Personalities | Woody Herman | Forties | Jazz & Blues

Woodrow ‘Woody’ Herman (originally Herrmann) led several of the most exciting big bands in jazz history, hitting peaks of achievement in the 1940s that few have equalled.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1913 to German immigrants, Herman began his stage career in vaudeville as a child, but his ambition was to lead his own band. He played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone and the clarinet, as well as singing. He worked for a number of bands before joining Isham Jones in 1934.

He fulfilled his ambition to become a bandleader almost by default in 1936, when Jones unexpectedly broke up his band in Knoxville. The players decided to continue as a co-operative band, and Herman was elected as leader of the group. Known as the Band That Plays The Blues, they began to win a big following. ‘Woodchoppers Ball’ was a huge hit in 1939, selling some five million copies (‘It was great,’ Herman said later, ‘the first thousand times we played it’).

New Directions For The Herd

In the early 1940s, more sophisticated arrangements gradually began to usurp the less formal ‘head’ structures that had been the band’s staple format. Arrangers such as Dave Matthews, Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns had changed the sound of the band by the time it was officially known as Herman’s Herd (later referred to as the First Herd) from 1943. By late 1945 the band was regularly winning popularity polls and setting new box-office records. Igor Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto for them, and the concerto was premiered at Carnegie Hall in March 1946, alongside Ralph Burns’s ‘Summer Sequence’, later completed by the famous Stan Getz feature ‘Early Autumn’.

The Woodchoppers, a small band drawn from the ranks of the orchestra, also achieved success. The band’s notable players included trumpeters Conte Condoli, trombonist Bill Harris, saxophonist Flip Phillips, pianist Ralph Burns, and drummers Dave Tough and then Don Lamond. Herman eventually broke up the First Herd at the height of its popularity in December 1946, for domestic reasons.

Four Brothers

The break-up proved a temporary departure. Herman had formed his Second Herd by October 1947 with a new generation of stars in the making, including the famous ‘Four Brothers’ saxophone section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward (soon to be replaced by Al Cohn) and Serge Chaloff. Their three-tenors-plus-baritone setup was the Second Herd’s distinctive signature sound.

The band reflected a more overt bebop influence than the First Herd, but was also plagued by a less welcome borrowing from bebop – heroin addiction. Moreover, despite the Second Herd’s significant musical success, the economies of the music business had turned against big bands and Herman incurred large financial losses. Several key players departed in 1949 and by the end of the year Herman had accepted the inevitable and broken up the band, forming a septet instead.

The Herd Swings On

But Herman could not stay away from big bands for long. The Third Herd ran for much of the 1950s...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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