© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
There is an old admonition that states: “If you can’t say or write something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
When that someone is Woody Herman, saying something nice is never a problem.
Woody was one of the most beloved musicians in the history of Jazz. He was good to everyone and nearly everyone who entered his beneficent realm did their utmost to be good to him.
Over the half a century that he led his big bands and small groups, Woody became known to a host of young musicians whom he helped begin their careers in the Jazz World as the “Road Father.”
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember the Road Father on these pages with appreciations by three distinguished writers that more-or-less cover the beginnings, middle years and closing years of Woody’s career.
George T. Simon
The Big Bands, 4th Ed.
New York: Schirmer Books, 1981
"HE'S a clean-cut-looking lad with a nice smile that should attract the dancers; he sings very nicely and plays good clarinet, both attributes that command musical respect, and he's very much of a gentleman and real all-around nice guy whom you'd like to know even better off the stand."
That's what I wrote about Woody Herman in January, 1937. It was a part of the very favorable review I'd accorded his brand new band at New York's Roseland Ballroom. As the years went by, I realized my wish. I got to know Woody "even better off the stand," very much better, in fact, and discovered, as so many others have during the past thirty years, that this is one of the real pros, both as a performer and as a mature human being. His warmth, his enthusiasm, his intelligence and his integrity—in addition, of course, to his musical taste, talent and perception—have made him one of the most thoroughly successful and popular leaders of all time.
He's always had good bands, and one major reason has been that musicians invariably like to work for him. Nat Pierce, who served as his pianist, arranger and general aide for many years, recently put it this way: "We never feel we're actually working for the man. It's more like working with him. He appreciates what we're doing and he lets us know it. And the guys appreciate him and respect him. So they work all the harder."
Jake Hanna, the superb drummer who, after having played for other leaders, finally blossomed in Woody's band, has this explanation: "Woody's flexible. He goes along with the way the band feels instead of sticking strictly to the book. That makes it always interesting and exciting for us. If a man's really blowing, Woody doesn't stop him after eight bars because the arrangement says so. He lets him keep on wailing."
"Flexible" is the key word here. Woody has managed through the years to adjust himself to the wants, talents and even the personalities of his musicians; yet he has retained their respect so completely that he has rarely had to assert himself as their leader. He has succeeded, too, in adjusting his music to the times, so that during its thirty-year history his band has never sounded old-fashioned even while staying within the bounds of general public acceptance. "I think," he once told writer Gene Lees in Down Beat, "I'm a good organizer and a good editor."
Leonard Feather once wrote: "No name bandleader has ever been better liked by the men who worked for him as well as those for whom he works." That comment reminds me of what happened during the band's initial Roseland date. Woody had both a loud band and high musical ideals. The ballroom manager, a man named Joe Belford, who looked like a Green Bay lineman, used to bellow to the band to play waltzes, rumbas, tangos and sambas, none of which it had in its books and none of which it would have played on principle anyway. Woody handled Joe beautifully. He'd just bust out in a grin, bellow back kiddingly at Belford, tell him to get lost and quit bothering him. And he'd continue playing what he wanted to. So good-natured was Woody's approach, and yet so firm and so positive, that Belford not only took it but became one of the band's biggest fans.”
Doug Ramsey -
Woody Herman 1963: The Swingin’est Band Ever [Verve Records – 314 589 490-2, Philips – PHS 600-065]
Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers
Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1989. You can locate more information on this book and how to purchase it by going here.
“Some jazz soloists travel around the country appearing with pickup local rhythm sections. If Woody Herman decided to strike out as a single, in many cities he could put together seventeen-piece bands
composed entirely of his alumni. Legions of musicians have passed through the Herman herds since "The Band That Plays the Blues" was formed in 1936. In New York and Los Angeles Woody could depopulate the studios by recalling the herdsmen.
There are so many Herman graduates in the lounges, pits, clubs, and sound stages of Los Angeles and Las Vegas that in his madder moments Woody dreams a scene DeMilleian in scope. Along the desert highway between the movie capital and the gambling mecca runs a line of horn players interrupted every few miles by a rhythm section, a straight lineup band like the one Herman used to perch on the back bar at the Metropole in New York, but infinite. Woody patrols in a jeep, keeping the time straight and shouting out the number of the next tune.
