While Tom Reney is away, NEPR’s resident big band maven Peter Sokolowski offers this appreciation of one of the giants of the genre. —JM.
Woody Herman’s 100th birthday anniversary is today. It is nearly passing unnoticed; there’s to be a concert in a high school in his native Wisconsin, a radio program in Philadelphia.
And yet Woody Herman led one of the greatest bands in jazz history, and did it for fifty years. He was on top of the world in the 1940s: his band was featured in the film “New Orleans” alongside Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. He bought his house for cash from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Stravinsky was inspired by Herman’s music to write his “Ebony Concerto.”
The thrilling manic energy of Herman’s First Herd in the immediate postwar period expressed the attitude of the victorious nation: brash, happy, and loud – with a mature understanding of the blues. The exuberance of records like “Apple Honey” and “Wild Root” was given emotional ballast by the bittersweet “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” sung by Frances Wayne. Herman introduced standards like “Blues in the Night” and “Laura” on record. When he temporarily disbanded at the end of 1946, Barry Ulanov wrote in Metronome magazine that “only once before…was a band of such unequivocal standards and evenness of musicianship organized. That was the Ellington band.”
Herman reconstituted a band in 1947. The Second Herd had less punch but more polish, somehow managing to expand the fleet new modern jazz vocabulary of bebop to fit a big band – and introduced players like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. “Four Brothers” became both the signature tune and the signature sound – three tenors and baritone sax. The haunting “Early Autumn” not only launched one of the great careers in the music with the lighter-than-air solo by Getz, it announced the cool aesthetic that would become West Coast jazz.
Gunther Schuller writes in The Swing Era that Woody’s place in jazz history – largely forgotten – “does not seem to square with the reality of his many remarkable achievements.” Schuller goes on to assert that the band “was as exciting and influential an orchestra as jazz has seen,” and that “there has been very little substantively new in big-band styling since Woody’s First Herd.”
Unlike the concrete achievements made by Ellington through his compositions, Basie with his distinctive piano playing, or Kenton and his controversial bombast, Woody’s greatest skill was an invisible one. He was a fine clarinetist, saxophonist, and singer to be sure, but his talent was as an alchemist: he put together bands that sounded like bands. His bands. (He once said: “Some people dig ditches. I lead bands.”) The invisible glue of the ensemble, the attitude, the X factor of Woody’s bands was Woody. His unpretentious manner was that of an old vaudevillian who never tried to be anything but himself, all the while harnessing the wind of a ferocious group of young modern jazz musicians.
He loathed the soft nostalgia that was associated with big bands in the years that stretched away from the swing era, and his reward for a long career was to confront such degrading attitudes more and more with every passing year. A corrupt manager left too many taxes unpaid in the 60s, and Woody spent the rest of his life on the road, dying in debt in 1987. His story could be interpreted as a great American tragedy – riches to rags, fame to oblivion – if anyone could believe he was capable of self-pity. His musical personality is simply too full of unsentimental good nature and idiosyncratic wacky humor.
Trombonist Phil Wilson, a star of the early 60s Herd, once said: “Woody Herman does what he does better than anyone…if only we could figure out what he does.”
Here’s Woody’s antidote to nostalgia, a performance of “Caldonia” from 1964: