© -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
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!
Here’s the third chapter of Steve’s insightful and illuminating work on the most influential bands of Woody Herman’s illustrious career.
“Despite the never ending questions about the possibility of their return, the big bands never really went away. Admittedly they were crushed by heavy taxes and the advent of television in the second part of the forties, but the format proved resilient and there are probably more big bands today than there were during the golden era of big bands in the forties.
The First Herd, as the next Herman band was to be known, was probably the highest point in Woody's career. Although George Simon had referred to the band of the early forties as 'the herd', the name really stuck and became an identifying mark with the band of 1944—6.
There are few absolute standards in jazz. The music has developed so rapidly over the last 70 years that a yardstick is out of date as soon as it is created. No wonder when one considers the fact that jazz musicians have examined and extrapolated every facet and device developed in 'classical' music over the last 500 years. The inevitable telescoping that has taken place has led to many blind alleys and, to be honest, the odd musical charlatan or two. So, whilst one person might claim, for instance, that Miles Davis is the greatest jazz trumpeter who ever lived, his view has no more substantial weight than another person who might say that Miles Davis was not a jazz trumpet player at all. In jazz the opinion of the individual listener is as important as that of the musicians or those who write about jazz. In classical music, where weight and profundity have found their levels over the centuries, standards are vastly more established and accepted, and one would be unlikely to find the eminence of Brahms or Beethoven, for example, taken in question.
With that in mind, it is not possible to assert that the band led by Duke Ellington in the period around 1940 is the greatest big band there ever was. Suffice it, then, to say that it seems likely that it was. Ellington, unlike Herman, had been able to select his musicians with care over the years, and each one had grown into his role in the orchestra. The Ellington combination had almost everything. Firstly, there was Duke's writing. At any point in his career, even if he was relaying trashy pop songs or rescoring the horrible Mary Poppins for the band, there was always something of interest, something to be learned from the writing. Ellington ranked with the greatest composers and orchestrators of his century. Then there were the men in the band, soloists of giant stature who were the first jazz musicians to have music specifically written for them as individuals. Ellington knew how each of them would respond to any musical situation he chose to create for them, and in Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard, Johnny Hodges, Joe Nanton, Ben Webster and Harry Carney, he had what might have been the greatest permanent collection of jazz improvisers ever assembled. The bright flare of Jimmy Blanton's bass playing which lit the jazz sky for such a brief episode provided both a stimulus to Duke's writing and a pivot to spin the band on, as he forged new lines with his revolutionary approach.
No wonder that Woody was drawn so powerfully to Ellington's music, and it was this edition of Duke's band that permeated the whole band scene in the first half of the forties.
As we have seen, the Herman men had also been influenced by the rhythm geniuses of the Count Basie band, and they must have noted if not been able to emulate the fluent and relaxed playing of the giants like Lester Young and Buck Clayton, Harry Edison and Buddy Tate.
Technical skill of a very high degree was now required of any sideman, and nowhere was it more in evidence than in the brilliant ranks of the Jimmy Lunceford orchestra. Whereas Ellington hand-crafted his section sound so that any one of the individuals could be singled out from it, the Lunceford band was so precise and well drilled that each section sounded like one instrument, and indeed the band sound dominated, with great soloists like Willie Smith, Joe Thomas and Trummy Young subordinated to it. Once that Lunceford standard had been set, every band was judged against it, and the Lunceford proficiency was something else for the Herman band to aim at.
Bebop was somewhat tenuously established by the time that the First Herd came together, and Woody's new band was amongst the first to reflect the new music's influence. Drummer Dave Tough was with some other men from the band when they had their first exposure to the music on 52nd Street in 1944. The hand they heard was one of the very first to define the new music, and it was led by Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford. Tough told Marshall Stearns 'As we walked in, see, these cats snatched up their horns and blew crazy stuff. One would stop all of a sudden and another would start for no reason at all, We never could tell when a solo was supposed to begin or end. Then they all quit at once and walked off the stand. It scared us.’
Tired of what they saw as the limitations of conventional improvising, young men like Gillespie, Pettiford, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk eschewed variation on written melody in favour of a rigorous and wide ranging investigation of the chords on which those melodies were based, chords which up until now had been merely signposts provided by the pianist when he accompanied. This kind of playing resulted in the casual jazz listener being locked out, and the resultant complaint that the listener 'couldn't hear the tune'. This would also be the kind of playing that 'scared' Tough and his colleagues. But not for long, because within a year they would be blending the bebop styles and methods into the music of the Herd.
This was the musical stage then that was ready for the emergence of the First Herd.
The First Herd seemed to arrive suddenly in the middle of 1944. In fact key members like Ralph Burns and Billy Bauer had joined by the beginning of that year and Chubby Jackson and Frances Wayne had joined Woody in 1943, but it was appropriate that the band made its remarkable impact only when the fully assembled group began work.
Chubby Jackson, ebullient, irrepressible and highly charged with nervous energy, became the focal point of enthusiasm in the band when he joined from Charlie Barnet in September. Chubby had been with Barnet when the band had included Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti and Frances Wayne, all to join the Herd in subsequent months, presumably largely on Chubby's recommendation. Burns, only 21, brought his extraordinary talents to the band in December, and immediately began writing the library which was to ensure the Herd's place in the jazz history books. In January 1944 Neal Hefti took over the trumpet chair that Cappy Lewis had left (Cappy returned after his military service) and guitarist Billy Bauer joined to replace Hy White in March,
In April Cliff Leeman handed in his notice. He was a fine player, adept at all the drummer's roles and a man who listened to the soloists and gave them sensitive support. Replacing him presented a problem. Woody wanted to take on Dave Tough, a veteran who had been a member of the Austin High School gang in Chicago during the twenties where he had been a colleague and friend of Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon and Frank Teschemacher. After a long bout of illness which was to recur throughout the rest of his short life he had joined Tommy Dorsey's band in 1936 and then moved to join first Bunny Berigan and later Benny Goodman in 1938. He was the main agent in persuading Bud Freeman to leave Tommy Dorsey and join him in Goodman's band, an event that caused a huge commotion in the music business at the time and led to a very public slanging match between Goodman and Dorsey. Freeman regretted the move ever after. Bud's association with Dave was a close one and they had many interests in common outside music. They made a trip to Europe together in 1928, and it was only natural that when Bud formed his SummaCum Laude Orchestra, Dave should be on drums (natural too that the sensitive Freeman should exclude Eddie Condon for a time on the grounds that he drank too much, but hardly compatible with Tough's penchant for the same foible!) But the significance of Tough's association with Freeman is to be found in the recording session made by a pick up band called Bud Freeman's Famous Chicagoans on 23 July 1940 in New York. Jack Teagarden, the trombonist, had left his big band in Philadelphia after the gig the previous night and had travelled all night to be there. When the session began trumpeter Max Kaminsky hadn't shown up and the first two tracks were made without him. While these handicaps may not have been unusual, they hardly portended the magnificent recording session which was to follow. The ensemble sound created by Kaminsky's direct trumpet lead, Pee Wee Russell's wild and yet concentrated clarinet sound and the remarkable manner in which Teagarden and Freeman were able to fill out the band without getting in each other's way, was quite without precedent, and the rhythm section couldn't have been bettered, with fine work from the underrated Dave Bowman and monumental drumming from Tough.
Repeated listening shows how vital Dave was in binding the band sound together, rocketing the horns into their solos, and all the time keeping a sizzling rhythm performance going, drums prominent throughout without ever once intruding. This was a performance of great significance, and it is odd that it went unremarked at the time. Certainly it could not have reached the ears of Chubby Jackson when Woody suggested Davey as a replacement for Cliff Leeman. Woody appreciated Chubby's enthusiasm and did all he could to foster it, even to the extent of hiring musicians solely on Jackson's recommendation. But Woody wanted Tough. He had used him as a substitute for Frankie Carlson on one occasion in The Band That Plays The Blues, and knew how versatile and suited to the Herman music he was. Chubby was horrified. He regarded Tough as a player from a bygone era and was determined that his hiring would be a retrograde step in a band that Jackson wanted to be progressive. It could be that, since Tough was in the navy until the time he joined Woody on his discharge, Chubby had never heard the drummer play. Subtle as ever, Herman let the matter drop and didn't sign Tough on immediately. But at the next rehearsal to help some new men bed in and to try out some new charts. Tough turned up with his drums. He played and, according to legend, at the end of the session a tearful Jackson threw his arms around Tough's puny frame and embraced him with delight. One of the greatest rhythm sections of all time had come together.
Because of the tremendous potency of his arranging and composing, the fact thai Ralph Burns was a tremendous jazz pianist has sometimes been neglected. Yet he was able to swing harder than most, and when supercharged by the Jackson-Tough-Bauer cartel he was uncatchable. He was a great stage setter for the faster numbers and his opening solos from the earliest ones onward continuously reveal how great was his responsibility for the ordering of the Herman sound. Whilst many of the young musicians of the day had simply grafted a veneer of bebop onto the older swing styles. Burns had a good grasp of the new music by 1944, and he wove it into both his solos and into his scores for the band. Able by now to command a brass section with almost Lunceford-like qualities, he was particularly able to create exciting, incandescent music for it, and must take some credit for the imposing parade of iron men who were to play lead trumpet in succeeding years. Such was Ralph's value to Woody as the custodian and creator of the band's library that after the first year Woody took him off the piano chair and hired a replacement, keeping Ralph solely to write for and when necessary rehearse the band.
Ralph's contributions to Woody's library were to continue years after he had left the organisation. His gifts were such that they were wasted travelling the roads with a band, and, after a few sophisticated and creative jazz albums under his own name, later years found him immersed in the world of film and television music and of more commercial recordings.
Sam Marowitz took the lead alto chair in April 1944 and was to stay until the First Herd broke up. Later John La Porta, at one time emerging as a good bebop clarinet soloist before that instrument went out of fashion, came in on second alto. But before that, in April. Joseph Edward 'Flip' Phillips joined. Flip had substituted for Vido Musso in the earlier band. He was already something of a veteran, having begun his career as a clarinettist in the middle thirties. He had worked with trumpeter Frankie Newton at Kelly's Stables in New York for a year before switching to tenor sax in 1942. When Vido left. Flip was the obvious replacement, but Woody had difficulty in persuading the tenor man to join. 'I had a hard time getting him,' Woody told George Simon, 'You know why? He didn't want to leave Russ Morgan's band. That represented security!'
