© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
With the recent arrival of the Mosaic Records boxed set The Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954) [MD7-267] and its informative booklet notes by Jeffrey Sultanof, the editorial staff at Jazz Profiles was reminded of a previous effort by Mosaic to represent Woody’s music comprehensively.
In 2001, the label issued MD7-223 The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman [1945-1947], with booklet notes by the esteemed Jazz scholar and musician, Loren Schoenberg.
We wrote to Michael Cuscuna at Mosaic and Loren directly to request their permission to reproduce a portion of the booklet notes from the now out-of-print Columbia/Herman set and both sent along their approval.
Loren Schoenberg is the former Executive Director of and now Senior Scholar at The Jazz Museum in Harlem, and plays and teaches jazz internationally. He is also the author of The NPR Curious Listener's Guide To Jazz and has won two Grammy Awards for Best Album Notes. Over the years he has been a great friend to Jazz and its makers and Jazz fans everywhere have benefited from his dedication to preserving and documenting the music.
The following post includes his Introduction to the Mosaic Records Columbia/Herman boxed set and his Interview with Woody Herman, both of which precede the Session notes. It does not include the 30+ pages of Session notes, which are a masterful example of discography at its finest, but which wouldn’t have much impact without the actual music as an accompaniment.
Loren’s interview with Woody took place on February 5, 1984 in NYC before an engagement by the band at The Rainbow Room.
© - Mosaic Records/Loren Schoenberg, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
“Woody Herman’s tremendous success in the mid '40s was one the last bright moments during the tail end of the Swing Era. At a time when the big bands were being decisively challenged by a growing trend towards small groups, the burning excitement and new sounds of the Herman band stemmed the tide, at least for a moment. Playing the brilliant arrangements of the 22 year old Ralph Burns, Herman and his Thundering Herds made music that is as electrifying today as it was six decades ago.
Many elements conspired to make the Woody Herman Herd of 1944-6 one of the greatest in jazz’s big band pantheon. Woody's first band was known for almost a decade as “The Band That Plays The Blues”, Herman had been edging towards a new musical identity. It was to change his band from one that mined a bountiful heritage to one that would help point in new musical directions. 1944 was a tumultuous time in the jazz world - it was time for a change. Among the most significant voices in this evolution were: Ellington’s band with Ben Webster, Jimmy Blanton and Billy Strayhorn; the Basie band with the futurist Lester Young; Benny Goodman’s Sextet (featuring Young's leading disciple Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton) and big band, which had found new musical territories courtesy of Eddie Sauter; trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge; saxophonist Charlie Parker; drummers Sid Catlett and Kenny Clarke; pianists Art Tatum, Nat Cole, Ken Kersey, Thelonious Monk and Nat Jaffe.
Bassist Chubby Jackson was really the motivating force that led to the creation of this Herman unit. As a member of the 1943 Charlie Barnet band, he had been instrumental in the hiring of Oscar Pettiford, Howard McGhee and others, all of whom were involved in the new music. Ralph Burns found inspiration for his own burgeoning style from these, and the aforementioned musicians. A similar thing had happened in the Kansas City of the late '20s, when arranger Eddie Durham blended the innovations of his peers in the Walter Page and Bennie Moten band with his own orchestral ideas into what became known as the Kansas City big band style, of which Count Basie was the prime exponent. As Burns told me in 1995: “I was on the road with Charlie for about a year but then (vocalist) Frances Wayne left Charlie to go with Woody Herman, and Chubby Jackson left, and then Woody was looking for somebody to start writing for him. He wanted to change the style of his band, so Frances and Chubby said 'Why don’t you hire Ralph Burns?' Woody was looking around for a whole image change. Before then, he had this kind of dixieland band - they called it Woody Herman and the Woodchoppers, and so he wanted to get into something more modern. So Chubby gathered the nucleus, and I was one of the first people he hired”.
