Woody Herman’s New Creative Kick

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Woody Herman (1913–1987)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

New York—“Woody Herman has the greatest ofay swing band in the country—bar none!”

That’s what all the band popularity contests said this year and that’s just the way I feel about it. Out of the 1,606 swing fans who named the Herman Herd their favorite dispenser of jive in DownBeat’s annual contest, undoubtedly some (the bobby-soxers) cast their votes that way because they go for the snappy corduroy jackets that Woody sports on the stand. Most fans, however, picked Woody’s crew for its crack over-all musicianship, for its up-to-the-minute presentation of advanced big band orchestrations, for Woody’s superior talents as an instrumentalist, singer, showmanly stick-waver, and, above all, for his grasp of the right band idea.

It’s always been my contention that a great band demands a great leader. There may be exceptions to the rule but Benny Goodman, the Duke, Basie, Artie Shaw and now Woody Herman are plenty of examples to prove its validity.

‘Nothing But Truth’

One of my first meetings with Woody took place when he was playing a network show and had hired a new press agent to exploit it. It happened that I was sitting nearby when the p.a. came up to ask Woody his slants on publicity. Were there any special angles to his bandleader life that he wanted stressed or covered up?

Woody thought a minute.

“No,” he said finally. “There’s nothing special ... just so you stick to the truth.”

That answer is not only refreshing coming from a man in the limelight, it’s a clue to Woody’s real character and accounts at second remove for the integrity of his whole band.

Shortly after that meeting, I spent a week on the road with Woody’s band, playing one-nighters in New England and ending up with a stay at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. If the overheard conversation between Woody and his publicist gave me insight into the bandleader’s character, days spent with him in trains, autos, hotel dining rooms, one-arm lunches and dance halls only strengthened the conviction that here was a remarkably rare species of the genus big-time personality.

Balanced Showman

This is what I learned—Woody Herman is not a musical trickster. He’s aware of his own musical capacities, realizes that he doesn’t play the greatest clarinet or alto in the world nor sing the best blues, but plays his considerable talents to the hilt. Neither is he a show-off on the bandstand, though he has an expert conception of what sells, due perhaps to the fact that he spent his early, formative years as a vaudeville performer. He’s a proud parent, a happy husband and a home lover. Most indicative of all, his sidemen not only respect him as a leader-musician, they like him as a friendly, amusing guy.

Beyond this, Woody gave me some candid opinions of his own, which I’ll record here briefly. He likes what he calls “modern” jazz; jazz that is matured; that reflects the temper of the times; that demands both creative ability and command of instrument on the part of the performer. In other words, though he pays proper tribute to the historic jazz musicians and bands of the past, he feels that the old style (as exemplified by the New Orleans, Dixieland and Chicago groups) has had its day, and that big band music is the logical musical art form of our day.

Admires, Never Imitates

He likes the Duke, obviously enough from the number of Ellington-inspired arrangements in his book. He is not, however, a sedulous imitator of the Duke nor of any other bandleader. The recent blast let loose by booker Joe Glaser, which accused Woody of “stealing” ideas from Lionel Hampton, was completely without basis. If Woody uses Dukish material, it’s only to give implicit credit and honor to Ellington and his matchless orchestra.

The man who leads the band that plays the blues was born, you may or may not know, in Milwaukee on May 16, 1913. Like so many other jazzmen, he came from a musically inclined family and started his own career at the usual early age of 9. Alto sax was his first instrument, but when he was 11, he started working on the clarinet as well.

After playing in vaudeville for a couple of years, Woody went to Marquette University, though he never completed college training. Out of school, he gave up his single act and began working with bands. His first jobs were with Gus Arnheim, Harry Sosnick, Tom Gerun and finally Isham Jones, leader of one of the best outfits of his day. Woody sang with Jones’ band, besides playing the reeds, and displayed the stuff of which bandleaders are made. When Jones broke up his orchestra in 1937, Woody and several of the other sidemen stepped out with a cooperative crew of their own.

Long, Hard Struggle

Inevitably, they had troubles. For one thing, the style of the band (a semi-Dixieland, gutty blues pattern) was out of step with current band favorites, and it was some time before the distinctive theme “Blue Flame” became anything like a musical household word. Careful attention to booking engagements and plenty of hard work finally paid off, however, and there came a time when “Blues Upstairs,” “Blues Downstairs,” “Blues On Parade,” “Fan It,” “Golden Wedding,” “Sorrento” and “Woodchopper’s Ball” were best sellers on Decca, the disc firm for which Woody did most of his recording until his recent switch to Columbia.

The band developed other personalities besides its leader, though the war has cut into their ranks until only one member (Joe Bishop) of the old Herman Herd remains, and even he doesn’t play in the band anymore but does arranging exclusively. Drummer Frankie Carlson, bassist Walter Yoder, trumpeter Chuck Peterson, trombonist Neil Reid and all the other excellent members of the original Herd have packed their band instruments away for the duration. With the addition of newer, younger sidemen, coupled with Woody’s musical maturity, a new, unconventional Herman Herd has emerged.

Herman Herd on New Creative Kick

It wasn’t until 1943 that Woody Herman began to hit his real musical stride, even though his band had found considerable success before then and had played considerable music of merit. With the beginning of World War II, Woody suffered the same losses and gained the same sense of insecurity that was affecting not only all bandleaders, but everyone in every field. Undoubtedly, had an interviewer shortly after Pearl Harbor asked Woody what his plans were for the immediate future, he would have answered: “Are you kiddin’?”

Yet, oddly enough, if war can ever be held responsible for doing good, it exercised a benign influence in the case of the Herman Herd. With the draft and other wartime problems, Woody started losing his best men; the musicians he hired at first either couldn’t play the old “blues” book well enough or they didn’t like it enough to play it with feeling. Bookings became more of a problem, and a thousand other restrictions arose to plague the bandleader. Like most leaders at the same time, Woody was forced to look for talent among younger, lesser-known musicians to replace sidemen who had become established stars in his band, but who now were either playing to a martial beat or hoisting a Garand.

It was this gradual influx of new talent that brought out latent possibilities as a musician and leader in Woody. It was the exciting contact with the “new right idea” that allowed him to let himself and his band go free, musically. And it was the happy coincidence of 16 or 17 young talented musicians meeting in one band that led to the development of a big, white band where music was created and not merely played.

The fact that the Herman Herd is one of the few white bands now creating music not only seems to me undeniable but has brought me to the extreme conclusion that the Herd stands as one of the last exponents of what can only be called “good” swing music as opposed to the watered-down, dull and repetitious routine of alternate “sweet and swing” numbers with which most name bands are giving out currently.

Use Head Arrangements

Watching the Herman band in rehearsal and on the stand, I get the impression that here perhaps is the only ofay band in the business working in great part along the Ellington method of music creation. Many of the best numbers in Woody’s book (like “Apple Honey,” “Perdido,” “Flying Home”) are “head” arrangements, which means that they were not completely notated originally, but grew up within the band by means of spontaneous contributions from different sidemen to form perfect solo and ensemble wholes. In effect, this is what the Ellington band does, and the same kind of spontaneity in a white orchestra is not only precedent-making but gives Woody’s band most of the interest it holds for anyone concerned with swing music phenomena. DB


On Sale Now
February 2020
Nicholas Payton
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