I think one of the great tragedies in the field of writings about Jazz is that Gunther Schuller never completed his promised third volume on the development of this music.
Or as Frank J. Oteri put it in the introduction to a recent interview that he did with Mr. Schuller:
"I've long been awestruck by the seeming omniscience of his two exhaustive volumes of jazz history—Early Jazz and The Swing Era. Like many readers of these books, I've also been immensely frustrated that no third volume was ever published."
Though regrettable, perhaps the reason for this incompletion is that is difficult to sustain the kind of meticulous research associated with producing omnibus volumes of the nature of Early Jazz and The Swing Era.
Having done it twice, unfortunately the third time wasn’t to be the charm for Mr. Schuller or his devoted readers.
Instead, he decided to apply his considerable talents as a composer, arranger, and conductor, as well as his significant abilities as a researcher and a writer, to other areas of interest within the realm of music.
For those of you who have not read either of Mr. Schuller’s Magnus opuses, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles, in its infinite wisdom and compassion, thought it would bring forth a sample of what you have been missing in the form of his essay on big band leader Woody Herman with particular emphasis on what made Woody's music so unique as exemplified in his Early Herds.
© -Gunther Schuller, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"If it is true that perception often is more "real" then reality, then the discrepancy between perception and reality - especially as it affects the lives and assessments of artists - ought to be a fascinating subject for the cultural historian. In that complex of feelings, opinions, assumptions, assertions -and, alas, prejudices - from which human judgments are constructed, reality can easily be suppressed or altered to suit certain preconceptions. And in these respects Woody Herman's place in jazz history, particularly as viewed by most critics and jazz historians, does not seem to square with the reality of his many remarkable achievements.
For Woody has rarely been accorded appropriate recognition for his consistently fine work as a clarinetist, as an alto saxophonist, and as a singer - he is generally dismissed as beneath discussion in these three areas - and even the many fine orchestras Woody has led through the years, his First Herd included, have been treated - at least until recently - rather casually by most jazz historians. Somehow his accomplishments are not deemed quite central to the main tradition(s) of jazz and therefore of minor consequence.
The fact that Herman is an excellent, at times superior clarinetist, saxophonist, and singer- certainly never less than professional - and that his 1944-46 band was as exciting and influential an orchestra as jazz has seen is generally ignored or suppressed. Had Herman and his orchestra been black, the verdict would be quite different. For it is Woody's dilemma that, being white but knowing and deeply feeling that all the important innovative and creative impulses in Jazz have derived from black musicians and sources, he has received little appreciation for striving to pay tribute to those sources, whether it was the blues or the emerging bebop of the early 1940s, or individuals like Webster or Hodges or Gillespie.
And it seems to me that what Woody has embraced he has always treated with a certain humility and integrity, and without self-aggrandizement. Nor has he merely taken and imitated without giving something back; his (and his arrangers') adaptations of their influences of others have always been assimilated, digested, and adopted with a significant amount of personal creativity.*
[* The questions of what is black and what is white in jazz, and what influences affected which musicians and when, are enormously complex ones, generally defying detailed, precise answers that is, beyond the uncontestable reality that jazz originated with black Americans and that all of its major developments and innovations have derived from them. It is when one probes beneath that general truth that one may encounter vexing and virtually unanswerable questions of artistic pedigree and authorship. To what extent cross-fertilizing influences may be considered on the one hand as constructive, creative, genuine, honest, or on the other hand as simply derivative, spurious, parasitic, and merely commercially motivated is a question constantly before us, as crucial today as it ever was in the past. Inevitably, in a music which from its outset was a cultural hybrid, fused from both African and European stylistic/formal elements, artistic pedigree is hard to prove. The infinitely complex network of influences that connects, for example, the work of just the following almost randomly chosen collection of names-Duke Ellington, Will Vodery, Paul Whiteman, Isham Jones, Don Redman, Bubber Miley, Joe Nanton, Fletcher Henderson, Ravel, Debussy, Willie "The Lion" Smith, James P. Johnson, de Pachman, and Rachmaninov --- every one of these names links up with one or more of the others in significant ways--offers a tiny glimpse of the futility of assigning unequivocal artistic precedence and superiority in these matters. ….]