Much credit must be given to Woody for so radically overhauling his image. This was no minor detour - little did he know that within a few months he would jump from being in the middle of the second-tier bands right to the top of the heap! It was the right band at the right time. The original matrix for the big band era had already been broken and remolded once - could it stand another sea change? The answer was a resounding yes. There is no disputing that Billy Eckstine’s band (an outgrowth of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and Eckstine’s presence in Earl Hines’ 1943 group) was bridging the same gap at the same time, and that it housed the creators who defined the new idiom. But given the racial realities of the time, it was Herman’s band that had the golden commercial opportunity to bring these new sounds to the center of the music world in 1944. Burns, in his typically modest way, understated his tremendous achievement: “(Arranger) Dave Matthews started it with Woody - Dave had the Duke Ellington sound, and Woody loved it. I came on and went from there. With me it wasn’t exactly a Duke Ellington sound, but it was a jazz sound - it was combination of who I listened to, which were Ellington, Goodman and Basie, and that’s the way I wrote.” The Herman band played the new music to a tee - aided immeasurably by the diminutive drummer Dave Tough. Of all the contributors to this band’s success, he along with Burns retains a prime role. A product of Chicago’s wild jazz scene of the '20s, Tough was an intellectual. He became a mentor to his peers in things aesthetic, exposing them to the world of art galleries, literature and the arts in general.
The late '20s found Tough abroad, where his unorthodox yet physically stimulating approach were well received. His rare combination of musical and intellectual prowess allowed him to become more than a casual acquaintance of such disparate figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Prince of Wales. The '30s found Tough buoying the bands of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, where he delighted in acting an a musical agent provocateur. In spite of all of this, Jackson and his young Turks were skeptical when Herman told them that the (ancient by their standard) 36 year-old Tough was joining the band. Suffice it to say that he became a guru to them in no time. His musical sense of humor (one loaded with irony), coupled with a commensurate depth and his ability to, as the saying used to go “swing you into bad health”, brought them around within a matter of measures.
This collection comprises the complete recordings of both that band, known as The Herd, and the band that followed it, known as the Second Herd, which then received the appellation of being the First Herd. There are many newly issued alternate takes, songs that have never been issued in any form before, and thankfully several solos from one of the band’s greatest players, the trumpeter Sonny Berman, who died at the age of 21 in January 1947, and in whose slim recorded legacy these new items take on tremendous significance.
For the best written records of Herman’s eventful life, look to Gene Lees’s Woody Herman: Leader of the Band for an overview, and for the more devoted fan, Woody Herman: Chronicles of the Herds by William D. Clancy and Audree Coke Kenton. The majority of the evolution of these bands is covered in musical terms in the session notes, but to set the stage, here is an edited version (some of my rambling questions have been shortened and rephrased for clarity) of an interview Woody granted me early on in the evening of February 5, 1984 while he trying to shave and get dressed for a gig with an all-star band assembled for him at The Rainbow Room. His patience was extraordinary, as was his generosity of spirit and honesty at a time when he was facing great personal and professional crises.
LS: You deserve the thanks of so many people in the music community because you could name on one hand the band leaders who have kept the band going throughout the years and stayed on the road and of course you’re out there with Duke Ellington and Basie.
WH: Well I have my own method for the madness and it’s pretty basic. I finally came to the conclusion; it took me a lot of years to realize that it’s terribly important to be on the road. I believe that if you want to play the music that you really want to play you can’t stay in any one place. In other words you can’t stay in New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas or anywhere in the world for that matter because soon you will be playing the music that someone else wants you to play. And if you seek your own independence musically, I think then you’d better stay on the road, and that’s what I’ve done all these years.
LS: I know that the first band that you recorded with was Tom Gerun.
WH: It was a band from San Francisco made up of mostly West Coast people, and eventually we had some interesting people, people that at least had reputations. People like Tony Martin, who was a singer in the band. He also played saxophone. And Ginny Sims was a girl singer before she was with Kay Kyser and so on.
LS: Did you start in vaudeville?