When he did join. Flip's lean, aggressive tenor soon became one of the band's trademarks. He was a shouter in a shouting band, and pitched against some of the finest brass jazz had so far seen, he needed the declamatory style and hard swing that he had developed. Like Ben Webster he could be lush and seductive on the ballads, and he swiftly built up a following that was to stay with him during his succeeding years with the Jazz At The Philharmonic unit. Still a splendid solo player, his work is enjoying new popularity in the eighties. In August 1944 a Woody Herman reunion was held in Boston for all the ex-Herdsmen who lived in that area or who could get there. Woody and Chubby were there along with Dave McKenna, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Berry, Chuck Wayne, Al Cohn, Nat Pierce, Phil Wilson and Flip. 'Flip looked truly great,' said Wilson. 'At 69 he looks like a healthy 55 year old and is truly playing better than ever before in his life. And he has a wonderful calm, satisfied demeanour.'
At 28, Flip was comparatively old among the ranks, but the average age came down again when 21 year old trumpeter Pete Candoli arrived. Later dubbed 'Superman With A Horn', Candoli was a man with a huge range on his instrument and great staying power. He sat alongside young Neal Helti in the section, and like Hefti he was capable of turning out a creditable arrangement. Candoli had an incredible track record for his age, having worked in the bands of Sonny Dunham, Will Bradley, Benny Goodman, Ray McKinley, Tommy Dorsey, Freddy Slack and Charlie Barnet before coming to Woody. Neal had also come from the Barnet band where he had been one of the chief arrangers as well as a featured soloist. He had joined Woody briefly in February 1944 for the filming of Sensations Of 1945 and stayed in California for six months before joining the band on a permanent basis in August. Neil began writing for the Herd at once and shared with Burns the job of building the band's character. It was immediately obvious that his writing talents were exceptional and later on he followed Burns into the studio scene, writing for television and films. But unlike Burns he kept up his involvement with jazz and his prodigious involvement as a writer for the Count Basie Band of the fifties and sixties has been detailed by Alun Morgan in his book on Basie in this series [Jazz Masters].
A month after Pete Candoli joined, in midsummer 1944, the final and most important horn man joined the Herd. Willard Palmer Harris, trombonist superb, outlandish character and a man who was to be a major influence on jazz trombone playing until the present day. 'Woody always loved trombone players,' recalls Phil Wilson, 'and I was always grateful for that. But the relationship that built up over the years between him and Bill Harris was something special. It was a deep friendship that transcended the music business.'
Harris was a remarkable man in every respect. He led the band from the trombone section, and with all the brass in full cry he could be heard distinctively in the section. 'He could blow metal fatigue into the horn,’ said Bobby Lamb, a man who was to sit next to Harris in the section of a later Herd. Bill was a kind and generous friend often providing support and shelter for lesser players in the trombone section. He was also a man full of remarkable contradictions. On the one hand he was very shy. When he was in England in 1959 with Woody's Anglo-American Herd, all the leading trombonists in London contributed to buy a gold cigarette lighter for him as a tribute. They had it especially engraved and arranged a ceremony for the presentation. They all turned up. Bill didn't. He was too shy.
But sometimes he wasn't shy, and his sense of humour is legendary. Trumpeter Bill Berry, himself an avid Harris fan and collector of Bill's records, remembers being in the trumpet section when the band played at an air force base in California. Afterwards the band was invited to the officers’ mess for drinks. When Berry got there he found Bill Harris at the bar, drink in hand, in conversation with one of the officers. Bill had his band jacket and tie on, but no trousers. He must have had a thing about trousers. In later years Bill was one of two white musicians in an otherwise black edition of Jazz At The Philharmonic This was in the early fifties and the group was on tour in Germany. They arrived at a hotel where rooms had been booked in advance for them. But the manager told them that there had been a mistake and that the rooms had been let to other visitors. As the musicians turned and walked away the manager ran alter Harris and the other white musician and with a certain lack of subtlety told them that their rooms had been kept. Harris's colleague turned away with an oath, but Bill turned and went back with the manager. He walked into the lounge which was crowded with reclining guests. He moved to the centre of the room and placed his suitcase on the floor. He took off his coat, folded it, and put it on the suitcase. He unfastened his trousers and let them fall to his ankles. Then he made one of his famous strange noises, pulled up his trousers, put on his coat, picked up his suitcase and walked out of the hotel after the rest of the band.
On another occasion Woody was fronting the band and when he turned round he noticed that there were four trombones where there should have been three. Harris and [vibraphonist] Red Norvo had collected a couple of tailors' dummies from somewhere and Bill had dressed one in a band uniform and given it a trombone. He had tied the dummy's arm to his own and he was leaning forward explaining the music to it and telling it to stand up when he did. Later Bill and Red threw the other dummy from the roof of a penthouse with the result that police cars and ambulances came rushing to the scene.
