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Woody Herman Dies at 74 After Half Century of Making Swing Music

October 30, 1987|JACK JONES | Times Staff Writer

Woody Herman, who prevailed for decades as a top swing band leader only to become in his final days a sad figure overwhelmed by debilitating illness and a crushing debt to the federal government, died Thursday afternoon.

He was 74 and died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he had been since Oct. 1, suffering from congestive heart failure, emphysema and pneumonia. The famed clarinetist and jazz innovator had been on a life-support system.

Fans of the man who since the 1940s had led a succession of "Herds" romping through such swinging numbers as "Woodchoppers Ball" learned in early September that the bandleader was bedridden, behind on his rent and about to be evicted from the Hollywood Hills home he and his late wife, Charlotte, bought from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in the '40s.

IRS Seized Home

The Hermans lived there for more than 40 years until the Internal Revenue Service seized the home and later sold it for nonpayment of $1.6 million in back taxes.

Herman's daughter, Ingrid Herman Reese, said her father's financial problems began in the mid-1960s, when a business manager failed to withhold payroll taxes for three years. Herman also contended that the IRS incorrectly figured what he owed from the 1940s, when he earned an estimated $1 million a year.

News of Herman's plight brought help from jazz radio stations and fans as well as from such celebrities as Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood. The back rent was paid to the man who had bought the house from the IRS and Herman was allowed to remain there.

Donations could approximate $140,000 by the time all funds have been received, said his attorney, Kirk Pasich, shortly after learning of Herman's death.

Pasich also said there still is legislation pending in Congress to forgive the bandleader's tax debts, but he added that the death may have rendered that moot.

To have evicted Herman, Pasich had said in early September, would have killed him.

'Boy Wonder'

No one who saw the bandleader at the time thought that he would live much longer in any event.

Woodrow Charles Herman, Milwaukee-born son of vaudevillians, was a singing, tap-dancing "boy wonder" on stage at 6. He gained fame in the late 1930s with "The Band That Plays the Blues," then went on to head a series of Herman "Herds" consisting of young, technically skilled musicians.

His clarinet and saxophone and his amiable singing remained his trademarks as he progressed from the blues to an intense, driving swing style--and as he took one financially disastrous be-bop flyer during the late '40s.

In 1981, when had been a road-traveling bandleader for 45 years, Herman told an interviewer, "I would never play down to an audience. In other words, let them come find us. . . ."

Generally, they did.

Enough so that in 1986, when he appeared in a Hollywood Bowl concert at age 73 to celebrate 50 years in the band business, he was able to say, "I'm a happy old man still on the road because I dig what I'm doing. And as long as I have a band that I think plays very well, I'm quite contented and happy."

That, he said, was "because I'm doing what I like best to do best, and I feel that the Lord's given me a fair shot. He's allowed me to live all this time."

It was out of his own earnings as a child in vaudeville that Herman bought a saxophone and then a clarinet. He learned to play them and finally got a job with a Milwaukee area roadhouse band.

At 16, after earning $70 a week playing nights in a ballroom while going to high school, Herman was hired by bandleader Tom Gerun in California.

After jobs with the bands of Harry Sosnik and Gus Arnheim, Herman joined the well-known Isham Jones band in 1934.

When Jones decided in 1936 to retire because of ill health, Herman and several other key members formed a cooperative orchestra in which all owned stock. Herman was the leader because of his show-business personality.

It was billed as "The Band That Plays the Blues," and it had a hard time keeping bookings because ballroom owners wanted bands that played sweet, danceable music, not black-oriented blues.

At the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago, the band got its notice after the first night--even though it had drawn a large crowd--on the grounds that it was "too loud and too fast."

Then, in 1939, the band recorded "Woodchoppers Ball," an instant hit that eventually sold a million records. The band was suddenly in demand and began to play such rooms as the famed Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook.

At the Hollywood Palladium, Herman drew an opening night crowd of 4,800.

During the early '40s, Herman became sole owner of the band and acquired some of the superb young musicians that kept the quality of his music high: Chubby Jackson, Ralph Burns, brothers Pete and Conte Candoli, Neal Hefti, Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, Dave Tough. . . .

Man Behind the Sound

Burns was his piano player as well as a composer-arranger credited by Herman with being "as much responsible for our sound as anyone at that time."

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