Woodrow Charles Herman was born May 16, 1913 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He spent his youth singing on vaudeville stages throughout the Midwest, and began playing the saxophone at the age of 11. By the time he was 15, he had gone professional, and in 1929 he was picked up to play with Tom Gerun. Stints with Gus Arnheim and Isham Jones followed, and in 1936, Woody and some of the other members of Jones's band reformed as the Woody Herman Orchestra.
Woody was more interested in the blues than traditional classical and jazz music. His throaty sax and love of soulful renditions earned him the nickname "The Blue Flame" (after one of the songs that made him famous), and his band became one of the more popular jazz blues bands in America.
By 1943, the age of swing had arrive, and Woody took full advantage of this, renaming the group Woody Herman and the Herd and throwing out wild bop arrangements to bluesy pieces. Hits like "Caldonia" and "Woodchopper's Ball" were given new life. The great composer Igor Stravinsky wrote Woody a piece entitled "Ebony Concerto." The group sold out wherever they played, including a famous live concert at Carnegie Hall in 1946. In the meantime, Woody broke many conventions of jazz, including hiring women to play in his band and avoiding standards in favor of newer pieces whenever he could.
By then, Woody had two children from his wife Charlotte and decided to settle down. But as anyone who's ever had a hankering for the stage can tell you, Woody didn't settle for long. He formed a new band (called, appropriately, the Second Herd) with a much cooler jazz set - future legends like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims all came to play with Woody. Eventually he earned a reputation as an open-minded bandleader, and many of the most talented young jazz artists of the 50s and 60s came to play for him.
Unfortunately, as good as Woody was music, he was bad with money. His band manager throughout the 60s failed to pay any taxes on Woody's earnings, and as a result, Woody was forced to keep playing long after he wanted to retire in order to stay out of the poorhouse. When his age finally caught up with him in 1981, he was forced to retire, and the IRS seized most of his assets, including his home. Only a number of fundraisers by his loyal fans and closest friends, including Tony Bennett, Shorty Rogers, and Rosemary Clooney kept him from filing for bankruptcy.
Woody Herman, who helped define the transitional period from swing jazz to bebop and continues to influence modern jazz artists even today, caught pneumonia on October 23, 1987 and died six days later in a San Diego hospital. He was 74.
- Woody Herman at Carnegie Hall (MGM, 1946)
- Swinging with the Woodchoppers (Dial, 1946)
- Hey! Heard the Herd? (Verve, 1952)
- Jazz, the Utmost! (Verve, 1952)
- Men from Mars (Verve, 1952)
- Woody Herman Goes Native (Mars, 1953)
- The Three Herds (Columbia, 1954)
- The Woody Herman Band (Capitol, 1954)
- Blues Groove (Capitol, 1955)
- Woodchopper's Ball (Decca, 1955)
- Songs for Hip Lovers (Verve, 1957)
- Herman's Heat & Puente's Beat (Evidence, 1958)
- The Herd Rides Again (Evidence, 1958)
- Live at Monterey (Atlantic, 1958)
- Encore (Philips, 1963)
- Light My Fire (Cadet, 1968)
- Woody (Cadet, 1970)
- The Raven Speaks (Fantasy, 1972)