Bill Harris was one of the most exciting jazz soloists of all time. His playing was both original and totally unpredictable. All of his solos on the records the First Herd made for Columbia are outstanding, even within their exciting context. The fact that many more versions of the same numbers survive in recordings for radio is a great boon for the jazz listener, since he always seemed to have improvised his solos afresh each time a piece was played. Often, when playing a piece night after night a musician will develop a set solo, useful if he is tired or out of inspiration (Johnny Hodges' All Of Me is a prominent example) but Harris seemed always able to create something new. Several bandleaders insisted that once a solo was established and particularly if listeners were familiar with it from records, it should not be changed by improvisation. Ted Heath and Tommy Dorsey are examples of such leaders, and indeed Buddy De Franco was fired by Dorsey for changing the solo on Opus One when he'd been told not to. ‘But Tommy, it's not creative,’ protested Buddy. 'You go and be creative on someone else's band,’ snarled Tommy. A very different attitude to Woody, who was always eager to encourage the soloists.
Harris was in the Herman band from 1944 to 1946 and then again from 1948 to 1950 and from 1956 to 1958 with several shorter stays in between before settling in Las Vegas, where he found lucrative work with a small band led by Charlie Teagarden. Towards the end of his life he moved to Florida, living near to his old friend Flip Phillips, and the two men had a band playing locally until Bill's death in Miami from a heart condition on 20 August 1973. He was only 56.
Few musicians are able to develop a viable solo style that is wholly original, and Bill's way of shouting against the rest of the band echoed the glorious freedom and exuberance of Jay C. Higginbotham and Dicky Wells, but there the similarity ended. Bill made great use of contrasting dynamics, smeared and staccato notes, now prowling now ripping through the band with a bucketing solo.
'We were playing in Child's Restaurant one Sunday in 1956 when I'd been with Woody for about four months,’ trombonist Bobby Lamb remembered. 'At that time we were using bass trumpet, and although Cy Touff’ is an excellent player, I was never fond of the instrument. Bill suddenly appeared to rejoin the band, and Woody asked him to sit in. Woody called for Johnny Mandel's Not Really The Blues, which is a real powerhouse of a number. So Wayne Andre and I set up to go through our usual routine. Suddenly there was this explosion! Bill played so strongly that Wayne and I just sat there gaping with amazement and let him get on with it. He led the whole hand from the trombone section. It didn't matter how loud Woody's five trumpets played, if Bill thought something should go that way, it went that way!
'We roomed together for a year on the road, and it was like a father and son relationship. I was in a daze most of the time, couldn't believe my ears. He was also an excellent reader and a kind and communicative teacher, despite the fact that he was a shy and retiring man. Not nervous, mind you, but a man who said what he meant and didn't waste time with niceties. He had a tremendous sense of humour, and I think he should be remembered with a twinkle in the eye.'
The 1945 recording of Bijou was a latin feature for Harris. Woody refers to it as a 'stone age bossa nova'. It was a superb showcase crafted by Ralph Burns and if all the earlier recordings hadn't already done so, it displayed the Harris style and confirmed him as the major trombone influence of the forties along with the more staccato and less emotional playing of Jay Jay Johnson. Phil Wilson encountered the number in a later Herd.
'Woody used to have the succeeding trombonists play Bijou and both Bob Brookmeyer and I have recorded it with the band. I didn't like the idea because number one that's a hard act to follow, and number two, I'm Phil Wilson, not Bill Harris.'
Phil, who followed Bill into the band 20 years later, didn't know Bill well, but he did confirm Bill's reading ability and scotched the story of Bill being fired from the Benny Goodman band for lark of it. 'I'm sure that Bill would have been a good reader in Bob Chester's band, long before he joined Goodman. I can see that he and Goodman wouldn't get along, and it would have been a matter of personalities when he left.
'Incidentally, my history is by ear, which is the best way, and I remember hearing the story that Bill didn't take up the trombone until he was 22. That's not correct. The situation was that he actually played many instruments including tenor, piano and drums, but he didn't decide to specialise on one until then. Of course, he played both slide and valve trombones. Some of those old ballads he used to play, Mean To Me was one, were just mind boggling, they were so beautiful.'
Beauty coupled to humour. The concert stage had a ramp down the middle. As the band finished Northwest Passage and the sounds died away, a plastic duck came waddling down the ramp quacking. Property of Willard Palmer Harris.
The next most important soloist to come into the band was also the most progressive in style. Trumpeter Saul 'Sonny' Berman was only 21 when he joined Woody, but by then he was a most experienced sideman. After joining Louis Prima in 1940 he played with the bands of Sonny Dunham, Tommy Dorsey, Georgie Auld (with Auld he recorded his first solo, a chorus on Taps Miller), Harry James and Benny Goodman. Berman's family had suffered a tragedy when his brother, who was also a musician, was killed in an accident when he was 17. Sonny himself died of a heart attack on 16 January 1947.
He joined Woody in February 1945 and in the ensuing months made an enormous contribution to the band, particularly by way of his intensely creative solos which often changed the whole emphasis of some of the more commercial numbers like Don't Worry 'Bout, That Mule, A Kiss Goodnight and Uncle Remus Said. His style was seated in the Roy Eldridge vein, and so it is not surprising that it took on Gillespian overtones in his last year. The recordings he made with the small group from the First Herd, the Woodchoppers, contained classic' jazz from everyone involved, but if anything Berman was outstanding alongside Harris. Some of his muted work was excellent, ranging from the delicate to the pungent, and in September 1941 he recorded under his own name with a group drawn from the Herd for the Dial label. The music again proved to be a classic contribution for the time, and his lyrical contribution to Ralph Burns' Nocturne at this session demonstrated his great maturity. That maturity coupled to such fast and accurate technique showed a jazz giant in the making, and as in the case of trumpeters Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown and Booker Little who all died very young, we can only speculate on what might have been.