WH: Yeah I did.
LS: Did that have anything to do with Ted Lewis?
WH: No, I don’t think so, but if you were in show business then you were very important to our kind of people and consequently my parents were very ambitious for me and so they helped prod me along and I was interested for the first few years and then by the time I started to enter high school and become a teenager I was no longer involved in show biz. I didn’t have any eyes for that. I wanted to become a hot jazz musician completely, and then of course my parents suffered a terrible nervous breakdown about that one, but they got over it alright and that seemed to work out ok.
LS: Who were your first role models and what did you first start playing...the clarinet I assume?
WH: Yeah. I played the saxophone, clarinet...but saxophone was actually my first instrument and then I listened to anybody that played the saxophone, and including some of the more stellar soloists like Rudy Wiedoeft and people...
LS: Sure. How about Frankie Trumbauer?
WH: Oh yes. He was marvelous. I was very impressed with him. You know I think something that probably not too many people have made comparisons with concerning Frankie Trumbauer and someone like Johnny Hodges who was a basic influence one way or another.
LS: And Lester Young too?
WH: Oh yes.
LS: Who were the first musicians that you got to see in person...jazz musicians that either came through on the road or that you got to see in Chicago...?
WH: Well, showbiz and vaudeville and everything else I saw a lot of people who played with people’s acts and so on who were really very often jazz musicians. People in Ted Lewis’s band were some very excellent jazz players of that period and they were very impressive to me.
LS: Muggsy Spanier and George Brunies and...
WH: They were great Dixielanders or whatever you want to call them. And of course I think that some of the great American song writers had their own bands. People like Isham Jones that I worked for and he would play many weeks a year in theaters, just playing his hits, and the audience loved his music so it worked.
LS: What was your ideal situation back then? Were you looking to play in a band and to be a featured saxophone player and clarinetist?
WH: No. I think right from the very beginning, from the time I was a child I had made up my mind I was going to be a band leader. I would get this thing going whatever it was. And so it was a very important ambition. When I was in high school I started to listen to a lot more records than I’d had the possibility of hearing, even then it was difficult, but I got to hear people like The Original Dixieland Band and eventually I think the man that impressed me the most by far and away was a young man from Washington, D.C. by the name of Ellington who had an eight piece band called the Washingtonians and I had a couple of those records and they turned me on pretty good so... He to this very day is still my biggest and most important influence in American music. He is the epitome.
LS: I guess it was also around this time that you heard Louis Armstrong on records?
WH: Oh yes. I heard Louis and during that very same period I'd go hear Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson at the Grand Terrace in Chicago which turned me around completely.
LS: But I can see how Duke Ellington was actually your premiere influence because you already had eyes towards band leading. I guess the band leading came out of the fact that when you kind of took over what was left of Isham Jones’ band. Were those your first experiences band leading or did you actually have little bands?
WH: Oh, I had little groups at one point or another, but the Isham Jones thing...there were five of us actually that stayed together then hired other people. So we were really not an Isham Jones band, but we were some of his former members. Plus the fact that we actually believed that what we could do and play pretty well was to play some blues and that was really the basis of our first band because we didn’t feel that we were too extremely capable in other directions but with the blues we were comfortable.
LS: What can you tell us about Isham Jones?
WH: Well he was a very unobtrusive kind of person unless of course he became annoyed with something and then he could be very obtrusive but the truth of the matter is that as long as you did your work properly and showmanly and more important professionally, you had no problems with Isham, but if you left any of the other things open for argument you’d get plenty of those. But if you were a capable player and sincere one he took good care of you.
LS: How would you describe the rhythmic feel of that band? Did it actually swing at times?
WH: There were moments you know...it certainly wasn’t based on being a heavy swinging swing band, but we had some good players and I think we usually had part of a very good rhythm section.
LS: Did Jones arrange his own tunes himself?
WH: On occasion, but a lot of his writing was done by people like Gordon Jenkins, who was a pianist in the band for a while. Joe Bishop wrote a lot of tunes, and he had many contributors, people who were interested because I think, in fact I know they respected his ability as a writer and so that they sought his advice and I think it worked very often.
LS: His band broke up just about the time that Goodman’s band started to take off. Was that one of the reasons that he gave up having a band?
WH: I don’t think so. I think he was just kind of tired of the whole thing and he was not in a financial position where he needed very much. In other words he was sufficiently taken care of as far as he was concerned. He was a very important songwriter in America and he was an ASCAP triple-A writer, and so he wasn’t hurting to put it bluntly.
LS: Was Tom Gerun’s band in the same league as Isham Jones?
WH: Well no, it was more of an entertaining band basically. It wasn’t quite as musical, however it had some good points and we had some quite good players in the band at different times. Tom Gerun was a business person and he was not a musician, but he knew that it was important to have very good musicians and so that’s what he tried for and so we always had a pretty comfortable band. As a matter of fact I think an easy way to make a comparison would be that I got to know when I first went to San Francisco with Gerun I got to know Phil Harris who had a band across the town at the St. Francis Hotel with a partner. His name was Carol Loffner, and he had a pretty decent swinging band for those days and he offered me the job to join him, but after I listened to the band quite carefully a few times I decided I would stay with the Gerun band because I felt we were playing better music. So you know, you kind of had to make your own decisions.
LS: Were you playing lead alto at that point in the Jones band?
WH: No, I was playing tenor and then I played alto again. Alto had been an early instrument with me and I fooled around with clarinet a lot. I always knew very well that I would not be the kind of clarinet player I really wanted to be because it would have been complete devotion and I wasn’t ready to give that up.
LS: Can you remember any time that you got together with Barney Bigard or Pee Wee Russell back in those days?
WH: Well, I had the good fortune of doing some early jazz concert things with Eddie Condon and some different people, and when Pee Wee and I would be together on these things, then maybe play against each other, and it was interesting to me, very interesting. And of course Barney was still with Ellington when I first got to know Duke and he was a big influence as far as I was concerned.
LS: What was it about Pee Wee’s style and what was it about Barney’s style that intrigued you?
WH: Well it was two completely different kinds of players. I think they’re opposites, plus the fact that technically Barney was much more proficient. But Pee Wee was a very soulful player. I think everyone would have to admit that, and his ears and his feelings were quite tremendous and he was able to expound in another fashion completely...from any other jazz player really.
LS: When did you first get turned onto Lester Young? I know you played opposite the band when they opened at Roseland.
WH: Yeah, probably, but I was more impressed with Herschel Evans at that point in my life. I thought he was a fantastic player. And of course all the deep throated tenor players, they were favorites of mine at that point in my life. I find it, everyone from Coleman Hawkins to Ben Webster to whomever was on the scene at the moment.
LS: I guess it wasn’t until later that you had the Four Brothers Band and there was Lester Young all over the place.
WH: Well Lester was the Pres, and had a specific kind of sound and actually it was started in California probably as early as it was anywhere else. But in the cool school of playing, all tenors sounded like Lester. It didn’t matter who you were or what you did.
LS: Well we’ve got you with the Isham Jones Juniors, and after you formed this band of yours, after the Isham Jones Band, which was kind of an opposite kind of thing from playing standards to playing a lot of blues. I guess your singing came more and more into prominence.
WH: Yeah, well I had always sung ever since I was a child and it just seemed logical. To put it bluntly, well in other words if we weren’t selling records on old blue label Decca then I would do a couple vocals because we knew that they would sell.
LS: I’d like to ask you about Red McKenzie.
WH: He was a big influence on me.
LS: How did you first hear him and what was it about his style?
WH: Well he was a great warm singer and he came out of the Whiteman band. Well, if there was a comparison to be made at all it would be that was the kind of garden variety early Bing Crosby. He was his own man and he sang what he felt.
LS: I always felt he had a little bit of a sentimental streak...
WH: Oh yeah.
LS: ...that was a little different from Al Jolson or Bing or...
WH: He was a little different kind of singer, but an excellent singer.
LS: Did you ever hear him in person?
WH: Oh many many times. The old Famous Door on 52nd Street...the line up was Bunny Berigan with Joe Bushkin and three or four people. I think Davey Tough was even there at that point, and then for intermissions they brought in Teddy Wilson and Lady Day. That was the intermission act and then Red McKenzie was the MC and put together whatever was going down. He was the impresario at the club and well it was just great music every morning every night. It was a great place for a young person to hang out.
LS: Was your band, The Band That Plays The Blues, based in New York and did you mostly work in town or were you on the road?
WH: We were on the road from day one. Actually the only steady job we had was seven months at Roseland. Then we went right out on the road and did the same thing over and over again.
LS: You mentioned that Joe Bishop was with you in the Isham Jones band - he played trumpet and flugelhorn and did a lot of your arrangements. Tell us about some of the things that made him so special.
WH: Well he was a very unusual man for lots of reasons. He wrote a lot of important, very good music and he had influences, other influences that made him stretch out a little bit. People like Gordon Jenkins who had studied a lot more than Joe had, but Joe had great imagination and great musical feeling and talent. He used to write a lot of things for the Casa Loma Band, so he was a very well equipped, very sound, thorough musician.
LS: Tell us a little bit about how you found Neal Reid.
WH: Actually we found him right here in New York. He was working around 52nd Street, trying to break in more than anything I think, and so when he heard about our band starting up he was interested and so we decided that he would be a good asset for us, and of course we already had Saxie Mansfield the tenor player who had been with Isham
LS: When you think back, what was the conception of the band? It wasn’t exactly like a Goodman or a Shaw band, it wasn’t like Bob Crosby, it wasn’t like any other band, and it was the Woody Herman Band that plays the blues.
WH: We found our own niche. I think we were more influenced by the blues and purely the blues than any other band at that period.
LS: I think you recorded “Fan it” back then, and you recorded it later on also.
WH: I did it very early when we were still with Isham Jones.
LS: That tune was written by Frankie "Halfpint" Jaxson. How did you find it? Did you hear his records?
WH: I don’t know how you find tunes like that...they hatch. I know recently I did a show called American Music Show in California, a home box office show. I think this is pretty interesting, and I was trying to write, they asked me if I would do three or four tunes with the California All-Stars, which is people like Eddie Miller and so on, guys that had been with the Crosby band and so on and Ben Pollack’s band and so I thought it would be a lot of fun and so I did. I did four tunes. I dug one up called "Jelly Bean". "I’m just a curbstone cutie, mama’s pride and beauty, they call me jelly bean" and that was the basic lyric and the guys in the group hadn’t heard that in probably fifty years and so we all cracked up completely.
LS: Well I guess that was one thing that distinguished your band from a lot of the other bands was that real strong blues base. Margie Hyams is pretty well known, and of course you featured her in that band they call The First Herd, which we all know wasn’t your first band at all, but before that you featured a trumpet player, Billie Rogers.
WH: Billie Rogers was a girl and played very good trumpet. She played a lot like Roy Eldridge, and for a gal it was pretty breathtaking.
LS: How did she come to your attention and was she exploited commercially...the girl with the band?
WH: As a matter of fact we heard about her and she had been playing in some group out in Wyoming and so we finally got to hear her in Los Angeles and we hired her immediately and she stayed with us for a long time. And I think another interesting thing about women’s lib and so on was the fact that... Billie, in theaters where we did five and six and seven shows a day, would start in the morning playing fifth trumpet and very often by the last show at night she was playing lead trumpet - which proves the female can handle it better.
LS: Are there any records of that blue label Decca band that are personal favorites of yours, maybe aren’t as well known as others?
WH: No...I mean the best way to describe it is we were trying, really trying very hard to come up with winners every once in a while and it was important, but I don’t think I was or the rest of the guys were terribly impressed with what we were doing. We were hoping to improve and that was our constant battle so I don’t think we felt we had reached any great shakes.
LS: Alright, it was a very interesting transition period in your band, let’s say from around ‘42 when the recording ban came in and then the band that lead up to the big First Herd and that big splash and I’d like to ask you a little bit about that. There were some sessions done, I think they were still for Decca, with Ben Webster, Juan Tizol and Johnny Hodges.
WH: It was a transition period actually. I had become quite ambitious about trying to make a better band out of our band. That was my whole intent and I wanted to have better players. The war had come along and thrown our band to the winds and consequently if I was going to be around I was going to try to improve the standard of what we were doing and that’s really what I was trying to do.
LS: What was the genesis of those records featuring those men from the Ellington Band? Was there ever any thought of them joining your band at that point or was it just...?
WH: No, this was just....it gave them a little independence which they sought, and as long as I had record dates they could have them as far as I was concerned.
LS: Also associated with your band at that point as an arranger was Dizzy Gillespie.
WH: “Down Under” we did...and then of course I had told Dizzy in numerous occasions uptown while we were at the Apollo or wherever that I felt his writing was so important that that’s what he should concentrate on and forget the trumpet and once again I gave another gem away.
LS: Who was steering you towards Dizzy Gillespie and those people? I mean, how did it come about that, you mentioned that you wanted to improve the band and that was coming from a primarily blues based band that was looking for hits to a band that was featuring really the avant gard or the new music...
WH: Well I felt that it was important that we express ourselves... what we felt was something for the future. I really had no one prodding me except my own friends discussed what we liked and that was it. There wasn’t anybody saying hey you better do this.
LS: One musician who was in that transition band and then was in the First Herd and all was Ralph Burns. I believe he was very young at the time and how did he come to your attention?
WH: Well, he had already been with Charlie Barnet’s band and some of the guys who had been in that band decided our band had something more to say and so Neal Hefti and Ralph and all these people came to our band.
LS: And of course Chubby Jackson must have been there.
WH: Chubby Jackson, and then I guess it was my decision and it worked out fortunately to have Davey Tough as the drummer for the band and that made all the difference.
LS: You mentioned that you heard Tough back in the ‘30s, of course he was with Dorsey’s band then, Benny’s band, and different bands. Had he impressed you back then as being way up above there?
WH: But not as much as he did when he finally came into our band. Before that...it’s unbelievable the way he used to be able to propel a big band. This man had more to say as far a rhythm was concerned than anybody I have ever worked with - especially in view of the fact that he had a very limited kind of technique. It wasn’t important to his facility at all. It was the feeling more than anything I think because he was not a big man. He was a tiny man and yet he played with the power and the strength of a guy three times his size. So he had a lot of belief in what he was doing.
LS: How did it come about that that band, the First Herd, made the big splash? What do you attribute it to? Was it just a combination of things all just happening?
WH: Oh, I think it was a combination of things. As a matter of fact during that band’s flush of success we won a poll in an Esquire Magazine poll, and Duke was the natural winner and we were the new band on the scene and so we did a broadcast together for Esquire. And I don’t think Duke’s people were very much aware of what our band was really getting into and so when we appeared on the broadcast with them they weren’t overly concerned about us or about anybody else and they were used to an everyday habitat kind of thing. Well what happened when we started our little end of the deal they picked up their traces and went to work immediately and really got down into things and it made a big... it was almost like overnight people were involved in jazz and big band and came to the conclusion that this was a band to be reckoned with. So that’s...it was quite dramatic in that fashion.
LS: That seemed to be the end of an era. The ‘40s as they went into the ‘50s were the sophistication of popular tunes and everything and it was amazing a band like yours that was playing some pretty new music could be such a commercial success. To what do you attribute that change?
WH: Oh, I think that the taste of American, in American music was particularly good in the late ‘40s and shortly after that was the end of it. I think it was a combination of many things, but I think that some of the great influences that created all this havoc was people like Mitch Miller, that took music back 40 years. You know he would do anything to sell records. There are still millions of guys just like him, so what’s the difference?
LS: So we have you in about 1945, 1946, you went with Columbia Records and the great sound quality of those records. The records are very clear, you can hear the drums, you can hear the guitar, and you can hear everything, and how many mics were they using on those records...just two, three, four?
WH: Oh we didn’t use an excess amount of mics. Of course we would happen to be in room called Liederkranz Hall which was probably the best room we had soundwise in New York or anywhere. Consequently then we had some of the best European and American engineers who were concerned with Columbia Records so we had the best going for us.
LS: How did Bill Harris come to your attention?
WH: By other players, you know, I heard about him...Benny Goodman, he did a movie with Benny Goodman and when I heard about him I got to hear him and I said hey we better try to get this guy. You know we all thought the same thing, got Red and a few other people. We were gearing up for the big time.
LS: And it happened. The band appeared in movies and you had the Old Gold radio show I think it was, Old Gold and then Wild Root.
WH: Wild Root...we were quite a commercial success at one point.
LS: And playing great music...
WH: Well that was the whole idea, because we were able to pull it off and make it work and I think we upset a lot of people in the music business because they couldn’t quite understand.
LS: There were so many things like the drum tags at the end of the record. Were those just in reaction to all the thousands of records that had been made, where they always made it a big point to go ‘boo’...like that, and here they were going over and all that stuff. This was a great band for head arrangements I know and a lot of those big hits were things that evolved on the job. Can you tell us a little bit about the process, about how “Apple Honey” or any of those things...
WH: Oh it had no definite plan. Actually somebody would start playing something and pretty soon we’d get the thing rolling and then it was the fun and the games I think more than anything else. And then of course we had people who were constantly dreaming up tunes and ideas. Flip Phillips had a lot of things he used to call upon and so did Red and everybody in the band at one point or another. Later on people like Shorty Rogers and so many people were involved with our tunes. Everybody was coming up with something.
LS: Why did you suddenly disband in late ’46?
WH: Well I felt we had gone about as far as we were going to go with what we had to offer and until we could regroup and do something else I wasn’t about to. The next band I had was the bebop band. Then I felt we had something else going for us.
LS: Was the success of the Four Brothers Band or the tune Four Brothers a surprise to you or was that something you had pretty much marked that...
WH: Oh I don’t know. I don’t think we knew that it was going to be important but I thought it was a good composition. It had an unusual approach and a good sound, and to this day we still use three tenors and baritone because it’s a sound that’s unique, at least to us.
LS: Right. How did you deal with all the problems that came up in those years of band leading and you had a bunch of you guys on the road and everything back then, and I’m sure the age difference wasn’t that much but it was enough that if you were dealing with guys in their twenties and you were in your thirties...
WH: Oh, I think the most drastic thing was that now we were dealing with people involved in narcotics and that was one of the heartbreaking things of trying to get the most and the best out of players who were not at their best on too many occasions.
LS: Many of them have said in retrospect how marvelous you were in dealing with them and the attitude that you had, you could have been much worse about it. What was your attitude then?
WH: We had no preparation for it...nobody in the music business had preparation for it. It was something that just happened, part of the human process and I was very concerned very often, but I also knew that I didn’t have the intelligence to cope with the whole thing on a huge scale. So consequently I did the best I could to try to keep their noses clean. It wasn’t easy at best.
LS: The band kept evolving, of course you got into the Third Herd and I think the Third Herd was when you stopped counting Herds and everything. What were some of the outstanding points of that band and how did that band with Urbie Green and Sonny Igoe, Dave McKenna and all those people, and how did that differ from the other bands. Was it pretty much just a combination of the first two or...?
WH: To some degree it was. All these people individually were very good players but we never had the same kind of ensemble that we had earlier. In other words I’ve had literally thousands of great players go through the band but very often they were there with a lot of people who were not very important.
LS: In the Second Herd, I think toward the last days of that band when you were recording for Capitol, and Milt Jackson, Oscar Pettiford and Gene Ammons were all with the band, how did that come about? Were they just available and you just called on them for a while...?
WH: No, they were in my band. They worked for me.
LS: On the road.
WH: Yeah. It was one of the first, well not the first, but I was certainly one of the first people who had a black and white band, and to some degree we made it more pointedly, made it more evident, than possibly anyone else had.
LS: Why did the Woodchoppers kind of die off
WH: Well we just never took that much time to work out little band things, well it was more important that we did things with the big band at that point we felt.
LS: One musician that was important in the small groups was Sonny Berman and I didn’t get a chance to ask you about him. How do you see him now some forty years later when you think about it? What comes to your mind first?
WH: Well I think Sonny Berman was truly outstanding and we lost him when he was twenty one years old, so it is very difficult to evaluate what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Twenty one is awfully early.
LS: Who were some of the other outstanding brass players who played with you in the ‘50s. I know you had Earl Swope...
WH: Well once again a lot of great players went through our bands, like having Urbie Green and Carl Fontana there at the same time is unbelievable and yet we’ve had other sections that were better. Now as far as sections are concerned, how do you evaluate any of that? I will forever be proud that I had some of the best players in the whole world go through this band and that’s all I can hope for.
LS: How did the change of scenery or how did the change of popularity of big bands as the forties turned into the fifties affect you and your band and what did it mean on a day to day basis...that you played more one night or that the bread went down a little bit?
WH: Well sure, it was always a scuffle, a constant battle of trying to make both ends meet. I had two great years in my entire musical career: 1945 and ‘46 financially were fantastic and before that and after that ever since it’s been all downhill. I’m just giving you the basic truth.
LS: But you’ve had a lot of joy and you’ve been out there...
WH: Oh yeah, I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do and for this I’m very thankful.
LS: One great band among great bands was the band of the early ‘60s when Jake Hanna came in the band with Nat Pierce and Bill Chase.
WH: Well it was like a big inkling of something that had once gone on before and I think I was very proud of that band. Sal Nistico, he had some kind of chops. He was one of the heaviest, strongest, energetic players I ever worked with.
LS: As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s you stayed on the road and made a lot of great records.
WH: In the early ‘70s I think something that is rather important is that I became pretty much involved, while I was on Fantasy Records, became involved with fusion in its earliest blossoms, and I’ve long since decided that the great future of fusion went somewhere else. Eventually you hit a stone wall and you find that you’re reverting and going back to the basics of playing two chord changes and so there has to be more to it than that to prove that music has something lasting to say.
LS: What did Alan Broadbent bring to your band?
WH: Oh I thought he brought a great talent, a great natural ability from another part of the world, and in the last few years I’ve had some very good writers, people like John Oddo and they’ve all kind of set the pattern for what our bands have tried to do down through the years and as long as I have any energy I’ll still try to produce something that I think has musical merit. So that’s the way it is.
LS: What is on the schedule? Are you still recording?
WH: Well we’re going to be on the road. Yes, we’ll still be on Concord Records and we have a new one coming out again and a live performance one that we did in Japan and we’re going to do a small group thing here with the All-Stars. It’ll be jazz for dancing, that’s a first in New York at least. It should be understood by all Americans that you want to dance, you want to swing, you better remember where it all came from.
Woody Herman, born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herrmann May 16, 1913 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin remained at the helm of his band right up until his death October 29, 1987 in Los Angeles, California. He kept his musical outlook contemporary, and didn’t shy away from the challenges that the intervening years brought. And in the process, he helped season one generation after another of young jazz musicians, all of whom couldn’t help but love this venerable icon of big band history. As Leonard Feather wrote: “No name band leader has ever been better liked by the men who worked for him as well as those for whom he works.”; not a bad epitaph.”