Herman, Woody (1913-1987)

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Herman, Woody (1913-1987)

Along with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Woody Herman was one of a triumvirate of clarinet-playing band leaders in the big band era. Playing a high-pitched instrument that could cut through the sound of the ensemble in those days of poor amplification, Herman for more than fifty years headed one of the most popular and innovative of the bands in the swing era. His greatest contributions to jazz history came from his ability to organize and sustain a talented big band that was wholly dedicated to the cutting edge of jazz during the severe economic trials of the Great Depression. His band, Herman's Herd, spawned a number of great jazz soloists as well as writers and arrangers of major importance.

Born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herrmann of German parents in Milwaukee in 1913, Herman seemed destined for the spotlight from the age of nine. He toured the state of Wisconsin for eight weeks as one of a troupe of actors who played a live prologue to the screening of silent films. That same year Herman began studying the alto sax and clarinet. His teacher, Herman recalled, was Art Beuch, "an old German fellow who would take nothing but hard work." His advice to the budding jazzman was: "Practice until you turn blue and your lip is numb and your teeth hurt and you may accomplish something."

When Herman began playing in local dance bands in high school, he became dedicated to the life of a jazzman. He left home at seventeen with a band led by Tom Gerun, playing in a reed section that included Tony Martin, who later gained fame as a singer and film star. After unsuccessfully trying to form his own band, Herman joined the Isham Jones orchestra in 1934 and was featured on tenor sax, clarinet, and vocals on the band's Decca records. When the band folded two years later, the 23-year-old persuaded key sidemen to join a band he was organizing on his own. In that year—the depth of the Great Depression—Herman ran his band on a cooperative, share-theprofit basis. Featuring the blues as well as some pop songs in their repertoire, the band slowly gained fame, soon to be enhanced in 1939 by their biggest hit, the upbeat blues piece "Woodchopper's Ball," which ultimately was to reach the five million mark in sales.

Still overshadowed by the Basie, Ellington, and Goodman bands, Woody Herman's Herd had begun to attract national attention. Dave Dexter, writing in Downbeat in January 1940, suggested that a part of the band's problem in finding major bookings was the delay caused by the band members (as shareholders) voting on each booking proposition.

In 1941 the band filmed a musical short for Warner Brothers in Brooklyn, and later that year they went to Los Angeles to be featured in a Universal picture called What's Cookin'?. The Andrews Sisters and Donald O'Connor also appeared in this "typical wartime musical," as Herman called it.

When the band began a new recording contract with Columbia in 1945, it was coming under the strong influence of the new bebop style of jazz played by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Joining the band at this time were three devout boppers: Neal Hefti, Shorty Rogers, and Pete Candoli, and Herman's First Herd was soon widely known as one of the most advanced and innovative bands of its era. Davey Tough, the perfect drummer for the new Herd, received belated acclaim when he raised the band to new heights in 1944-45 on a series of nationwide radio programs. His unique style can be heard on such Columbia record hits as "Apple Honey," "Laura," and "I Wonder."

In 1946 the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky composed Ebony Concerto expressly for the Herman band, adding to the band's prestige after a sold-out performance in Carnegie Hall. That year the band won the Downbeat, Metronome, Billboard, and Esquire polls. Gunther Schuller, in his book The Swing Era, attributed this great success to the highly original arrangements by Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti and to the band's playing "night after night with an infectious exuberance, an almost physically palpable excitement and a never-say-die energy."

In 1986, still active at age 73 after fifty years as bandleader, Herman led his band on a jazz cruise aboard the SS Norway, and after spending time in the hospital with heart problems, led the Herd in November at the Kennedy Center awards ceremony in Washington. He died in October of the following year.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Lees, Gene. Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman. New York, Oxford Press, 1995.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford Press, 1989.

Simon, George T. The Big Bands. New York, MacMillan, 1974.

Troup, Stewart, and Woody Herman. The Woodchopper's Ball. New York, Dutton, 1989.

Voce, Steve. Woody Herman. London, Apollo Press, 1986.