Woody told George Simon that Sonny was 'one of the happiest characters... What fire and feeling and warmth he had! And he was still just a kid. I remember once when we got to California he had saved around seven or eight hundred dollars, which meant he practically did without diamonds. One night he came to me to ask for advice. Should he put the money aside in case he wanted to get married in the future or should he buy "the longest, yellowest roadster"? We told him to get the car, so he went out and bought a Cord. They weren't making them any more — in fact it was an older vintage than he was. Well, the first night he came to work the car was steaming and belching, and right away Sonny went over to Abe Turehen who was our road manager then, and asked him "What time is intermission, so I can go out and have an accident?" A few days later on the way to San Diego the car blew up completely.'
Unusually the band packed a vibraphone in its ranks, first played by Margie Hyams, and later Red Norvo, who arrived in December, 1945. Red had been a bandleader himself for many years (his last band had included Ralph Burns and his brother-in-law, young Shorty Rogers, later to join Herman) but had been discouraged by the way the style of his small group was wrecked by frequent departures of musicians to join the services. He joined Goodman for some months before leaving for Woody. With Woody he played a most important role in the sessions recorded by the Woodchoppers.
Until the release of its Columbia discs, the Herd's main exposure to its eager public came through broadcasts, and happily many of these have been preserved, so that we can hear the various elements coming together in the second part of 1944 that was to lead to the enormous impact that the band had in 1945 when it was able to blaze ahead with commercial recordings to add to the personal appearances and broadcasts. In July 1944 during a lengthy residence at the Hotel Sherman in New York. Woody signed an agreement to broadcast each Wednesday evening for the Columbia Broadcasting System in a show sponsored by Old Gold Cigarettes, and the Herman band took over from Frankie Carle's orchestra for a series that ran from 26 July to 4 October, eleven broadcasts in all and a very important exposure for the new library.
At this time George Simon [wrote about big bands for Metronome magazine] was sent to New York to begin making V Discs for the services. These were non-commercial recordings produced specifically for the armed forces and were recorded without fee by the artists involved on the assurance that they would never appear commercially. Distributed generously throughout the various theatres of war many copies survived and of course all the jazz items involved have been subsequently made available on illicit labels. In an attempt to make the 12-inch records less attractive to the thief, violently contrasting forms of music were coupled together, so that for example V Disc 382 has Woody Herman's Red Top on one side and Poor Little Rhode Island and Come With Me My Honey by Guy Lombardo on the other! Similarly, two earthy performances by blues singer Big Bill Broonzy are paired with Clarinet Polka and Laugh Polka by a band whose name will be allowed to lie peacefully in the murk at the bottom of the pond.
Simon approached Woody with a view to a session while the band was working at the Paramount theatre by day and the Meadowbrook Ballroom by night with the Old Gold Show thrown in. Simon was delighted to find Woody eager to record as much as possible for the troops and on 10 August, the first official sample of the First Herd's music was put on wax. Unfortunately the maudlin There Are No Wings On A Foxhole was one of the worst recordings Woody ever made, but soon to follow up were classics like Apple Honey, named after an ingredient in Old Gold's tobacco, and one of the famous 'head arrangements' that were to grace the Herd. These were put together by various members of the band working together and were not formally scored. In particular the individual sections would workout passages for themselves. Apple Honey was built on the chord sequence of I Got Rhythm and the recording for Columbia in February 1945 when coupled with another head Northwest Passage on a 78 record, became the band's first hit and music that was to embed itself permanently in the psyche of a generation of jazz fans.
The V Discs were mostly recorded in New York's Liederkranz Hall. Four decades on it is not surprising that any copies that still exist are pretty worn, and it is increasingly to the surviving broadcasts of the time that one turns for higher quality recordings. Many of the Old Gold Shows and the later Wild Root Shows (Wild Root was a hair cream, and the programme series was sponsored by the manufacturer) survive on tape. In addition to the previously mentioned cornucopia of alternative solos, the broadcasts provide an unmatched opportunity to study the sort of programme the band offered. On 2 August 1944 the Old Gold Show opened with Flying Home, another head arrangement featuring Ralph Burns, Flip and Woody, and some riffs which were later to find their way into Apple Honey, It Must Be Jelly, a Ralph Burns novelty creation for the voices of Woody and Frances Wayne came next, to be followed by another apparent lightweight, Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby. But this last had powerhouse solos from Flip, Pete Candoli, Bill and Woody in a superb Burns chart that also used a passage that Ralph would later cannibalize for Blowing Up A Storm.
