100 Jazz Profiles
1913 - 1987
Clarinettist, saxophonist and bandleader. Herman's series of big bands were known as 'Herds', a perfect description for the more boisterous, energetic side of their work, but not necessarily catching the beautiful, reflective side of his work written by such arrangers as Ralph Burns, and featuring his star soloists, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.
No other white bandleader got so close to the spirit of African-American jazz, nor reflected every change in musical fashion from bebop to jazz rock, without ever losing the fundamental sound and recognisable qualities of his own band. Herman had been a child entertainer, but his big break came in 1936 when he took over Isham Jones's band.
He kept this going for ten years, and then between occasional periods of retirement or work as a vocalist, he led a further outstanding series of bands. In later life, tax claims and other financial problems compelled him to keep touring, but he never compromised on the excitement and vibrancy of his band on its live appearances and copious discs.
His own playing was not particularly brilliant, but gutsy and bluesy by turns, as was his very approachable vocal style. His talent was in selecting an exceptional group of sidemen, and by combining clever arrangements with skill, style and discipline, turning them into a series of great ensembles.
His famous 'Four Brothers' line up of three tenors and baritone in the late 1940s was perhaps his most celebrated band, but other groups with trumpeter/arrangers Shorty Rogers and Neal Hefti, saxophonist Flip Phillips and trombonist Bill Harris were all well up to the mark. His greatest hits were the high-energy Apple Honey and Woodchoppers Ball, but his greatest music came in Burns's Early Autumn, or Stravinsky's extraordinary Ebony Concerto, which was commissioned for his band.
Gene Lees: Leader of the Band - The Life of Woody Herman (Oxford University Press) 1995
Keeper of the Flame (Capitol 984532-2)
Suggested track: Early Autumn
Site based on Ken Burns' Jazz series, but with good background on Herman and links.
on radio 3
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