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

Music Reviews


This is FRESH AIR. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of clarinetist, saxophonist, singer and bandleader Woody Herman. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this remembrance of Herman's 66 years in show business.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Clarinetist Woody Herman bloomed early and late - and then later still. He turned pro by age nine, singing and dancing in movie theaters on summer vacation. He'd do one song deemed too risque for radio when he recorded it decades later. He released it under a pseudonym with the whole thing speeded up.


WOODY HERMAN: (Singing) She's got a lingo as funny as By Jingo, if you know what I mean. And she does a twister far better than her sister, Silly Chili Bean. Over here, over there, she's a little bit bare, so she wears a lot of leaves to protect her from the air. Oh, gee. Say, gee. You ought to see my Gee Gee from the Fiji Isle.

WHITEHEAD: 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 Count 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 Woody was focusing on clarinet, like a proper swing headliner.


WHITEHEAD: 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, Woody 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 speeded-up. The brass included young trumpeter Sonny Berman with his antic bebop solos, and the lyrical but shouting trombonist Bill Harris, who co-wrote this one.


WHITEHEAD: "Your Father's Mustache." Woody Herman was great at motivating his players and indulging their eccentricities. A minute later, that tune gets weirder, with a quote from Stravinsky and a curious rejoinder.


HERMAN: (Singing) Flee, fly. Ah, your father's mustache. Aw, your father's mustache. Aw...

WHITEHEAD: Stravinsky didn't mind. Soon after, he wrote his "Ebony Concerto" for the First Herd. Woody Herman famously said later: We had no more right to play it than the Man in the Moon had.


WHITEHEAD: 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 and 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.


WHITEHEAD: Woody Herman's First Herd made money. The Second lost it by the busload. The 1950s were even worse, but Herman kept plugging away. In the late '60s, he had 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, Gilbert O'Sullivan and The Temptations.


WHITEHEAD: 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 he left a lot of music to show for it.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic. and is the author of "Why Jazz?"

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