It has been mentioned that even when the setting was most trivial there was always something of interest in the writing of Duke Ellington, and the same is largely true of Ralph Burns. The Herman band played many of the ephemeral songs of the day, but frequently Burns' scores gave them an immortality which they did not in their pristine form deserve. And very often one of the solo giants would also ennoble the dross with the result that Put That Ring On My Finger, I Wonder, and Katuska assumed an importance out of proportion to their original weight. There is a fascinating example of this to be found in the various versions of the lightweight vocal feature for Woody, Good, Good, Good (the most outstanding is the remarkable direct line transcription on Fanfare 43-143) where, following the vocal. Burns has scored an orchestral ensemble in Bill Harris' trombone style, and the band rocks and lurches before confirmation comes in a bucketing and exultant break out by Harris himself. From a chirpy but insignificant opening the piece suddenly takes on the sublime exhilaration that only this band could impart to the listener. Another sophisticated device used by the band is obvious in the next track on the Fanfare album, Goosey Gander, an amalgam of the old tune Shortnin' Bread and the blues, where Flip Phillips's tenor sax solo is used to set the stage for a big shout up from Harris. Flip played a gentle, intricate solo to set the contrast ahead of the famous klaxon horn fanfare from the trombone section before Harris takes the stage for some mighty disembowelling! (All the surviving versions of Goosey Gander are notable for good Harris solos and a tremendous pile up of brass rills in the final choruses. Also on display was the high note trumpet of Pete Candoli, the famous glissandi tor the trumpet section and one of Dave Tough's eccentric drum tags, overrunning the coda by the band. On the less formal broadcast versions, Harris's solo is obscurely prefaced by Woody with the remark 'Ham sandwich and a bottle of beer'!)
Petrillo's squabble with the record companies came to an end in November 1944 and Herman switched from Decca to Columbia at the end of the year. The band's most famous titles were recorded in the Liederkranz Hall (where the V Discs had been made) in February and March 1945. Although these were the recordings that caused such a sensational enthusiasm and following for the band, they no longer represent the most accurate source for historians. Four of the broadcasts between February and July 1945 were recorded by a method described as 'class A direct line transcription.’ Whatever this involved, the results were a clarity and presence that virtually amounted to high fidelity. Fortunately the recordings were mislaid or put away unplayed at the time, and they didn't surface again until the late seventies, when of course the LP medium existed and they were transferred with their original incredible and immaculate sound condition to two albums on the US Fanfare label (Fanfare 22-122 and 43-143). These albums are the most important evidence that we have of the band's greatness. Never have Tough's drums been so crisply presented, never has the brass been able to shout without distortion, never have Jackson's bass lines been so clearly heard through the ensemble, and never has Frances Wayne sounded better than in the two versions of her beautiful feature Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe.
Nonetheless the band's Columbia recordings caught the mood of the times with the war drawing to a close and the hope of a bright new future. People were ready ibr the exuberant turmoil, the powerhouse brass and the acceptable face of bebop as presented by the Herd. Returning servicemen who had heard the band on V Discs or on its relayed broadcasts wanted more, and the records sold on a massive scale. The individuals in the band began to sweep the board of the meaningless awards presented by the various music magazines, and as far as the public was concerned they became stars. Ralph Burns never quite overcame the embarrassment he felt when asked for his autograph. He couldn't see that his qualities made him more deserving of the 'star' appellation than many of the empty heads in Hollywood. Ralph was in his element, knowing that nowhere else would his work get the same treatment. He could bring a new chart to the band and immediately the music would take fire. He couldn't write fast enough. He concentrated on writing, and Tony Aless took over the piano chair.
Another writer came into the band. Shorty Rogers. For some weeks the filth trumpet in the band had been Conte Candoli, but the school holidays ended and his mother made the sixteen year old return to school. He finally left school and returned in January 1945, but was drafted in September. Shorty Rogers left the army at the same time, and Conte was sent to the camp that Shorty had just come from. Red Norvo had recommended him to Woody, and Shorty walked right into the job. 'Everyone was influenced by Bird and Dizzy and was trying to bring their way of playing into the band. Neal Hefti and Ralph Burns and the other arrangers were marvellous to me, and it was like going to school, a graduate course, a real luxury. Pete Candoli took me in and watched over me like another brother.'
By now Bijou had been recorded as Harris's feature, and the band was knocking out other successes like Neal Hefti's The Good Earth, a beautifully constructed piece, typical of Hefti's high quality of output. Caldonia, a blues novelty that had come from Louis Jordan made its mark, and like Woodchopper’s Ball and Blue Flame is one of the flag wavers that persists to this day. Caldonia was a collaboration between Burns, who wrote the opening and closing passages and Hefti, who wrote the lockjaw-inducing passage lor the trumpet section. At the time Hefti's writing seemed insurmountable for the trumpets, but this was by now the most powerful trumpet section in the world, and it vaulted through Neal's tortuous creation. Incredibly, subsequent Herds play this passage faster and faster!
At the beginning of September 1945 Tough was briefly ill, and Buddy Rich took his place in a recording that produced the classic Your Father's Moustache. Rich's brilliantly accurate playing was different, but it produced the same results as he underpinned Berman, Harris and Herman to perfection. Harris barked a particularly gruff and splendid solo before Woody led the ensemble into a lyric that rivalled 'Ham sandwich and a bottle of beer' in its profundity. Chubby Jackson, who sported a five string bass, was usually the cheerleader in this kind of group activity, and his comedy work had earned him the radio billing 'Woody Herman and his band with Chubby Jackson and the Woodchoppers' as a fairly standard introduction. The Woodchoppers superseded the earlier Four Chips and was simply the generic name for any small band within the organisation.