The Who's Who quality of that imaginary lineup is staggering. Among the trumpeters are Conte and Pete Candoli, Sonny Berman, Bill Chase, Don Ellis, Nat Adderley, Shorty Rogers, Red Rodney, Ernie Royal, Cappy Lewis, Al Porcino; trombonists Bill Harris, Carl Fontana, Bill Watrous, Urbie Green; bassists Oscar Pettiford, Chubby Jackson, Red Mitchell, Red Kelly; pianists Jimmy Rowles, Vince Guaraldi, Lou Levy, Nat Pierce, Dave McKenna; vibraharp-ists Milt Jackson, Terry Gibbs, Red Norvo, Margie Hyams; drummers Dave Tough, Cliff Leeman, Don Lamond, Shelly Manne, Jake Hanna, Chuck Flores; guitarists Chuck Wayne and Billy Bauer; and of course the pantheon of saxophonists, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, Gene Ammons, Flip Phillips, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff, Al Belletto, Bill Perkins, Richie Kamuca, Don Lanphere, Sal Nistico, Joe Romano, Frank Tiberi, Leonard Garment. Leonard Garment?...
Herman says he lost track of the number of Third Herds somewhere along the way. I can't recall whether the band still carried that subtitle when the music in this collection was recorded in late 1962. This was a newly formed band, one of the most exciting Woody fronted in the sixties. It had in abundance the qualities Woody is able to impart to seventeen men; vitality, joy, humor, a time feeling that seems to spring from a single pulse and that mysterious artful something that sets Herman apart as a leader.
It had marvelous soloists in Sal Nistico, one of the most exciting of those Italian-American tenor men who keep popping onto the jazz scene from upstate New York; trumpeter Bill Chase and trombonist Phil Wilson, high note specialists who were not only magnificent lead players but trenchant improvisers; and Nat Pierce, a pianist who also has provided some of Herman's most serviceable arrangements over the past two decades. The ensemble sound of this band was unfailingly bright and full. The superb rhythm section was sparked by drummer Jake Hanna, as perfect for this band as was Dave Tough for the First Herd.”
Rhythm-a-ning: Jazz Tradition and Innovation in the 80’s
New York: Da Capo Press, 1985
“Woody Herman must be one of the least disliked persons on earth. It isn't just sentimentality. Herman's name is a quality brand, representing craftsmanship, integrity, and receptiveness to new ideas. So when it was announced that Herman—who has been a traveling performer since the age of eight and a bandleader since 1936—was coming off the road to settle in a room of his own (opening night: December 27, 1981), there was considerable hoopla. It was widely assumed that Herman would be delighted to plant his feet on one patch of earth. But Herman is of another school, almost another world.
In the '30s and '40s, musicians roamed the land in herds. Crisscrossing a grid of interstate highways and back roads, corralled in buses, billeted according to celebrity status and race, and developing a collective, arcane wit to complement the music and to fight fatigue, they moved from town to town, ballroom to ballroom, glad for the occasional two-week stay but always ready to pack up after the gig for another long trip. Swing bands, fifteen to twenty strong on the average, were one of the Depression's more unlikely phenomena. Although many were sickly sweet or bland and derivative, more than a few were hot, impetuous, energetic, inventive, and inspired. These were the bands that combined strong leaders, brilliant soloists, adventurous writers, and the best songs of a golden age of song writing. Individual in their style of presentation as well as in their music, they coexisted in an atmosphere of friendly, if sometimes tension-ridden, competition. The stubbornest road musicians probably got to know America better than any of its other citizens, certainly than any of its other artists. But few were either stubborn or strong enough to survive the social and economic changes that followed World War II. And only two—Count Basie and Woody Herman—were also both gifted and lucky enough to survive into the '80s. They are as obsolete as buffalo, and just as grand. …
Herman occupies a unique place among the handful of great bandleaders who survived the era that gave them life. Ellington is beyond time, and Ellingtonia is a language unto itself; Basie employs a variety of writers (including a few Herman alumni) but invariably stamps them with the Basie signature. Herman's Herds, however, have served in the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on, interpreting, and reworking the changes in jazz. Herman keeps up with fashions yet refuses to succumb to their excesses. His bands have been as distinct from one another as they have been from other outfits, but they've all been governed by Herman's sense of taste, proportion, and adventure. He disdains fusion and is appalled when gifted musicians leave his band to play sound tracks and jingles or compromise their individuality to play trash. He didn't stay on the road 46 years to compromise.”