To say this is not to argue that Woody belongs in that pantheon of original creative artists of caliber of Armstrong, Ellington, or Parker; nor even to argue that he is a virtuoso performer at the level of a Hines, an Eldridge, a Benny Goodman, or a Norvo. But it is to suggest that Woody Herman ought to be given credit where it is due (and in the measure it is due) as an outstanding figure in jazz, whose contributions to the music have often been important and never less than honest.
Herman belongs to that category of musicians who are not creative in the largest sense, who are not capable of being "unique" or "original", but who nevertheless succeed at very high levels of technical perfection, taste, and to musical integrity. And if Woody based some aspects of his work as a performer and bandleader on other models, he always chose the best ones to emulate, through them aspiring to the highest ideals of perfection and craftsmanship.
Certainly, he derived the essentials of his clarinet style from Goodman and one of Goodman's own major influences, Jimmy Noone. And yet Herman’s clarinet playing is immediately identifiable as his, by the warmth and expressivity of his tone, by the distinctive turns-of-phrase he favors, and by the modest he assigns himself in any orchestral or ensemble context.
Similarly, Herman's adulation of Johnny Hodges can be heard in all of his alto work. And yet there is an intensity and personal warmth beneath the outward manner in Woody's alto-playing that is undeniably his own.
His work as a singer is perhaps the least appreciated of his performing roles. This is all the more surprising since Woody really sings remarkably well, indeed better than the vast majority of those who think of themselves as professional singers. Again, Woody makes no pretenses as a vocalist, but the fact remains that in three particular vocal idioms - ballads, blues, and novelty songs - Woody has few equals. Listening to his ballad singing on records, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, one is constantly surprised to find that we aren't listening to s famous established singer but simply to Woody Herman. His control of pitch, timbre, diction, and phrasing is never less than commensurate to the assignment at hand, and often times quite inspired and original. One tends to forget before becoming a bandleader Woody had had a long career as a successful vaudeville singer and performer, going back to his teens; and that he was h by that arch perfectionist of dance music, Isham Jones, primarily as a singer.
But clearly Herman's greatest contributions to jazz are as an orchestra leader, in 1945 producing one of the finest orchestras jazz has ever known and through it causing the creation of a body of works that stand to this day as classics of post-Swing Era. [Emphasis mine] Woody has also been an uncannily successful spotter of major talent, as the personnel of his various orchestras through the decades clearly demonstrate -from Nell Reid and Bill Harris to Urbie Green, from Stan Getz and Zoot Sims to Sal Nistico, from Joe Bishop to Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti.
In many respects the standards of excellence and professionalism Woody maintained throughout his career were instilled in him in his early years in vaudeville and with the bands of Tom Gerun and Isham Jones. The latter especially was a major influence, not only in that Woody inherited the nucleus of Jones's fine band (when disbanded in 1936) but that Jones's skills as an orchestral leader and his zeal for musical perfection were impressed upon Herman at a formative stage of his career. We tend to forget that Woody was barely twenty three when he took over the leadership of the Isham Jones band, and that he inherited along with some of its personnel many of its best qualities of musicianship and discipline. These were still influentially formative years in Herman's career, and it is to his credit - and typical of his whole approach to band-leading - that he not only preserved the high standards of musicianship that Isham ones had established but did so whilst accepting the band's titular leadership in he context of a "cooperative" orchestra. Herman has always been exceptional among bandleaders in appreciatively acknowledging the contributions of his sidemen.
For a better understanding of Woody Herman's early development we must digress briefly to examine the work of one of the most remarkable musicians to grace the American popular music scene, Isham Jones. [ I confess that while writing Early Jazz I was not quite aware of Isham Jones's outstanding accomplishments, or of his remarkable influence. Though he led a "dance band" rather than a jazz orchestra, I should have included mention of his pioneering work.]
