There were two auspicious events on the night of the first Tuesday in November, 1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to a second term, carrying every state except Maine and Vermont, and Woodrow Charles Herman played his first gig as a bandleader at the Roseland Ballroom in Brooklyn.
Fifty years and eight Presidents later, Woody Herman is doing essentially what he did then: leading an orchestra of young, enthusiastic musicians, keeping the big-band flame burning.
For his semicentennial year, numerous celebrations have been planned. The most eagerly awaited is his concert Wednesday at Hollywood Bowl, for which he will be joined not only by his present "Young Thundering Herd" but by such former sidemen as Stan Getz and Jimmy Rowles (with his trumpeter daughter, Stacy Rowles), and by Richard Stoltzman, who will take over the clarinet part originally played by Herman in "Ebony Concerto," which Igor Stravinsky voluntarily composed for the orchestra in 1945 after hearing some of the band's records.
Herman's career is unique not merely because he is a survivor (at this point virtually the sole survivor, not counting the ghost bands, of the Swing Era), but also in the variety of personalities taken on by his bands over the decades. He's always seemingly moving with the times. His personnel have included hundreds of bright young artists, dozens of whom earned individual fame as leaders or composers.
He has outlived one trauma after another: financial problems that led to the breakup of several bands, brief interludes with smaller groups and an income tax disaster. His debt to the Internal Revenue Service--at last report $1.6 million and holding steady because of interest and penalties--has been a millstone for some 20 years.
In 1977, during a typically grueling tour, he was alone in his car one night, fell asleep at the wheel and was involved in a head-on collision. Two months elapsed before he was sufficiently ambulatory to go out with the band.
A particularly disastrous year was 1982. He had attempted to establish a semi-permanent home for the orchestra at a showroom in a New Orleans hotel. Late that year, business was in a slump and the project was abandoned. Almost at the same time, in Los Angeles, Herman's wife of 46 years, Charlotte, died after a long illness.
What he has never lost is the love and respect shown toward him by the people who have worked for him. His alumni repeat the same phrases: "He was like a father to me" . . . "He's the finest man I ever worked for" . . . "He knows exactly how to showcase his musicians."
What precisely is the nature of Herman's contribution to jazz history? Certainly, it is not his individual capabilities as an instrumentalist. He has been known to say "I never was much of a clarinet player"; although this is unduly modest, certainly he could not have competed with Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw during their great years. Still, his clarinet conveys a cheerful, buoyant spirit, and his alto saxophone, clearly inspired by Johnny Hodges, has always been gentle and graceful. During the post-John Coltrane years, he revealed another aspect by beginning to play soprano saxophone on occasion.
Whatever his virtues or shortcomings on those levels, Herman has succeeded on the strength of his uncanny ear for talent, and his ability to mold it and present it under the best possible circumstances. In a conversation with Gene Lees, the editor of Jazzletter, who was Herman's press agent in the early 1960s, he would take credit only for being a capable editor. "When somebody brings in an arrangement," he said, "I may take letter B and put it where letter A is, and put letter C somewhere else; and I may change solos, because it will suit that particular chart better."
Of course, there is much more to it than that. One can detect it in the musicians' attitude toward him, and on the frequency with which they return when a special celebration is called for. At that, one wonders how he can still keep going, after all the traumas.
The other day, when asked about his ability to sustain his spirits, and the band, after so many roadblocks, he said: "First of all, I still love the music. Sure, there are some rough nights, but the good ones outweigh the bad. Of course, there's another reason I have to go on. If I stopped working, I don't think the IRS would take very kindly to it."
Originally, Herman had "The Band That Plays the Blues." It was a simple blues tune, "Woodchoppers' Ball," that gave him his first hit in 1939. But by the mid-1940s, a new crop of bebop-inspired youths had begun to dominate the band; out of this development came the poll-winning years (Down Beat, 1945; Esquire, 1946-47), his own sponsored radio show (unheard of for a jazz orchestra) and his first record that eventually went gold, "Laura."