wong. “I did my first vaudeville tour when I was nine years old, and with the money I earned, I was able to buy a saxophone.”

As a teenager during the jazz age, Herman grew from a song-and-dance kid into a “hot” musician, but he always kept his showbiz side. He got his first jobs in dance bands because he could sing as well as play, and his singing was the main selling point of many of his own hits, most famously “Laura” and “Caledonia.”

Herman served his apprenticeship with two famous dance orchestras of the pre-swing era: Tom Gerun, who led a well-known band based on the West Coast (singers Tony Martin and Ginny Simms were also in the band), and Isham Jones, who was already a musical institution as both a songwriter (“It Had To Be You,” “On The Alamo,” “There Is No Greater Love”).

It was with Gerun that Herman, in 1932, recorded his first vocals, "Lonesome Me" and "Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia." It was with Jones, in March 1936, that Herman got his first taste of leading his own band, when Jones appointed him to direct a small jazz group within his larger dance orchestra. The recordings Herman made as leader of “Isham Jones’ Juniors,” are essentially the first recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra.

When Jones retired - temporarily, it turned out – Jones’s label, Decca Records, informed Herman that they were happy with the sales of the blues-oriented sides he had been making and wanted to continue working with him. Combined with support from MCA, Herman was able to put together his own dance band at the end of 1936.

This was a cooperative group, which he built around a core of five fellow former Ishamites, with Herman as leader, star singer and clarinet and alto soloist. This first Herman band was billed as "The Band That Plays The Blues," and the blues were indeed his stock-in-trade. The band played a lot of them, most with excellent vocals by Herman.

By 1941, Herman’s Orchestra was solidly established as a “B”-level band in the musical and commercial hierarchy; ironically, even though Herman’s singing was one of the group’s chief selling points, the band’s first big hit was a 1939 blues instrumental, “Woodchopper’s Ball.”

During the Second World War, the Herman Band went through a phase when it was perhaps excessively in thrall to Duke Ellington: both Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster sat in with Herman on sessions in 1943 and 1944. But by the end of that year, the band had evolved into a sound of its own, one that was perfectly in sync with the mood of the nation.

In the tail years of the war and the very early postwar period, Herman’s “Thundering Herd,” as critic and band maven George Simon called it, became the band of the hour, the group that more than any other, captured the euphoria of an amazing period in history. Vibraphonist Red Norvo, who toured with the band for a year at this time, reports that “It was electrifying. We’d get in a theater and we’d hit those first notes and people would just scream!”

The Thundering Herd so caught the spirit of the moment and was so widely beloved, that both Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky wrote music for it; Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” was played by the band at its history-making Carnegie Hall concert in January, 1946.

Most of the band’s best music was written by two key arrangers, trumpeter Neal Hefti and pianist Ralph Burns. The remarkable line-up of soloists included trumpeters Sonny Berman and Pete Candoli, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, and trombonist Bill Harris, who was featured on “Everywhere." The band was propelled by bassist Chubby Jackson and drummer Dave Tough.

The First Herd contributed many classic recordings to the annals of big band jazz in a brief period of time. These include “Northwest Passage,” the humorous stop-and-start “Goosey Gander”, “Sidewalks of Cuba”, “Apple Honey”, “Bijou”, the "I Got Rhythm" variation “Your Father’s Moustache”, “Wild Root,” and many others.

When Herman disbanded The First Herd, in December of 1946, it was for personal reasons rather than economic ones: he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Charlotte, and save their ailing marriage.

By the fall of 1948, Herman was back on the road with a new band, his Second Herd. He had always been supportive of the new music known as bebop - Dizzy Gillespie even dedicated the bop classic “Woody ‘n You” to him - and the Second Herd was much more immersed in these new sounds.

The most salient feature of the Second Herd was its unique saxophone section, which, unlike every other jazz band out there, featured three tenor saxophones and a baritone. The reed section became known as “The Four Brothers” after a classic composition by Jimmy Giuffre, and among the all-star saxists who passed through this crucible were Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Gene Ammons, the best baritone player of the era, Serge Chaloff, and Stan Getz, whose exquisite luminous solo on Ralph Burns’s “Early Autumn” made him a star.

Herman was forced to break up the Second Herd for financial reasons in the Fall of 1949. But he never gave up, and put together great bands over the next 40 years: The Third Herd, The Fourth Herd, The Las Vegas Herd, The Swingin’ Herd, and the Young Thundering Herd of the 1980s. The Swingin' Herd, which reached it’s peak in the mid-1960s, is regarded as perhaps the greatest of Woody’s post-1950 Herds, boasting an extraordinarily brilliant lineup of emerging talent, including trombonist Phil Wilson, saxophonist and arranger Sal Nistico, and trumpeter Bill Chase. Most of this band's arrangements were by Herman’s longtime pianist Nat Pierce.

By the 1960s, Herman’s was one of the four major jazz orchestras on the road, along with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Stan Kenton. Other leaders, like Les Brown, Harry James, and Benny Goodman, put together bands and toured intermittently, but these were the big four, who were consistently working and recording. All four of them were entrusted with keeping the flame of the big band era alive – a mission Herman interpreted almost literally, since his theme song was entitled “Blue Flame."

Through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Herman kept some of his most familiar numbers in the band's active “book” of arrangements: these included his audience-pleasing hits like “Woodchopper’s Ball” and “Four Brothers.” But he also adopted ever-more contemporary charts, such as Horace Silver’s “ Opus De Funk,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and even Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common Man.”

Overall, however, Herman was much more interested in encouraging the budding composers in his band to write whatever they wanted. Neal Hefti told me that the only time he was really happy as a composer was during his stay with the First Herd: Woody was great, he said, because “I could take like six months to figure something out.”

In the 1970s, Herman produced the least memorable music of his career. He moved towards jazz-rock fusion, adding electric piano and bass to his band. Along the way, he experimented with such side projects as running his own record label in the early 1950s, Mars Records, and his own jazz club in New Orleans, which opened in the fall of 1981.

Among his many memorable collaborations, he recorded an epic 1958 album with percussionist Tito Puente which utilized two full orchestras, Herman's Heat And Puente's Beat, and toured with Frank Sinatra during the singer's “comeback” from retirement in 1974, and appeared with Ol' Blue Eyes on his historic Madison Square Garden concert on October 13th of that year, which was recorded and televised as Sinatra: The Main Event. Herman also appeared as a guest vocalist and soloist with The Duke Ellington band on several occasions.

In the 1980s, Herman helped nurture many fine young players, such as Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, John Oddo, and David Finck, and the band continued to stay current with a book which ranged from “Giant Steps” to “MacArthur Park.”

Instead of atrophying at the end of his career, Herman went through a period of artistic renewal, when he made an exceptional series of LPs for Concord Jazz Records, including the live album A Concord Jam in 1980, which teamed him with some of the younger swing-style players, such as Warren Vaché and Scott Hamilton, and a brilliant 1981 reunion with saxophonist and arranger Al Cohn, Woody Herman Presents Four Others, which brought together tenor veterans from four different Herds, including Sal Nistico, Bill Perkins, Flip Phillips, and the leader himself on alto.

At the time of his death, on October 29, 1987, Herman was working on a new recording of the Ebony Concerto with classical clarinet superstar Richard Stolzman. The album was eventually finished and released posthumously.

Woody’s own end was less than glorious. He was done in, literally, by a corrupt manager with a gambling problem, who died leaving Herman in hock to the IRS for the rest of his life. But the music of Woody Herman remains valid and exciting: as we can hear, he never once ran out of energy or ideas.

Contributor: Will Friedwald