© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Nobody does what Woody does as well as he does. If we could only figure out what it is he does . . .”
- Phil Wilson, trombonist, Jazz educator
Woody Herman's main influence on jazz was felt through the effects of the First Herd, the Second Herd and the band of the middle sixties. It is on these bands that I have allowed the emphasis of this book to fall.
- Steve Voce, Jazz author, columnist and broadcaster
Woody Herman's career, spanning fifty years as a bandleader, has been an extreme of ups and downs from the peak when he worked with Stravinsky to the trough one night when most of the band fell asleep on stage. He has had some of the greatest of all jazz musicians in his bands - Stan Getz, Bill Harris, Ralph Burns, Zoot Sims, Flip Phillips - the list is prodigious and, typical of Woody Herman, it continues to this day [1986, the year of publication; Woody died the following year] as brilliant new youngsters join the Herd.
This is an account of the Herds of character, and of the strong character, known to generations of his musicians as The Chopper, who led them. It is also an account of the nuts in the Herd, complete with a discography that pays ample tribute to them, the music and to The Chopper himself.
STEVE VOCE began writing about jazz in the Melody Maker during the 1950s and it was also at that time that he became a regular jazz broadcaster for the BBC. He has presented his own weekly radio programme, “Jazz Panorama,” for more than eighteen years and has contributed a stimulating and controversial monthly column, “It Don't Mean A Thing” to Jazz Journal International for a quarter of a century!
“'Nobody ever needed to be bored working for Woody Herman,' said one of his sidemen, 'because his soloists are so good that it's like going to a great jazz concert every night.’ On the face of it, that could almost be a summary of Herman's career. The idea of 'a great jazz concert every night’ reflects the fact that, despite the tribulations and inevitable traumas of keeping sixteen men on the road for 48 weeks each year, one never heard of a bad concert by one of Woody's bands. Despite his unique reputation as a generous and gentle employer of 'friends', Herman has always displayed the highest standards of professionalism, and these standards are always reflected in his bands on stage. Offstage Woody acknowledges that jazz musicians are exuberant and often highly strung, and he knows exactly how far to let them unwind through horseplay and humour. A supremely stable person himself, he has managed to keep control of some of the most eccentric musicians that jazz has known without ever appearing to exert authority. ' Woody's great talent,' said one of the band, 'is to keep out of the way.'
One of the keys to his success is his appreciation of and ability to talk to young people, both in his band and as fans of his band. 'Young people think constructively and move forward,' he says. 'Too often old people are bound up with nostalgia and simply want to live their early lives over and over again. You can't do that. Whilst we'll acknowledge the past and play Woodchopper's Ball [Woody’s theme song] when we're asked, we've got to have new things happening in the band all the time. Our young men are creative people, and my job is to nurture that quality, and to provide a platform for its development.'
The Herman Herds have been the incubator for more talented soloists than any other jazz organisation. There are many reasons for this, including a high turnover of band members. Duke Ellington's band, for example, enjoyed long periods of stability when the sections stayed the same. Consequently Duke's band produced only a handful of new soloists, albeit some of them amongst the best in the world. Woody, perhaps because his kind of operation meant that he couldn't pay high wages or perhaps just because of the rigours of life on the road, had a high level of movement in and out of the band with a consequent higher level and variety of talent to be discovered in his ranks. After half a century of almost uninterrupted travel round the world one can see the wisdom of his admonition 'Be not disencouraged, brother!'
Woodrow Charles Herman was born in Milwaukee on 13 May 1913. His teacher at St. John's High School was Sister Fabian Riley, and each year he takes the band back to Milwaukee to play a benefit for Sister Riley's scholarship fund. But Woody was not destined to spend the normal years at school. By the time he was six he began singing and dancing in the local theatres, and by the age of eight he was touring professionally and appearing at theatres throughout the Middle West with his father. He must have been pretty good, because he had literally stopped shows with his singing and dancing.
'The very first song I sang in the theatre was a lulu called You Should See My Gee Gee From The Fiji Isles. I finally recorded it 30 years later at Capitol under the name of "Chuck Thomas And His Dixieland Band", because I didn't have the courage to come out in the open with it. We speeded the tape up so that it put me a tone or two higher. The record company did a campaign on it in certain areas of the country and it sold a fantastic amount in those places. But then they suddenly decided that the lyric was too risque and it got banned on a couple of networks. It hadn't seemed like that when I was eight. It was just a little boy singing a hot tune. Little Woodrow was swinging.’
Woody's next move was into a kids' group working vaudeville theatres and movie halls. Their role was to provide a prologue to the movies, and they acted out Booth Tarkington stories, led by a boy called Wesley Berry who was in the Jackie Coogan mould. With the money Woody earned from these activities he bought his first alto saxophone and later a clarinet. The idea was that he should study these with a view to using them in his stage act, but Woody had grander horizons in mind. Eventually, encouraged by his parents, he graduated to being a single act and featured the two horns when he was billed as 'The Boy Wonder Of The Clarinet'. Like drummer Buddy Rich, Woody was virtually raised in the theatre, but as he grew older he became more interested in wider fields of music and began playing with groups of musicians when he was about 14. Right away he got the band bug and didn't want to return to vaudeville. His parents were most upset. They felt that while Woody was in the theatre he was an artist, but playing in a band was an entirely different matter.
During all this Woody somehow still found time to go to school, but his love of bands had taken root. The booking agencies in Chicago used to issue brochures about their individual bands, and Woody collected them avidly, and soon knew them all off by heart. Even then he dreamed of the day when he would have his own band. It was to be a basically hot band with a big brass section (in those days that meant three or four men, and when the first Herman band was formed it in fact had five brass).
While still at high school he joined the Myron Stewart Band, a local group resident at Milwaukee's Blue Heaven Club. Later he moved to Joey Lichter's Band where he was featured as a vocalist and soloist. Lichter was a jazz violinist from Chicago, and it was here that Woody had his first real encounter with jazz.
Leaving Lichter, he persuaded his parents to let him leave home and join the society band of Tom Gerun, and here he played alongside baritone saxist Al Morris, who later made his name and fortune as vocalist Tony Martin. Another one destined for bigger things was the band's vocalist, Ginny Sims. Woody was featured on tenor. 'I sounded like Bud Freeman with his hands chopped off,' he remembers.
Gerun was a man of some courage. One night while he was leading the band on the stand in Pittsburgh a telegram was brought to him. It was from his business advisers in New York to tell him that his financial interests had just been wiped out in the Wall Street Crash. That night, to celebrate, he threw a big party for the band.
After four years with Gerun, Woody joined Harry Sosnik's band, and later Gus Arnheim's where Bing Crosby had at one time been the vocalist. While with Arnheim he was approached when the two bands were playing at the same theatre to join Isham Jones's band. Since he had friends in the band, trumpeter Pee Wee Irwin and trombonist Jack Jenney, he agreed and some months later he moved to Isham.
Isham Jones was a remarkable man, talented as a songwriter, band leader and multi-instrumentalist. He also wrote his own arrangements for his bands at a time when it was more usual to use 'stocks', stereotyped arrangements sold by the music publishers. Whilst Woody was later to have a hit with Woodchopper's Ball, Isham had recorded Wabash Blues in 1922 and sold almost two million copies. He composed I’ll See You In My Dreams, It Had To Be You, On The Alamo and many other top quality hit songs.
While he was prepared to put up with a man appearing for a job in the wrong band uniform, he showed no such tolerance when it came to the music and if someone missed a cue or played a wrong note, he
had been known to invite them out the back to settle the matter. Apparently bloodthirsty, he used to love it when his musicians fought and would always watch without intervening.
Victor Young played violin and arranged for the band, as did Gordon Jenkins, who described it as 'the greatest sweet ensemble of that time or any other time'.
There seem to have been two definite directions within the band, the sweet and the hot. It was here that Woody made his first jazz recordings, leading a small group for Decca under the titles of the Swanee Swingers and Isham Jones's Juniors. The band made six very respectable sides between 25 and 31 March 1936. I've Had The Blues So Long was one of five Herman vocal features and sounds very much like the records of the later Herman Band That Plays The Blues. On Slappin' The Bass Woody's clarinet has an agile, stinging quality reminiscent of Goodman, and Chelsea Quealey's muted trumpet echoes Muggsy Spanier. Frankie Jaxon's Fan It was to be a hit with the Woodchoppers ten years later. Here it was distinguished by Woody's vocal and some good solos. Elsewhere Virginia Verrell's vocals dampened the heat of the session, but generally it was a good debut for Woody.
The two definite directions were given their head when Isham suddenly decided to retire in the middle of 1936. One of the violinists formed part of the band into a 'sweet' band and Woody led a nucleus determined to head into the 'hot.'
It was to be five years before the Woody Herman Band as it was to be known would become profitable. The years in between were to be tough and very lean with work hard to come by, and in 1941 Herman said that if he'd known how hard it was going to be he would never have gone ahead. Later on it became impossible to form a big band without having a backer to put up a large sum of money to run it until it began to earn. Woody and his men had no backer, so they formed a co-operative, a practice frowned upon by the American Federation Of Musicians, with equal shares for the nucleus of ex-Isham Jones players. These were Woody, trombonist Neil Reid, violinist Nick Hupfer, trumpeters Clarence Willard and Kermit Simmons, tuba player Joe Bishop, bassist Walter Yoder, tenor saxist Maynard 'Saxie' Mansfield and drummer Frankie Carlson. Each man put up a similar amount of money and later other musicians, like pianist Tommy Linehan, were invited to become members. Neil Reid was the treasurer, and it was his job to keep expenses to a minimum and pay out wages to the hired musicians who were not members of the co-operative. This was never easy in a band that worked an average of two nights a week and four nights in a good week. Walter Yoder managed the band — a role later designated "straw boss'.
One of the most important events in Woody's life happened that year. He'd known the red-haired Charlotte Neste since they were both 17. She was working under the professional name of Carol Dee when they met in San Francisco, and they married in New York on 27 September 1936, 'right after Prohibition.’
'\Ve got married at the toughest time when things were breaking the worst,' Charlotte told Down Beat magazine. 'But maybe that's the best time to get married — at least we think so.'
Charlotte was right for, despite the fact that Woody spent so much time on the road, theirs was one of the happiest of marriages right up to her death in 1982. Loved by all the musicians in the bands and friends with many of them after they left, she must have been the most popular band leader's wife of all time.
Throughout the autumn of 1936 the new co-operative worked at putting the band together. Three of the arrangers from Isham's band, Joe Bishop, Gordon Jenkins and violinist Nick Hupfer, started writing a library of charts, and the co-operative began auditioning necessary sidemen. It seems likely that these were amongst the last auditions Herman ever held, for in later years he took musicians on by recommendations from colleagues, usually former members of his band.
Joe Bishop abandoned his tuba and took up flugelhorn, probably becoming the first jazz musician to use the instrument, which was more limited than the trumpet, but had a nicer tone. Bishop had an expressive but circumscribed range and it was decided, whether by Joe or the co-operative is not clear, that the flugel was for him.
Things went well at first. After six weeks' rehearsal the band was ready and immediately two golden apples fell into its lap. It was given a recording contract by Decca Records and two nights after its first recording session on 6 November it began a two week engagement at the Roseland Ballroom in Brooklyn. As if that wasn't an auspicious enough beginning for such an embryo band, there were local radio broadcasts from the Roseland.
The first recording session used two tunes, Wintertime Dreams and Someone To Care For Me, which were dogs. The prim, straight tempos went well with Woody's routine vocals, and there wasn't the slightest hint that the band would ever be anything but anonymous and insipid.
On 10 November they cut The Goose Hangs High, hardly a jazz classic, but there was a good jazz vocal from Woody and some mellow playing from Bishop both in solo and in the section.
After the job at the Brooklyn Roseland was over the band moved to the New York Roseland, where they shared the billing with another equally unknown band led by a pianist called Count Basie.
The band stayed in New York for the next four months, working at the Roseland and cutting a handful of records for Decca. The shape of things to come was mapped out when they recorded Dupree Blues and Trouble In Mind on 26 April 1937. The Herman style loosely paralleled the Dixieland two beat of Bob Crosby's band, but Herman's singing on these two blues showed an affinity with that kind of music normally only found in the work of black performers. In this respect he's always shared the honours with trombonist Jack Teagarden, perhaps the only other white musician to really get to the roots of the blues.
Trouble In Mind is a classic blues written by the legendary Richard M.Jones and a hit during the twenties in the recording by Bertha 'Chippie' Hill and Louis Armstrong. Since then the song had fallen from popularity and it proved ideal material for Woody. It opened with a stinging clarinet solo in the Artie Shaw manner and then Woody sang the vocal with a gruff obbligato from Joe Bishop's fluegel. Compared with Chippie Hill's original graveyard-orientated tempo, the Herman version almost bounced. Dupree Blues, better known in early days as Betty And Dupree, was enhanced by another mellow obbligato from Bishop, a fine plunger muted solo from Reid and solos from Saxie Mansfield and Bishop. It is interesting to note how, as always, the saxophone solos have dated whilst the brass ones remain fresh. Woody told the sombre tale with a forceful vocal and the performance, paired with the band's version of Jelly Roll Morton's Doctor Jazz sold well over the ensuing years. The formula for The Band That Plays The Blues had been worked out, if not yet fully applied.
Perhaps the best chance to evaluate the early Herman band is offered by the radio transcriptions they recorded when they returned from their first tour, which took in the Eastern states during June 1937. The recordings were made on 23 September, and by this time an extremely important change had been made. Tommy Linehan replaced Horace Diaz at the piano chair. Linehan was from Massachusetts, and had played with well known bands there and along the East coast from 1928 onwards. He was a quiet little man with a neat moustache, his appearance not reflecting a commitment to jazz and boogie woogie piano that was unusually effective for the time. Later his piano sound was to become one of the trade marks of the band, notably in pieces like Blues Upstairs, Blues Downstairs, Chips' Boogie Woogie, Indian Boogie Woogie and the blues library.
Radio transcriptions are an invaluable reference for the jazz historian, for they often provide musical documentation of the various bands at times when they were forbidden to make recordings, by union bans or, as in the case of the 1937 transcriptions, at a time when the band didn't otherwise record prolifically. The mixture of titles recorded on 23 September gives us a good idea of the elements in the repertoire. There were the jazz standards, Muskrat Ramble, Jazz Me Blues, Ain't Misbehavin', Squeeze Me and Weary Blues; the quality standards, Exactly Like You, Can't We Be Friends?, Someday Sweetheart, and a couple of lesser known songs of the day, Remember Me and Hoagy Carmichael's Old Man Moon. The emphasis is always on the jazz aspect of performance, although it is sometimes a little questionable as in the introductory clarinet passage to Exactly Like You, where it has to be owned that Woody has a touch of Ted Lewis about him. However, this is swept aside by a heavily attacking trombone solo from Reid, a fastidious trumpet solo from Clarence Willard and some finally righteous wailing from Herman.
Remember Me has some ponderous tenor from Mansfield before a solo of great delicacy from Bishop. The influence of New Orleans clarinettist Jimmy Noone with his limpid and full tone remains evident in Woody's playing today (oddly enough Noone's phrasing is often prominent in Herman's alto playing as well as in his clarinet work) and it can be heard in Can't We Be Friends?, otherwise a fairly routine performance.
The Dixieland numbers smack of Bob Crosby's performances, with Woody, Neil Reid, Bishop and Mansfield the main soloists. It's interesting to note that at this time Herman was technically the best of the soloists.
Towards the end of 1938 Woody re-evaluated the band's musical policy. Whilst they were good at playing Dixieland numbers, Bob Crosby did it better. The band wasn't in the same league as Jimmy Lunceford or Duke Ellington, both of whom were to be big influences later on. What did they do well? They played the blues. On 22 December a small group from the band titled Woody Herman And His Woodchoppers recorded River Bed Blues. Hyman White had just joined on acoustic guitar, and this was his debut. He complimented Linehan to perfection, and his solo playing had the bluesy intimacy of Teddy Bunn's work. The Band That Plays The Blues was under way.
A couple of weeks later Horace Stedman 'Steady' Nelson arrived on trumpet, filling out the section to three. Although he had made his musical debut with Peck Kelly's band in Texas in 1933, he was a devotee of the Ellington band, and he brought a ferocious growl style which was to provide a contrast to the more gentle playing of Joe Bishop.
Confirming the commitment to emphasis on the blues, George Simon recalls that, when the band played at Frank Dailey's famous Meadowbrook Ballroom, it filled its radio shows almost entirely with blues. These weren't so popular when the band played at the Rice Hotel in Texas, either. The manager sent a note up to Woody on the stand which read 'You will kindly stop playing and singing those nigger blues.'
On 12 April 1939 Woody took the band to Decca in New York for the recording session which was going to change all of their lives. Woody had discovered early the painful economics of trying to run a big band. No matter how good things were, resources always seemed stretched. But then came that recording session. There was a new girl vocalist to sing Big Wig In The Wig Wam, Mary Ann McCall, one of the most musical singers ever to grace the band and a lady who was to return to make it on a big scale with the Herd in the late forties.
The band recorded a fast, bouncing blues that Joe Bishop had written. It was called At The Woodchopper's Ball. After the opening riff, Woody played a stylised clarinet solo which has become a part of the number, and everyone who plays the piece uses that solo. Reid had a brooding trombone solo, Mansfield booted the tenor and Steady growled. Walt Yoder and Hy White walked together for a chorus and then the now familiar build up of riffs came, at this time without the soaring clarinet that Woody was later to impose on the final chorus. 'It was great,' says Woody, 'the first thousand times we played it.'
In the middle of the summer the record took off, and that first version sold a million copies. Woody has played Woodchopper's every night since, and the various Herds recorded it many times.
If it hadn't been notable for Woodchopper's, the 12 April session would have still been noted for a fine plethora of blues performances. Dallas Blues had another sombre and beautifully poised trombone solo from Reid and a biting solo from Woody that began with a paraphrasing of Johnny Dodds' solo from King Oliver's Dippermouth Blues. Blues Upstairs and Blues Downstairs are outstanding amongst all the blues charts that Joe Bishop contributed. After Linehan's cascading piano introduction, Hy White plays a filigree single note guitar solo and then Linehan introduces a mournful chorus of flugel before Woody's classic twelve bar verses. Linehan has a fine boogie woogie-based solo to lead into the by now familiar build up of riffs. Turn the 78 over and Blues Downstairs turns out to be a continuation. Woody has his Noone-Bigard hat on for his solo, and is followed by-Neil Reid, sounding more like Floyd O'Brien than ever. The rockpile of riffs begins early and closes on Woody's clarinet break. Most of the jazz fans of the forties will remember this coupling note for note! A month later two more notable tracks with rather more sophisticated arrangements, Casbah Blues and the non-blues Farewell Blues were recorded. As far as Woody was concerned, 'Blues' was the in word.
At last, the band began to make money. The blues permeated 1940 with the key word figuring in the title of the ballad Blue Prelude, composed by Joe Bishop and Gordon Jenkins, and first recorded by Woody with Isham Jones. As you would expect from Jenkins, composer of such superb ballads as Good Bye, this was a beauty, and Woody's vocal one of his most elegant yet. The band was fattened out with a second trombonist and the great Cappy Lewis came in at the end of 1939. Trumpeter Lewis had an incisive and delightful style which was to be a tremendous asset to the band for the next three years. His is something of a Herman dynasty, for his son Mark Lewis has been in the Herman trumpet section since the beginning of the eighties.”
To be continued ….