Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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HERMAN, Woody

(b Woodrow Charles Thomas Herrmann, 16 May 1913, Milwaukee WI; d 28 October 1987, Los Angeles) Clarinet, also alto sax; singer, and one of the best-loved of all the bandleaders in an age that loved big bands. His father worked in the shoe industry; it was a warm, supportive family that loved good entertainment, and Milwaukee was a lively vaudeville town: Woody sang and danced from age six, travelled from '30 with a band that included Tony Martin in the reed section, started his own band '33 which failed. He worked for Gus Arnheim, then Isham Jones, took over Jones's band '36 and led 'The Band That Plays The Blues', with the small-group Woodchoppers as a band-within-a-band: among the first hits on Decca was 'Woodchopper's Ball' '39 (written by flugelhorn player Joe Bishop, b 27 November 1907, Monticello AR; d 12 May 1976, Houston TX). More than 50 Herman hit records '37-52 also included the band's theme 'Blue Flame' (named after a notorious locker room trick), and the no. 1 'Blues In The Night' '42 from a film of that name, vocal by Woody and Carolyn Grey. The band had been a co-operative; as men were drafted during WWII Herman bought their shares and modernized the band; Dizzy Gillespie wrote 'Down Under', 'Swing Shift', 'Woody'n'You'.

The band's evolution seemed revolutionary because it did not record during the musicians' strike of '42-3 ('Woodchopper's Ball' charted again during the strike); Decca was one of the first labels to settle with the union, but issued only four of 24 titles recorded '44. The band that switched to Columbia had suddenly become the best white band of the Big Band Era; yet as Max Harrison has pointed out, the band had always treated its materials and sources with respect, and the evolution was a natural one; with hindsight one can hear the elements of the transformation in the '44 tracks that have been released since. Herman proved to be one of the all-time best recruiters of new talent in the music business, but he also had the rare ability (like Count Basie) to improve an arrangement by editing it after the band worked it out, and another important quality as well: 'One unmistakable quality of big-band jazz at its best is joie de vivre: that is Woody's quality' (Barry Ulanov). The '44-6 band was called Herman's Herd (later the First Herd): its vitality, swing and high spirits still sound fresh as if the records were made yesterday. The writing and the improvisation had been radicalized, but the rhythm section played a driving Basie style rather than a more modern bop one; it was partly the progressive aspects grafted on to that traditional big-band power (perhaps a function of Herman's Midwestern origins, not so different from that of the classic Basie band) which helped make the music so exciting. Bassist Chubby Jackson (b Greig Stewart Jackson, 25 Dec. '18, NYC; d 1 Oct. 2003) and pianist/arranger Ralph Burns joined late '43, both from the Charlie Barnet band; Jackson helped to recruit the rest, such as trumpet/arranger Neal Hefti, Dave Tough on drums, tenor saxist Flip Phillips and Bill Harris on trombone (b Willard Palmer Harris, 28 October 1916, Philadelphia; d 21 August 1973; with Benny Goodman '43-4): Harris's solo on Burns's 'Bijou (Rhumba à la Jazz)' '45 is one of the most famous of all trombone solos; he also wrote the beautiful 'Everywhere' (arranged by Hefti). Guitarist Billy Bauer (b 14 November 1915, NYC; later studied and played with Lennie Tristano; d 17 June 2005, Melville NY) replaced the last remaining member of the old band. Both Candoli brothers were in the trumpet section mid-'44 (16-year-old Conte played on the weekly radio series for Old Gold cigarettes while on summer holiday from high school), Burns on piano, Margie Hyams on vibes (b 1923, NYC; later married George Shearing and retired); the band appeared in films Sensations Of 1945, Earl Carroll's Vanities and others, and was sponsored on network radio by Wildroot hair oil (after which a Hefti arrangement was named), and played a Carnegie Hall concert 25 March '46 with Pete Candoli, Shorty Rogers and Sonny Berman in the trumpet section, Red Norvo on vibes (his joining early '46 precipitated a new edition of the Woodchoppers), and drummer Don Lamond (b 18 August 1920, Oklahoma City; d 22 December 2003, Orlando FL). The concert included the première of 'Ebony Concerto' (not much to do with jazz, but written for the band by Igor Stravinsky). The band won polls and sold records; top ten hits '45-6 included Ellington's 'Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me', film theme 'Laura', Louis Jordan's 'Caldonia' (with Herman's vocal, and a trumpet passage transcribed from a Dizzy solo), Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne song 'Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!'. Singer Frances Wayne (b Chiarina Francesca Bertocci, 26 August 1919, Boston; d there 6 February 1978) had a hit on flip side of 'Caldonia' with 'Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe', also 'Saturday Night Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week' (on Decca), 'Gee, It's Good To Hold You' (she married Hefti, later sang with his band on Coral). As often happens, the best tracks weren't necessarily the biggest hits; according to Gene Lees, Woody always said that Shorty Rogers was one of the biggest influences on the band, and his composition 'Back Talk' was one of the most successful integrations of virtuoso ensemble and improvisation. (For other Herman classics of the era, see entries for Burns and Hefti.)