In late 1945 the event which Woody described as 'the greatest thing in this man's musical life' occurred. Woody told Peter Clayton 'A mutual friend introduced our band via records to Igor Stravinsky in California. This man said he was going to get Stravinsky intrigued enough to do something about writing something for our hand. I of course pooh-poohed it and thought it was ridiculous. I didn't believe Stravinsky would get involved with our kind of thing. Fortunately for me and the band I got a wire from Stravinsky saying that he was writing a piece for us and he hoped to have it finished by the Christmas season and it would be his Christmas gift to us.'
What Woody didn't tell Peter was that in fact, although he was kept unaware of it at this time by his accountant, Stravinsky was very short of money. The accountant called Woody and explained this and asked Woody it he would treat Stravinsky's piece as a commission. Woody did and paid for it. Stravinsky never learned of this.
Stravinsky completed the work, entitled Ebony Concerto, in Hollywood on 1 December 1945. He had added a harp and French horn to the band, and had employed a saxophonist to show him the fingerings on the unfamiliar instrument while he was writing.
'He came to New York,' said Woody, 'and rehearsed the band. This was a sensational thing for us. Of course, he had the patience of Job and to be perfectly candid we were out and out jazz players and some of us didn't read that well, but I don't think that was very important, because we could do other things.’ Stravinsky recalled that he was obliged to copy the first of the three movements in quavers because the band couldn't read semi-quavers.
'He was completely intrigued with the band and said "Woody, you have a beautiful family!". No one will ever know what turned him on or what his reasoning was, because the piece was extremely subtle. It never really utilised the trumpets to any degree except with a certain amount of daintiness and lightness. I spent a lot of time with him socially later on and he explained to me that it had been a challenge for him to write for us. He had of course written Stravinsky and not jazz.’
Not wanting to upstage the jazz musicians, Stravinsky attended the first rehearsal dressed in his oldest polo-necked sweater and slacks. The jazz musicians on the other hand had shown their respect by dressing in their best suits!
Herman did a fine job in the difficult virtuoso clarinet role created for him. The impact of working with Stravinsky at close quarters moved the musicians very deeply, particularly arrangers Burns and Rogers. Stravinsky rehearsed the band again when it came to Hollywood. Shorty must have impressed the great man, for later he attended some concerts Shorty gave and is on record as saying 'I can listen to Shorty Rogers' good style with its dotted tradition, for stretches of fifteen minutes and more and not feel the time at all, whereas the weight of every "serious" virtuoso I know depressed me beyond the counter action of equanil in about live.' Shorty was to return the compliment by writing Igor for the Woodchoppers.
Now Neal Hetti and his wile Frances Wayne left the band to settle in Hollywood and Conrad Gozzo, one of the most powerful lead trumpeters ever, and Marky Markowitz joined Berman, Rogers and Candoli in the trumpets. Dave Tough succumbed finally to his illness and left in late September 1945. Generally regarded as irreplaceable, it seemed that the band must inevitably drop down a notch without him. Woody's good fortune held and he took on Don Lamond, a man who was and is dedicated to jazz and who was to prove to be outstanding amongst drummers and in his more modern way as good as Tough. He had Davey's respect for the roots, but be also had a more wide ranging awareness of contemporary jazz. His legion of discs with Woody are his testimonial, but he went on later to grace main splendid sessions, notably the ones for the Argo label by Chubby Jackson's big band with Bill Harris.
In 1938 the Benny Goodman orchestra gained a lot of prestige when it gave a concert in New York's until then exclusively symphony Carnegie Hall. Duke Ellington followed him to the hall in the early forties, and it seemed a natural place for the burgeoning Herd.
A concert was set for 25 March 1946 and it was decided to give Ebony Concerto its premiere. Ralph Burns had written an extended suite the previous summer while staying at Chubby Jackson's home in Long Island, and that also was to receive its premiere. Called Summer Sequence, it was a masterwork, full of beautiful melody and superb scoring, alter the manner of but not derivative from Duke Ellington. At this stage it was in three parts, but later Burns was to compose an even more voluptuous fourth movement which became known as 'Early Autumn'. Unfortunately Stravinsky was engaged elsewhere, so the task of conducting his work fell to Walter Hendl.
The concert was sold out. Fortunately all of it except the concerto, Summer Sequence and five other numbers was recorded and issued later. Although the sound quality is far from perfect, the music is some of the most exciting ever caught on record. Classics abound. Bill Harris created exquisite versions of his ballads, Mean To Me and Everywhere, Flip Phillips had Sweet And Lovely to perfection and Red Norvo was dazzling on his two numbers, I Surrender Dear and The Man I Love, the rhythm section rode Four Men On A Horse and Pete Candoli popped buttons off his shirt with Superman With A Horn (in some less dignified performances of this latter Pete had swung to the stage from the balcony on a rope dressed in a Superman outfit).
The band, powered particularly by Harris and ILamond, exploded classic performances of Bijou, Your Father's Moustache, Wild Root, The Good Earth, Blowing Up A Storm and a delectable blues feature tor Woody and Bill, Panacea.
