Woody Herman - Biography

By Nick Castro


Woody Herman was a swing era big band leader who was born in 1913 as Woodrow Charles Herman. Herman played many different types of horns but is mainly famous for his clarinet playing and singing. He led a rotating cast of musicians that he called The Herd. Many famous players came through the ranks including Dizzy Gillespie, Shelly Manne, Oscar Pettiford and Al Cohn. Herman seemed to draw energy from the young players he would champion and he was always striving to keep his sound updated.


When Herman was still a child he was already performing in vaudeville as a singer and, soon after, took up the saxophone. By the time he was 15 he was playing music professionally. His first big band experiences were with Harry Sosnik, Tom Gerun and Gus Arnheim, who had many famous players go through his group such as Bing Crosby and Stan Kenton. Herman recorded vocals with Gerun's band on the sides "My Heart's at Ease" and Lonesome Me". In 1934  Herman would meet a bandleader who would prove hugley important to his career, Isham Jones.


Jones is famous for writing the song "It Had to Be You". Jones was also known to create bands and then just as quickly break them up. This would be the case with the orchestra Herman was with when in 1936 Jones had had enough of the group. Herman picked up the fragments and created his own group from the wreckage. Herman's band became famous for doing blues songs such as "At the Woodchopper's Ball", which was his first hit and has become a classic of the swing era. Herman's band was well known as "The Band That Plays The Blues". The first Herd, as Herman called them, played a lot of dixieland material along with the blues repertoire.  This first line-up consisted of players who go on to have famous and brilliant careers such as Flip Philips and Sonny Berman, who, unfortunately, had his flame extinguished at the beginning  of a career that, though short, has remained an influence of trumpet playing today when he died of a drug overdose at age 22. This playing can be heard on Herman sides such as "Sidewalks of Cuba". Herman's band then hired singer Mary Ann McCall who sang alongside Herman. They signed to Decca records and for a short time were featuring the solos of the singing and trumpet playing of Billie Rogers, who is still one of the few female players in jazz who is not solely a singer. Incidentally Herman would also have a female vibraphonist, Marjorie Hyams.


Herman became increasingly interested in keeping his band sounding new and fresh and he made bold and forward thinking moves such as when he recorded an arrangement by Dizzie Gillespie for a song called "Down Under". This arrangement could be called bebop due to its complex changes and interpretations of harmony. The next year Herman would be record sides featuring saxophonists, from the Duke Ellington band, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster. Webster was one of the Big Three, as they were known. The other two swing saxophonists being Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. It was obvious that the arrangements of Ellington were becoming increasingly influential in the sound of the Herman band. Ellington was already famous for strange arrangements that could not be matched by any other band of his time. Ellington was the undisputed king of all of the orchestras. Herman strived for that sense of ingenuity himself and he would soon be considered the premiere new act of the times. With arrangers Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns writing for the band and with strong soloists in place Herman had a string of hits including "Northwest Passage", "Bijou" and "Apple Honey". In 1945 Herman's band recorded a version of the song Louis Jordan had had a hit with, "Caldonia". The band was flying high when they won the polls for best band in several publications including Downbeat, Billboard, Metronome and Esquire.


Around this time they caught the attention of famed composer Igor Stravinsky and vice versa. Herman commissioned Stravinsky to write a composition for him so Stravinsky wrote "Ebony Concerto". Herman ended up recording this concerto and was a groundbreaking combination of classical and swing. Stravinksy's scores was one of the most challenging the group would face.


In 1946 Herman disbanded the group to move to California and deal with the family problems he was facing at the time, including his wife's alcoholism. This was unfortunate because by this time the band was making good money which was becoming increasingly rare for an orchestra that size. By the next year Herman was ready to begin the next phase of his career and formed what was known as The Second Herd. This incarnation was also known as the Four Brothers band named after the song, "Four Brothers", written by Jimmy Giuffre, as which displayed the signature sound of this news horn sections, which consisted of Giuffre as well as saxophonists Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Stan Getz and Baritone player Serge Chaloff. They became well known for their complex close harmonies and solos which often would trade in rapid competition. The band started to develop into something new and amazing but the weight of financial burden began to take hold and prove to be too much for them to handle. All of the orchestras, other than Ellington and Count Basie, could not afford to pay so many musicians and the new style of bebop favored the small combo sound so many players left the large orchestras to pursue solo careers as leaders of their bands. This happened to the Four Brothers Band in 1949, the same year many orchestras collapsed. This is known as the year swing died.


Herman continued to play well into the 80's but sometime in the 60's he had hired some bad accountants who caused Herman to owe so much money in back taxes that he had to continue performing, even after the death of his wife and his health had begun to deteriorate. Woody Herman died in 1987 and is buried in Los Angeles. He passed the torch as bandleader and the orchestra continues to play his arrangements to this day.








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