Woody Herman Biography

Woodrow Charles Herman, 16 May 1913, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, d. 29 October 1987, Los Angeles, California, USA. A child prodigy, Herman sang and tap-danced in local clubs before touring as a singer in vaudeville. To improve his act he took up the saxophone and later the clarinet, all by the age of 12. By his mid-teens he was sufficiently accomplished to play in a band, and he went on to work in a string of dance bands during the late 20s and early 30s. Last in this line was Isham Jones, Herman first being in Isham Jones’ Juniors, with whom he recorded early in 1936. When Jones folded the band later that year, Herman was elected leader by a nucleus of musicians who wanted to continue. Initially a co-operative group, the band included flügelhorn player Joe Bishop, bass player Walt Yoder, drummer Frank Carlson and trombonist Neil Reid. With a positive if uncommercial view of what they wanted to achieve, they were billed as ‘The Band That Plays The Blues’ and gradually built a following during the swing era. The success of their recordings of ‘Golden Wedding’, a Jiggs Noble re-working of ‘La Cinquantaine’, and especially Bishop’s ‘At The Woodchoppers’ Ball’ helped the band’s fortunes.

During the early 40s numerous personnel changes took place, some dictated by the draft, others by a gradual shift in style. By 1944 Herman was leading the band which eventually became labelled as the First Herd. Included in this powerhouse were trumpeters Ray Wetzel, Neal Hefti and Pete Candoli, trombonist Bill Harris, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips and the remarkable rhythm section of Ralph Burns, Billy Bauer, Chubby Jackson and Dave Tough, to which was added vibraphonist Margie Hyams. This band made several records which were not only musically excellent but were also big sellers, amongst them ‘Apple Honey’, ‘Caldonia’, ‘Northwest Passage’ and ‘Goosey Gander’. During the next year or so the band’s personnel remained fairly stable, although the brilliant if unreliable Tough was replaced in late 1945 by Don Lamond, and they continued to make good records, including ‘Bijou’, ‘Your Father’s Mustache’, ‘Wild Root’ and ‘Blowin’ Up A Storm’. In 1946 the band still included Candoli, Harris, Phillips, Bauer, Jackson and Lamond and amongst the newcomers were trumpeters Sonny Berman, Shorty Rogers and Conrad Gozzo and vibraphonist Red Norvo.

The First Herd played a concert at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim but, despite the band’s continuing popularity, at the end of this same year, 1946, Herman temporarily disbanded because of economic difficulties. The following year he was back with his Second Herd, known to posterity as the ‘Four Brothers’ band. This band represented a particularly modern approach to big band music, playing bop-influenced charts by Jimmy Giuffre and others. Most striking, however, and the source of the band’s name, was the saxophone section. With Sam Marowitz and Herbie Steward on altos, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims, tenors, and Serge Chaloff, baritone, the section was thrustingly modern; and when Steward doubled on tenor, they created a deeper-toned sound that was utterly different from any other band of the time. The concept of the reed section had originated with Gene Roland, whose rehearsal band had included Getz, Sims, Steward and Giuffre.

Heard by Burns and hired by Herman, these musicians helped create a new excitement and this band was another enormously successful group. Although the modern concepts took precedence, there was still room for straight ahead swingers. The brass section at this time included Rogers, Marky Markowitz and Ernie Royal and trombonist Earl Swope. The rhythm section included Lamond and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. The reed section was dominant, however, and when Steward was replaced by Al Cohn, it was by far the best in the land. Apart from ‘Four Brothers’ the band had other successful records, including ‘Keen And Peachy’, ‘The Goof And I’ and ‘Early Autumn’. This last piece was written by Burns to round out a three-part suite, ‘Summer Sequence’, he had composed earlier and which had already been recorded. The extra part allowed the record company to release a four-sided set, and Getz’s solo on ‘Early Autumn’ was the first example of the saxophonist’s lyrical depths to make an impression upon the jazz world.

