Woodrow Charles “Woody” Herman (May 16, 1913 – October 29, 1987) was an American jazz clarinettist, alto and soprano saxophonist, singer, and big band leader. Leading various groups called “The Herd”, Herman was one of the most popular of the 1930s and 1940s bandlead-ers. His bands often played music that was experimental for its time. He was a featured halftime performer for Super Bowl VII.
Herman was born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on May 16, 1913. His parents were Otto and Myrtle Herman. His father had a deep love for show business and this influenced Woody Herman at an early age. As a child he worked as a singer and tap-dancer in Vaudeville, then started to play the clarinet and saxophone by age 12. In 1931, he met Charlotte Neste, an aspiring actress; they married on September 27, 1936. Woody Herman joined the Tom Gerun band and his first recorded vocals were Lonesome Me and My Heart’s at Ease. Herman also performed with the Harry Sosnick orchestra, Gus Arnheim and Isham Jones. Isham Jones wrote many popular songs, including It Had to Be You and at some point was tiring of the demands of leading a band. Jones wanted to live off the residuals of his songs; Woody Her-man saw the chance to lead his former band, and eventually acquired the remains of the orchestra after Jones’ retirement.
Woody Herman’s first band became known for its orchestrations of the blues and was sometimes billed as The Band That Plays The Blues. This band recorded for the Decca label, at first serving as a cover band, doing songs by other Decca artists. The first song recorded was Wintertime Blues on November 6, 1936. In January 1937, George T. Simon closed a review of the band with the words: “This Herman outfit bears watching; not only because it’s fun listening to in its present stages, but also be-cause it’s bound to reach even greater stages.” After two and a half years on the label, the band had its first hit, Woodchopper’s Ball re-corded in 1939. Woody Herman remembered that Woodchopper’s Ball started out slowly at first. “It was really a sleeper. But Decca kept re-releasing it, and over a period of three or four years it became a hit. Eventually it sold more than five million copies—the biggest hit I ever had.” Other hits for the band include The Golden Wedding and Blue Prelude. Musicians and arrangers that stand out include Cappy Lewis on trumpet and Dean Kincaide, a big band arranger.
In jazz, swing was gradually being replaced by bebop. Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpeter and one of the originators of bop, wrote three arrangements for Woody Herman, Woody’n You, Swing Shift and Down Under. These were arranged in 1942. Woody’n You was not used at the time. Down Under was recorded November 8, 1943. The fact that Herman commis-sioned Gillespie to write arrangements for the band and that Herman hired Ralph Burns as a staff arranger, heralded a change in the style of music the band was playing.
In February 1945, the band started a contract with Columbia Records. Herman liked what drew many artists to Columbia, Liederkranz Hall, at the time the best recording venue in New York City. The first side Her-man recorded was Laura, the theme song of the 1944 movie of the same name. Herman’s version was so successful that it made Columbia hold the arrangement that Harry James had recorded days earlier. The Co-lumbia contract coincided with a change in the band’s repertoire. The 1944 group, which he called the First Herd, was famous for its progres-sive jazz. The First Herd’s music was heavily influenced by Duke El-lington and Count Basie. Its lively, swinging arrangements, combining bop themes with swing rhythm parts, were greatly admired. As of Feb-ruary 1945 the personnel included Bill Harris, Sonny Berman, Pete Can-doli, Billy Bauer (later replaced by Chuck Wayne), Ralph Burns, Davey Tough and Flip Phillips. On February 26, 1945 in New York City, the Woody Herman band recorded Caldonia.
Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns collaborated on the arrangement of Caldo-nia that the Herman band used. “Ralph caught Louis Jordan [singing Caldonia] in an act and wrote the opening twelve bars and the eight bar tag.” “But the most amazing thing on the record was a soaring eight bar passage by trumpets near the end.” These eight measures have wrongly been attributed to a Gillespie solo, but were in fact originally written by Neal Hefti. George T. Simon compares Hefti with Gillespie in a 1944 review for Metronome magazine saying, “Like Dizzy […], Hefti has an abundance of good ideas, with which he has aided Ralph Burns im-mensely”.
Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns collaborated on the arrangement of Caldonia that the Herman band used. “Ralph caught Louis Jordan [singing Caldonia] in an act and wrote the opening twelve bars and the eight bar tag.” “But the most amazing thing on the record was a soaring eight bar passage by trumpets near the end.” These eight measures have wrongly been attributed to a Gillespie solo, but were in fact originally written by Neal Hefti. George T. Simon compares Hefti with Gillespie in a 1944 review for Metronome magazine saying, “Like Dizzy […], Hefti has an abundance of good ideas, with which he has aided Ralph Burns immensely”.
In 1946 the band won Down Beat, Metronome, Billboard and Esquire polls for best band, nominated by their peers in the big band business. Along with the high acclaim for their jazz and blues performances, classical composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the Ebony Concerto, one in a series of compositions commissioned by Herman with solo clarinet, for this band. Herman recorded this work in the Belock Recording Studio in Bayside New York. Throughout the history of jazz, there have always been musicians who sought to combine it with classical music. Ebony Concerto is one in a long line of music from the twenties to the present day that seeks to do this. Herman said about the Concerto: “The Ebony Concerto is a very delicate and a very sad piece.” Stravinsky felt that the jazz musicians would have a hard time with the various time signa-tures. Saxophonist Flip Philips said, “During the rehearsal […] there was a passage I had to play there and I was playing it soft, and Stravinsky said ‘Play it, here I am!’ and I blew it louder and he threw me a kiss!”
