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100 Years Of Woody Herman: The Early Bloomer Who Kept Blooming

American jazz musician Woody Herman rehearses in London during a tour of England.
Getty Images
American jazz musician Woody Herman rehearses in London during a tour of England.

Woody Herman, who would have turned 100 on Thursday, bloomed early and late — and then later still. He turned pro by age 9, singing and dancing in movie theaters on summer vacation. He'd perform one song deemed too risqué for radio when he recorded it decades later: "My Gee Gee From the Fiji Isles."

Herman was 17 when he went on the road playing saxophone in traveling bands. Eventually, he joined songwriter Isham Jones' orchestra. When Jones broke it up in 1936, his jazzier guys reformed as a co-op with Herman out front. They were known as the Band That Played the Blues. Count Basie said later they were the only band that ever beat his when they split a bill, though Basie blamed his own guys. Herman broke through when 1939's "Woodchopper's Ball" slowly became a hit. That tune owed a lot to Basie's light-footed blues. By now, Herman was focusing on clarinet, like a proper swing headliner.

In the late '30s, Herman never rivaled band-leading clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But then came that late blooming. In 1944, not long before the swing era collapsed, Herman put together a stupendous band known as his First Herd. It was popping with talent, starting with hotdog bassist Chubby Jackson, whose added fifth string made him sound sped-up. The brass included young trumpeter Sonny Berman with his antic bebop solos, as well as the lyrical but shouting trombonist Bill Harris. Igor Stravinsky wrote his "Ebony Concerto" for them. Herman famously said later, "We had no more right to play it than the man in the moon had."

Many leaders broke up their big bands in 1946, Woody Herman included.

But the following year, he put together his Second Herd, as heavy on saxophone talent as the First was rich in brass. Tenors Stan Getz and Zoot Sims are at the heart of "Four Brothers" by Jimmy Giuffre. It's built around a close-knit quartet of three tenors and baritone sax. Herman would stick with that combination, if only to keep playing that classic tune.

Woody Herman's First Herd made money; the Second lost it by the busload.

Woody Herman's First Herd made money, but the Second lost it by the busload. The 1950s were even worse, but Herman kept plugging away. In the late '60s, he experience another resurgence when his increasingly shaggy young crew started arranging rock tunes like "Proud Mary" and "Light My Fire." They'd play music by Frank Zappa, Steely Dan and Gilbert O'Sullivan — and The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You."

Some old fans were offended, but some jazz fans never forgave rock just for existing. Herman stayed on the road into the 1980s. He didn't have any choice; the IRS had been squeezing him for unpaid taxes since the '60s. The feds finally took his house away and auctioned it to a landlord who later tried to evict him. When word got out, contributions and legal assistance flowed in. That was in 1987, just before Woody Herman died at 74. Like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, he'd led a big band for 50 years — and left a lot of music to show for it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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