The Woody Herman Orchestra received tremendous attention in the Fall of 1974 when they played 20 American cities with the much-touted Frank Sinatra tour. Most Sinatra shows opened with a 20-minute set by Woody’s Thundering Herd; the band remained onstage and played behind Sinatra for the entire show. And ABC-TV broadcast a live one-hour special from Madison Square Garden in October.
Such broad exposure and critical acclaim is not a new experience for Woody Herman. Herman just won another Grammy with his Fantasy album, Giant Steps, for best performance by a big band, 1973. He won the same Grammy in 1963. To continue to top polls and gather in the awards after 37 years in the business is not easy. Woody can do it. He has been doing it and will keep on doing it. As Woody says, “I just can’t stop.”
While Frank Sinatra took a brief respite from the tour, Woody Herman kept on working! The 16-piece Herman Herd played three concerts with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The Symphony, led by Lawrence Foster, played two Alan Broadbent compositions with Woody’s band—“Variations on a Scene” and “Children of Lima.” The concerts were recorded for album release next year.
Woody is 61 years old. He is a genuine, first-class American legend. Woody has an incredibly easygoing manner, a lightheartedness and natural buoyancy. To witness the Woody Herman band on the road in small-town America is to experience exactly what it is about Woody’s music that is so appealing to absolutely anyone: it is great fun and quite infectious.
Woody and his Thundering Herd like to play. That’s first. They perform in what must be the widest variety of situations of any working band today. They get it on in Crete, Nebraska and at the Half Note in New York City. Their performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival Switzerland last July was masterful. The resulting LP, Herd at Montreux, was released to coincide with the Sinatra tour.
Woody himself has been up, down, and all around. (Current reading is up.) His laugh is gentle, his warmth quite genuine. The definitive article on the economics of keeping a big (16-member) band together for 37 years has yet to be written; someone should do it, and start with Woody Herman.
Woody’s emphasis on the here-and-now is what keeps those Grammies coming. It is a young band, and they do Carole King tunes back to back with John Coltrane numbers. The age differences between Woody and his bullish young Herdsmen melt away with the music; one becomes aware of all the fine music this one man has encouraged and inspired.
The sound the band produces can be simply overwhelming. ‘Way back in the early Forties, critic George Simon wrote, after hearing Woody several nights in a row: “This band is so overpowering that from now on I am calling it ‘Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd.’” The name stuck.
About the thunder of the band, Woody says: “I’ve always had a ‘sound’ but never a style. My approach to the music I am involved in always has been let it be tasteful, let it be exciting, and always make it swing.”
Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 16, 1913. First performance, age 6: clarinet player, tap dancer, and singer; parochial education; Marquette University—Sigma Epsilon fraternity.
First band 1937; billed as “The Band That Plays the Blues.” (Woody and Jack Teagarden were the only two whites accepted as true blues singers—way before the “Can a White Man Sing the Blues?” controversy of the late Sixties.)
Recorded “Woodchopper’s Ball,” a stimulating new arrangement of a blues number based on a brass riff. An instant hit, the song is now legendary; it has sold well over five million copies.
Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd became entrenched on West 52nd Street in New York, “Swing Street of the World.”
Recorded “Caldonia”—another smash hit which has since identified Woody.
Had own sponsored network radio show 1945-46.
Recorded “Laura,” Woody’s biggest vocal hit, and a pop music standard.
Voted best swing band in 1945 Down Beat poll; Silver Award by critics in 1946 and 1947 Esquire polls; won Metronome poll, band division, 1946 and 1953; won NARAS Grammy Award for Encore as best big band jazz album of 1963; won NARAS Grammy Award for Giant Steps as best big band jazz album of 1973.
The Woody Herman orchestra works 50 weeks a year. They are always on the road. High efficiency in the recording studio is a direct result of steady work. Practice, after all, makes perfect.
Woody has long been known for his interest in young people; the band gives seminars and workshops in colleges and high schools throughout America, wherever young people are interested.
Woody Herman has just begun a relationship with Hal Leonard Publishing, a firm specializing in the college and high school market.
Woody is the singular moving force behind the band, the man who pulls it all together, gets it going, and goes with the band—perhaps a bit ahead of them.
Woody Herman died on Ocotober 29, 1987.