Unfortunately, despite its successes, the band was not quite popular enough, perhaps being a little ahead of its time. Once again Herman folded, only to re-form almost at once. Numbering the Herman Herds was never easy but the leader himself named his early 50s group as the Third Herd. Although lacking the precision of the Four Brothers band and the raw excitement of the First Herd, the new band was capable of swinging superbly. As before, Herman had no difficulty in attracting top-flight musicians, including Red Rodney, Urbie Green, Kai Winding, Richie Kamuca, Bill Perkins, Monty Budwig and Jake Hanna. Of particular importance to the band at this time (and for the next few years) was Nat Pierce, who not only played piano but also wrote many fine arrangements and acted as straw boss. The times were hostile to big bands, however, and by the mid-50s Herman was working in comparative obscurity. Members of the band, who then included Bill Berry, Bobby Lamb, Kamuca, Budwig and Harris, wryly described this particular Herman group as the ‘un-Herd’. Towards the end of the decade Herman was still fighting against the tide, but was doing it with some of the best available musicians: Cohn, Sims, Don Lanphere, Bob Brookmeyer, Pierce, Kamuca, Perkins and Med Flory.

During the 60s and 70s Herman’s bands were given various informal tags; the Swinging Herd, the Thundering Herd. Mostly they did as these names suggested, thundering and swinging through some excellent charts and with many fine sidemen many of whom were culled from the universities. Other leaders did this, of course, but Herman always ensured that he was far from being the solitary veteran on a bandstand full of beginners. He kept many older hands on board to ensure the youngsters had experienced models from whom they could draw inspiration. Among the sidemen during these years were Pierce, Hanna, Bill Chase, baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, Sal Nistico, tenor saxophonist Carmen Leggio, John Von Ohlen, Cecil Payne, Carl Fontana, Dusko Goykovich and trombonists Henry Southall and Phil Wilson.

In the late 60s Herman dabbled with jazz rock but, although he subsequently kept a few such numbers in the band’s book, it was not an area in which he was comfortable. In 1976 Herman played a major concert at Carnegie Hall, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his first appearance there. As the 80s began, Herman’s health was poor and he might have had thoughts of retirement; he had, after all, been performing for a little over 60 years. Unfortunately, this was the time he discovered that his manager for many years had systematically embezzled funds set aside for taxes. Now Herman was not only flat broke and in danger of eviction from his home in the Hollywood Hills, but he also owed the IRS millions of dollars. Forced to play on, he continued to lead bands on punishing tours around the world, tours which were hugely successful but were simultaneously exacerbating his poor physical condition. In 1986 he celebrated 50 years as a band leader with a tour that featured long-standing sideman Frank Tiberi, baritone saxophonist Mike Brignola, trumpeter Bill Byrne and bass player Lynn Seaton. The following year he was still on the road - and also on the sidewalk, when a gold star in his name was laid along Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. In March of that same year the Herman Herd, whatever number this one might be, was still thundering away at concerts, some of which fortunately, were recorded. But it could not, of course, go on forever, and Herman died in October 1987.

As a clarinettist and saxophonist, sometimes playing alto, latterly soprano, Herman was never a virtuoso player in the manner of swing era contemporaries such as Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. Unlike theirs, his playing was deeply rooted in the blues, and he brought to his music an unshakeable commitment to jazz. Despite the inevitable ups and downs of his career as a big band leader, he stuck to his principles and if he ever compromised it was always, somehow, on his own terms. He composed little, although many of the First Herd’s greatest successes were head arrangements conceived and developed on the bandstand or in rehearsal. Herman’s real skills lay in his ability to pick the right people for his band, to enthuse them, and to ensure that they never lost that enthusiasm. In selecting for his band he had patience and an excellent ear. He knew what he wanted and he nearly always got it. Over the many years he led a band, scores of musicians passed through the ranks, many of them amongst the finest in jazz. No one ever had a bad word to say about him.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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