Financially secure for the time being, Herman bought a house in California, and realized that he had been neglecting his wife. After many years on the road, he disbanded late '46 and stayed home for a while. (The band had been doing fine, but coincidentally, nine big-name bands all folded at once: in fact the Big Band Era was ending.) He toured Cuba with a small group '47, but soon formed another bigger one, hiring most of Butch Stone's band in Hollywood (getting Rogers back, who was working for Stone). The Second Herd was also known as the 'Four Brothers' band after that composition by Jimmy Giuffre, blending the reeds of Herbie Steward (b 7 May 1926, Los Angeles) on alto sax, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz on tenors and Serge Chaloff on baritone: the piece had the necessary spirited swing, but the reed sound left no doubt about the influence of Charlie Parker and especially Lester Young, its lovely pastel colour setting the tone for the West Coast 'cool' style of the '50s: modern jazz had been fully absorbed. The band also played 'Early Autumn' (the adapted fourth part of Burns's 'Summer Sequence', with an ethereal solo by Getz), George Wallington's 'Lemon Drop' (with a bebop scat trio in unison, vibist Terry Gibbs singing low, Shorty Rogers in the middle and Chubby Jackson falsetto), Rogers's 'Keeper Of The Flame', etc. Mary Ann McCall sang 'More Than You Know' and 'I Got It Bad' (b 4 May 1919, Philadelphia; d 14 December 1994; McCall sang with Herman '39, with Charlie Barnet and freelance; her phrasing had improved greatly by the time she rejoined Herman '46). The Second Herd included sleepy-heads (junkies), and some of them thought Herman himself was old-fashioned, but when the band played an arrangement by young Gerry Mulligan, he later said that Herman's solo was the only one that had anything to do with the music. The band recorded for Columbia late '47, then the second musicians' union strike intervened; it recorded for Capitol late '48 and in '49 Herman disbanded again.

The Third Herd recorded for Capitol, MGM, for his own Mars label '52, then MGM again. He toured Europe '54; continued re-forming for tours etc. Musicians passing through included Bill Chase, Bill Perkins, Dave McKenna and Nat Pierce on piano, Al Cohn, drummer Jake Hanna (b 4 April 1931, Boston; d 12 February 2010); after playing in three Herds Harris returned '56-8 (also played with JATP; own LPs incl. And Friends on Fantasy, Memorial Album on Xanadu, both '57); trombones also included Carl Fontana (b 18 July 1928, Monroe LA; d 10 October 2003) and Urbie Green (b 8 August 1926, Mobile AL; worked for Frankie Carle, Gene Krupa, Herman '50-52, Benny Goodman '56-7, appeared in film The Benny Goodman Story; fine sideman on many LPs); reeds: Richie Kamuca (b 23 July 1930, Philadelphia; d 22 July 1977, Los Angeles), Sal Nistico, Arno Marsh (b 28 May 1928, Grand Rapids MI), vocalist Joe Carroll (best known for work with Dizzy Gillespie), Albert Dailey, Cecil Payne, keyboardist Lyle Mays, many others. The number of Herds was finally uncounted: Herman led more good bands than anyone else, loved not only by the public but by musicians. Pierce said to George T. Simon, 'We never feel we're actually working for the man. It's more like working with him.' His witty clarinet accents added much to the late-'40s classics; he played more alto sax than before in mid-'50s; first sang with Jones, showing humour and mellow personality in blues-inflected phrasing on ballads and blues, such as 'Panacea' from the first Carnegie Hall concert.

Compilations of early tracks are on Decca, Columbia, ASV, Pearl, Circle etc; the USA Columbia three-LP anthology The Thundering Herds should be expanded, remastered and reissued on CD. Two CDs of the First Herd in live recordings '44 and '45 are on Jass; Keeper Of The Flame on Capitol included all that label's tracks by the Four Brothers band; The V-Disc Years '44-6 on Hep is a superb two-CD set; The Third Herd/Early Autumn '52-4 is on Discovery, The Herd Rides Again and Herman's Heat And Puente's Beat! (with Tito Puente) both '58 are on Evidence. The Fourth Herd/The New World Of Woody Herman on Mobile Fidelity has an all-star band with Ernie Royal, Red Rodney, Bobby Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn etc; Bill Holman's Concerto For Herd '67 was recorded live at Monterey by Verve; The Raven Speaks '72 and Thundering Herd '74 are on Fantasy. In the late '60s Herman's manager gambled away the band's income tax money; he told Artie Shaw, 'I'm going to be on the road for the rest of my life.' The IRS persecuted him to the point of selling his home, but he never complained, never held a grudge. When he died still owing the taxman, somebody said that it was either a tragedy or a masterpiece of forward planning.

Along with many others Herman had got a second lease on Concord Jazz: And Friends At Monterey '79 with Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, Slide Hampton; Live At Concord Jazz Festival '81 with Cohn and Getz; World Class '82, made in Japan with 16-piece band plus Nistico, Pierce, Cohn, Flip Phillips; three vols of small groups Presents A Concord Jam '80-3 including A Great American Evening; My Buddy with Rosemary Clooney; Woody's Gold Star '87 had a 15-piece band plus Latin guests.