In the later 1930s, when swing bands ruled American pop, Woody Herman — born May 16, 1913 — ran a distant third to his rival bandleading clarinetists, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But in the 1940s, when swing was on its way out, Herman put together his two greatest bands — his co-called First and Second Herds, among the great jazz orchestras period. And then, when big bands had really become dinosaurs, he kept his going another four decades.
As clarinetist, Herman’s timbre was drier than Goodman’s or Shaw’s, but his piping bent-note sound could really drive a band. Herman sang too, in an unassuming boy-next-door way, as if stepping in last-minute to replace the band’s real singer, who was stuck in traffic. He had to cultivate that casual air. In songwriter Isham Jones’s band in 1936, Herman sang “No Greater Love” like a ’20s crooner — through the nose, throwing himself at the lyric. Jones had been at it since 1920, and had his old-school mannerisms. But he also featured a lot of blues; “Blue Prelude” showed how much his men dug Duke Ellington.
When Jones broke the band up in 1936, the jazzier members continued as a co-op fronted by Herman. They kept “Blue Prelude” as their first theme, and kept playing the blues. The ensemble drive (like Woody’s singing) quickly got modernized and streamlined. They played opposite Count Basie at New York’s Roseland. Basie said later, “The only band that ever cut my band was that Woody Herman band.”
Herman’s idol was Ellington, and even Duke was struck by how much Woody could sound like his own suave Johnny Hodges on alto sax. Hodges also showed Herman how to make an entrance; his breakthrough “Woodsheddin’ with Woody” just plays possum, swinging in a light Basie groove, until his clarinet barges in. The compilation Blues on Parade charts the band’s progress from 1937-42, albeit in scrambled order. The earliest item is a swinging update of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Doctor Jazz,” the latest an early Dizzy Gillespie chart with boppish touches, “Down Under.”
Dizzy said in his autobiography that when bebop hit in the early ’40s, all the bands wanted a bop number in the book, but only Herman’s caught the new rhythms without coaching: “All the trumpet players in that band wanted to sound like me.” He hired a couple of women musicians during the War, trumpeter Billie Rogers and vibraphonist Margie Hyams.
Bebop’s influence is all over Herman’s First Herd, founded in 1944, a band with an Ellingtonian array of diverse soloists: vibist Red Norvo, short-lived Dizophile trumpet spitfire Sonny Berman, tenor sax sparkplug Flip Phillips, bassist Chubby Jackson (who played fast and had an extra high string, making his playing sound speeded up), and Bill Harris, a broad toned trombonist of the old school somehow perfect for the new material. (Hear “Bijou,” with an improvised Harris solo that sounds carefully worked out.) The Herd featured hot arrangements by Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti. Igor Stravinsky wrote them his harmonically modern (if rhythmically starchy) “Ebony Concerto.”
Maybe because his band had started as a co-op, Herman was always open to his musicians’ enthusiasms and ideas; the players embroidered Burns’s and Hefti’s charts in rehearsal. In a little over three minutes, the dadaistic “Your Father’s Mustache” crams in scorching trumpet and tenor solos, a quote from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, a mock-gleeclub vocal, false endings and prime Herman clarinet. They play it tongue-in-cheek with enviable precision. Drummer Buddy Rich, subbing, learned it by ear, and nailed it.
In 1946 they broke up — everyone was doing it. A year later, the business totally tanking, Herman formed his Second Herd, with Stan Getz and Zoot Sims on tenor, that one that recorded Jimmy Giuffre’s classic “Four Brothers,” with its cushy close-harmony saxes pointing the way toward cool jazz.
The standard anthology of the First Herd, and the Second Herd’s first batch, is Columbia’s Blowin’ Up A Storm. The Second Herd’s lesser known final sides were for Capitol, Herman’s next home till 1950. There’s more Getz in his early glory as rapturous tenor balladeer (“Early Autumn”) just before he goes out on his own. But by mid-’49 things start to get weird: cheeky dixieland with harrumphing tuba, and a mocking “Mule Train” sung with Nat King Cole.
In the ’50s Herman had his dips like other swing survivors, but he bounced back once more. In 1964, he recorded the Beatles’ “Things We Said Today,” a feature for his slithery Hodges-style alto, and a sign of things to come. A few years later, his increasingly young, shaggy and amplified crew was playing tunes by Frank Zappa (“America Drinks and Goes Home”), Traffic (“Smiling Phases”), the Temptations (“I Can’t Get Next to You”), Steely Dan (“Kid Charlemagne”) — and “Proud Mary,” “Light My Fire,” “Ma Cherie Amour” and more. If music can be kitsch in a good way, these the-kids-will-dig-it sides qualify.
In those later years Herman also revisited oldies, and kept turning up new talent, like saxophonists Joe Lovano and Scott Hamilton, bassists Marc Johnson and pianist Lyle Mays. Another way Woody Herman stood out from his rivals: He was a pleasure to work for. He rarely lost his temper in public, was married to the same woman forever, and loaned money to acquaintances in need.
It all should have ended better. Late in life the IRS hounded him over back taxes, owing to dubious management by a trusted aide. In 1985 the feds auctioned off the house he’d lived in 40 years — never mind all the money he’d raised for the War effort back when — to a landlord who later tried to evict him over tardy rent. A battery of pro bono lawyers staved that off; donations flowed in from all over. That was in 1987, the year Herman played his last gig, and the year he died. He’d led a big band for 50 years.