General 2-2-2005

Woody’s Herd Again

Reminiscing about the good times with Woody Herman’s postwar big bands

Woody Herman

The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947)

Mosaic Records

Of course Duke Ellington and Count Basie had the two greatest jazz big bands, pretty much everyone in the know realizes that. But for me, the next great large jazz aggregations in line were Woody Herman’s First and Second Herds. (The First played together from 1945-46; the Second’s 1947 work is represented on this Columbia set, though they went on to make some terrific recordings on Capitol.)

Herman’s 1940s Herds have a special place in my heart because they reflect the sense of optimism and good (sometimes crazy) sense of humor that were in the air at the close of World War II. Believe me, that was a rare time to be alive. There was this feeling of moral righteousness in the air, as the allies had won the “good war,” a war that was not controversial, where right seemed to be 100% on our side. The fascist forces of evil had been crushed. Plus the economy was in fine shape, people could get good-paying industrial jobs, veterans could go to college with the GI Bill. Peaceful use of atomic energy was going to usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity. A lot of folks couldn’t see us slipping back into the political dishonesty and pettiness that had characterized this and every country’s past. So for a while a whole bunch of Americans, especially naïve little kids like I was then, were afflicted with the delusion that a new, better age was dawning.

Woody Herman had come to the fore in 1936 as the leader of an outfit called The Band That Plays the Blues. It had a really big hit in 1939 with “Woodchopper’s Ball,” but even after that was regarded as just a so-so band. However, from 1942 to 1944 some changes took place. Herman recorded with greats from the Ellington band—Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Juan Tizol—as well as advanced swing-era tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson. He commissioned a composition from avant-garde up-and-comer Dizzy Gillespie, “Down Under,” which became better known as the jazz standard “Woody’n You.” By 1945 Herman had put together a band of young, progressive musicians that synthesized swing and bop styles. The First Herd, though, didn’t and doesn’t seem like it was moving from one style to another; their music sounds fully formed. Their ensemble work, like that of the Second Herd, was superb, clean and very energetic. Some of the music and vocals on their recordings were full of good humor, yet even these were performed with discipline. Herman’s band was so impressive as a unit, in fact, that Igor Stravinsky wrote a classical piece for them, “Ebony Concerto,” which is included on this comprehensive seven-disc set from Mosaic, along with a bunch of alternate takes, previously unissued performances, and all of the wonderful First and Second Herd Columbia releases.

The creators of the First Herd style, in addition to Herman, who set the general direction, were basically composer/arrangers Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti. Burns wrote unusually subtle and lyrical music, using unusual modulations and unique voicings. For jazz fans, his charts added a great deal of interest to the popular tunes with vocalists that Herman was obliged to perform. A lovely example of his work is “Bijou,” a mixture of jazz and Latin influences. Burns was also an early experimenter with extended form compositions, including “Lady McGowan’s Dream” and “Summer Sequence,” the fourth part of which features an early and impressive appearance by Stan Getz. Hefti, by contrast, was known for his exciting, flag waving charts like “The Good Earth,” “Wild Root,” “Blowin’ Up a Storm.” He was also an early admirer of bop, as his unison trumpet passage on “Caldonia” indicates.

Herman didn’t have as many top notch soloists as Ellington and Basie did at their peaks, but he had some fine ones. Among the best was trumpeter Sonny Berman, who died tragically at the age of twenty-one. Berman had everything going for him: a big, pretty tone, excellent technique, fire and an original style that included unexpected key changes. He was also a very lyrical player, whose work sometimes reminds me of the singing of Jewish cantors. Bill Harris was the most popular trombonist in jazz from the mid-1940s through the early ‘50s. He had a rich timbre and used vibrato very expressively. He could play with ferocity on hard-driving pieces, or with great warmth on ballads. Flip Phillips, Herman’s star tenor saxman, had an unusual style, combining a lush, breathy tone reminiscent of Ben Webster’s with a tendency to lay behind the beat in the manner of Lester Young. Red Norvo, already considered a great, ahead-of-his-time vibes player in the 1930s, also played with Herman, and his advanced style fit right into Woody’s band.

Woody himself was a good, Hodges-influenced alto player and a solid Barney Bigard-like clarinetist, thus bringing a lush, warm Ellington influence into the band. He was also a more than competent blues and ballad singer. And let’s not forget the rhythm section. Woody had one of the best, anchored by Chubby Jackson, a cut-up on stage, but an inventive and musical bassist, and by the amazing drummer Dave Tough, who started playing Chicago-style jazz in the 1920s, yet was so innovative he’s considered a precursor of bop.

Herman broke up his First Herd at the end of 1946 and put together his Second in 1947. This was a fully evolved bop band, loaded with outstanding performers. It is sometimes known as the Four Brothers band after the great Jimmy Giuffre composition “Four Brothers,” among many that featured its trademark four-saxophone sound (three tenors and a baritone). “Four Brothers” was only one of a number of the Second Herd’s infectious, jumping numbers. A couple of others on this set are “The Goof and I” and “Keen and Peachy,” which is based on the chord progression of “Fine and Dandy.”

The trumpet section featured the work of Ernie Royal, an inventive, swinging improviser whose soloing is often underrated because he’s best known as a high-note man. As for that sax section, it’s one of the finest ever assembled. The best known of the saxmen is tenorist Stan Getz, noted for his small but pretty tone and melodic inventiveness. Also appearing is one of the swingingest modern tenormen, Zoot Sims. Herbie Steward, the often-overshadowed other tenorman in the Four Brothers, was actually playing like Getz before Getz himself was, and was a strong influence on Stan. Serge Chaloff was the best of the bop baritone saxophonists; he had incredible technique and a bottomless well of ideas.

Actually, the Second Herd’s personnel improved when Herman switched to Capitol. Terry Gibbs and then Milt Jackson came in on vibes, with Lou Levy on piano and Charlie Parker collaborator Red Rodney on trumpet. Harris and Chubby Jackson rejoined Herman, and Shorty Rogers gained prominence as an arranger, doing very impressive work before making a name for himself as one of the top figures on the West Coast jazz scene. And for awhile the great Oscar Pettiford played bass with Herman. Like the First Herd, this was a brash, exciting and hard-swinging band that could also handle ballads sensitively.

Herman’s big band work in the 1950s and after remained admirable, but never reached the level of his first two Herds, which buoyed the nation with their confidence and good humor in the middle and late 1940s. And while this set is a little more trouble than usual to obtain–you have to get it directly from Mosaic–it’s worth seeking out, since neither the country nor the big band situation has improved much since 1948 (my best year, by the way).

Mosaic Records can be reached at 35 Melrose Place, Stamford, CT 06902, at 203-327-7111, or at