Down Beat, after some obligator, carping about detail, noted that Herman ended both Red Top and the concluding Wiid Root with "a good four feet leap in the air'. Leaping in the air (and spinning his bass the while) was one of Chubby's specialities, and the leap was often emulated by the young but large Sonny Berman, who was a disciple of Chubby’s. Sonny too was pretty hefty and on one occasion leapt and crashed through the stage to the next floor.
Copious Down Beat coverage left no doubt that the men were stars, and here were the seeds of trouble tor later in the year.
The bulk of the programme was repeated in succeeding appearances in Baltimore and Boston, but not surprisingly the charismatic atmosphere of Carnegie was apparently not recaptured.
There then occurred a remarkable recording session in Chicago, or rather two sessions on 16 and 20 May 1946. These were by the Woodchoppers with Berman and Rogers on trumpet, Harris on trombone, Woody and Flip, and on piano Jimmy Rowles, who had replaced Tony Aless a month earlier. Chubby and guitarist Billy Bauer, about to leave the band, were also in the rhythm section with Lamond.
Shorty wrote Steps, Igor and Nero's Conception, Bauer contributed Pam and Flip composed Lost Weekend. Fan It, a survivor from the Isham Jones days, reappeared. The music was superb, with Berman having his last grand exposure on record. (When the author visited Shorty Rogers at his California home, the trumpeter brought out his most prized possessions, one of Sonny's mutes and a signed photograph of Igor Stravinsky.) Woody paid tributes to both jimmy Noone with the trills on Nero's Conception and to Barney Bigard on Steps, despite the fact that the settings Rogers had created were amongst the most modern the musicians had experienced. The sessions were unique, and since this is the last time that he will be mentioned here and because his solos are so much to be cherished, let us summarize the bulk of the Sonny Berman solos on records: Sidewalks Of Cuba, Your Father's Moustache, I Wonder, A Kiss Goodnight, Uncle Remus Said, Don't Worry 'Bout That Mule, Let It Snow, and Someday Sweetheart by the Woodchoppers of 12 October 1946. His solos on Ralph Burns' excellent arrangement of Sidewalks Of Cuba and on the V Disc Don't Worry 'Bout That Mule are especially outstanding and although the trumpet work on the version of the latter on Fanfare 43-143 is credited to Candoli, it is actually Sonny at his best.
The band grossed three quarters of a million dollars in 1946.
In September they recorded another lengthy Burns suite, Lady McGowan's Dream. This had typically imaginative Burns mood creating, adorned with solos from Woody, Shorty and Flip. Its antecedents are interesting. When the band was resident at the Panther Room of the Sherman Hotel in Chicago, a woman by the name of Lady McGowan checked into a suite and several other rooms. The hotel regarded her as some kind of visiting dignitary. Nobody knew her, but she was evidently a Woody fan and came every night to listen. One night she threw a big party for the band in her suite and caviar and champagne were laid on. A day or so later the management decided to check up on who she was and when they did they discovered that there was no such person as Lady McGowan. She had run up a tab of $4000 and when it was investigated her luggage turned out to be empty trunks. She had played hostess to the band at a splendid party and gone, to be immortalised in Burns's composition.
On 19 August when the band was resident at the massive Casino Gardens in Ocean Park, California, it travelled to Los Angeles where Stravinsky conducted the concerto in the recording studio. On 19 September in the same studio Ralph Burns played piano when the first three parts of Summer Sequence were recorded. Woody recalled that the studio seemed to be fur-lined, but later doctoring by the engineers made the discs acceptable. Burns had introduced a new and highly developed idiom to jazz with this suite, and the strength of form and lack of wasteful adornment are to be praised. Although it is the writing that grips the attention, the soloists were Chuck Wayne (Bauer's replacement and a Czech emigre whose real name is Jagelski), Harris and Sam Rubinwitch on baritone. It seems coincidental that Rubinwitch in the up tempo passage takes on a Harry Carney sound and Woody does his Bigard. The suite is perhaps Burns's ultimate achievement in jazz, and ranks with Eddie Sauter's 'Focus' suite (for Stan Getz) as a serious and successful attempt at a new form of jazz expression.
Two days later, under the titles of the Sonny Berman Big Eight and the Bill Harris Big Eight, Burns joined Berman, Harris, Phillips, Lamond and others to record the classic non-Herman tracks that included Burns's exquisite Nocturne. The baritone player on the date was Serge Chaloff, who was to be one of the leading lights of the Second Herd.
In December The Blues Are Brewin’ from the film New Orleans in which the band had appeared briefly was recorded, along with two of Mr. Bishop's aces restored from the old days. Blue Flame and Woodchopper's Ball.
The band was at the top, but the departure of Chubby Jackson and Billy Bauer had been symptomatic. There was unrest in the ranks as the stars decided that they should be paid more or that they should go where they would be paid more. That month, after the band played a dance at the University of Indiana, Woody told the musicians that the band was folding. Many different people have offered different reasons for the break up, but Woody later stated unequivocally that it was because of illness in his immediate family.
As George Simon has noted, the great big band era finished that month, as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown. Jack Teagarden and Benny Carter all broke up their bands. But let it be said that many of them were to reform later.
Including Woody Herman's.”
To be continued ….