In his own original way Stravinsky noticed the massive amount of smoking at the recording session: “the atmosphere looked like Pernod clouded by water.” Ebony Concerto was performed live by the Herman band on March 25, 1946 at Carnegie Hall.
Despite the Carnegie Hall success and other triumphs, Herman was forced to disband the orchestra in 1946 at the height of its success. This was his only financially successful band; he left it to spend more time with his wife and family.
One reason Herman may have disbanded was his wife Charlotte’s growing problems with alcoholism and pill addiction. Charlotte Herman joined Alcoholics Anonymous and gave up everything she was addicted to. Woody said, laughing, “I went to an AA meeting with Charlotte and my old band was sitting there.” Many critics cite December 1946 as the actual date the big-band era ended, when seven other bands, in addition to Herman’s, dissolved. The Second Herd and other bands 1947–87. In 1947, Herman organized the Second Herd. This band was also known as The Four Brothers Band. This derives from the song recorded December 27, 1947 for Columbia records, Four Brothers, written by Jimmy Giuf-fre. “The ‘Four Brothers’ chart is based on the chord changes of Jeepers Creepers, and features the three-tenor, one-baritone saxophone section”.
The order of the saxophone solos is Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Herbie Steward, and Stan Getz. Some of the notable musicians of this band were also Al Cohn, Gene Ammons, Lou Levy, Oscar Pettiford, Terry Gibbs, and Shelly Manne. Among this band’s hits were Early Autumn, and The Goof and I. The band was popular enough that they went to Hollywood in the mid-nineteen forties. Herman and his band appear in the movie New Orleans in 1947 with Billie Holiday and Louis Arm-strong. From the late 1940s to the end of his life, record labels Herman recorded for include RCA, Capitol, MGM and Verve .
Herman’s other bands include the Third Herd (1950–56) and various editions of the New Thundering Herd (1959–87). In the 1950s, the Third Herd went on a successful European tour. He was known for hiring the best young musicians and using their arrangements. In the early and mid 1960s, Herman gained a wider recognition by fronting one of the most exciting Herds to date that featured future stellar names like Mi-chael Moore (bassist), drummer Jake Hanna, tenor saxophonist Sal Nis-tico, trombonists Phil Wilson and Henry Southall and trumpeters like Bill Chase, Paul Fontaine and Dusko Goykovitch. By 1968, the Her-man library came to be heavily influenced by rock and roll. He was also known to feature brass and woodwind instruments not traditionally as-sociated with jazz, such as the bassoon, oboe or French horn.
In the early 1970s he toured frequently and began to work more in jazz education, offering workshops and taking on younger sidemen. For this reason he got the nickname Road Father. In 1974, Woody Herman’s “Young Thundering Herd” appeared without their leader for Frank Sina-tra’s television special The Main Event and subsequent album, The Main Event – Live. Both were recorded mainly on October 13, 1974 at Madi-son Square Garden in New York City. On November 20, 1976, a recon-stituted Woody Herman band played at Carnegie Hall in New York City, celebrating Herman’s fortieth anniversary as a bandleader. By the 1980s, Herman had returned to straight-ahead jazz, dropping some of the newer rock and fusion approaches. Herman signed a recording con-tract with Concord Records around 1980, now called the Concord Music Group. In 1981, John S. Wilson warmly reviewed one of Herman’s first Concord recordings Woody Herman Presents a Concord Jam, Vol. I. Wilson’s review says that the recording presents a band that is less fre-netic than his bands from the forties to the seventies. Instead it takes the listener back to the relaxed style of Herman’s first band of the thirties that recorded for Decca.
Herman continued to perform well into the 1980s, after the death of his wife and with his health in decline, chiefly to pay back taxes caused by his business manager’s bookkeeping in the 1960s. As a result, Woody Herman owed the IRS millions of dollars and was in danger of eviction from his home. With the added stress, Herman still kept performing. In a December 5, 1985, review of the band at the Blue Note jazz club for The New York Times, John S. Wilson pointed out: “In a one-hour set, Mr. Herman is able to show off his latest batch of young stars—the baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola, the bassist Bill Moring, the pianist Brad Williams, the trumpeter Ron Stout—and to remind listeners that one of his own basic charms is the dry humour with which he shouts the blues.” Wilson also spoke about arrangements by Bill Holman and John Fedchock for special attention. Wilson spoke of the continuing influence of Duke Ellington on Woody Herman bands from the nineteen forties to the nineteen eighties. Before Woody Her-man died in 1987 he delegated most of his duties to leader of the reed section, Frank Tiberi. Tiberi leads the current version of the Woody.
Herman orchestra. Tiberi said at the time of Herman’s death that he would not change the band’s repertoire or library. Herman had a Catho-lic funeral on November 2, 1987, in West Hollywood, California. He is interred in a niche in the columbarium behind the Cathedral Mausoleum in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Concord Music Group’s website mentions these awards won by the various Woody Herman orchestras: “Voted best swing band in 1945 Down Beat poll; Silver Award by crit-ics in 1946 and 1947 Esquire polls; won Metronome poll, band division, 1946 and 1953; won NARAS Grammy Award for Encore as best big band jazz album of 1963; won NARAS Grammy Award for Giant Steps as best big band jazz album of 1973.” Woody Herman was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
A documentary film titled Woody Herman: Blue Flame- Portrait of a Jazz Legend was released on DVD in late 2012 by the jazz documentary filmmaker Graham Carter, owner of Jazzed Media, to salute Herman and his centenary in May 2013.