Isham Jones, like his contemporary Paul Whiteman, led one of the finest dance bands of all time - some would argue the finest - for some seventeen years from 1919 to 1936). Jones managed to combine the highest musicianship with a desire to present the best popular repertory in the most pleasurably danceable form. To that end, like Woody Herman after him, he always surrounded himself with the finest musicians available, thereby according dance music a professionalism and class it rarely enjoyed, especially in the 1920s. Jones was also a highly successful songwriter, the author of several hundred songs, a good two dozen of which were major hits and became standards that are still heard to this day - It Had To Be You, I'll See You in My Dreams, No Greater Love, Swinging Down the Lane.
Jones was, in addition, a first-rate arranger, as witness his outstanding work with his early 1920s' band. From the very outset Jones brought a sophisticated sense of variety (of orchestration, timbre, texture, and dynamics) to his dance band, literally unheard of in those days. One can listen to virtually any of the two hundred-odd sides Jones recorded, for example, between 1920 and 1927, and scarcely discover any repetition of instrumental combinations and devices. Unlike other bandleaders, both then and later, who searched for a formula or gimmick and then rigidly held on to it for the rest of their days, Jones eschewed formularization. His first criterion -that a piece be perfect for dancing - was combined with a high degree of creativity and resourcefulness in exploiting the necessarily limited instrumentation at his command (originally ten players, then enlarged to eleven and in the 1930s to fifteen and sixteen).
Indeed, Isham Jones was, along with Art Hickman and Paul Whiteman, one of the three prime innovators in determining the basic instrumentation and character of the modern American dance orchestra. But whereas Whiteman continually enlarged his orchestra and increased the number of doubling instruments, striving for "symphonic" proportions, Jones found ingenious ways of using his mere half-dozen melodic instruments to maximum varietal effect. He was particularly inventive in the use of his band's three reed instruments: soprano saxophone; alto saxophone doubling clarinet; and himself, in the early days, mostly on C-melody sax, doubling occasionally on tenor, and by the mid-twenties,, switching more and more to tenor. By constantly varying ways of combing the reeds in duets and trios and in turn combining them, singly or collectively, with his two (later three) brass instruments and a violin (played by the excellent Leo Murphy), Jones was able to create an astonishing diversity of timbres and textures that no other bandleader in 1921 or 1922 even dreamt of, let alone realized. Virginia Blues, High Brown Blues, Farewell Blues, My Honey's Lovin' Arms (all from 1922) may serve as excellent examples of Jones's resourcefulness, matched perhaps only by Jelly Roll Morton in his 1926 Red Hot Peppers recordings (with only seven players!) ….
[As an example]Jones's recording of Farewell Blues is … startling in its innovative use of instrumentation, dynamics, and contrasts of texture and mood. Aside from requiring unusual expressive swells in the theme statement and a (for the time) uncommon low-register clarinet solo, followed by a sobbing brass trio (led by Louis Panico, Jones's star trumpeter), Jones builds the last several choruses to a climactic ending by the triple device of a) a well-paced continuous crescendo, b) adding more and more instruments, c) in increasingly higher registers - similar to the techniques used, for example, by Maurice Ravel in his 1928 Bolero. These final stanzas of Farewell Blues are also notable for their amazing swing, years ahead of others' capabilities in this regard, especially if one takes into account that it was never Isham Jones's intention to create a jazz orchestra, merely a superior dance band.
Just as astonishing is Jones's ability to adapt, as early as 1920, the often frenzied and inane collective improvisational style of groups like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Louisiana Five to a more musical and balanced conception. In this Jones was no doubt much influenced by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the former the finest jazz and dance orchestra in
, the very city in which Jones formed his band in 1919. Chicago
Notable, too, is Jones's copious inclusion of blues or blues-like pieces in his repertory, hardly typical for a white dance orchestra in the 1920s. This is especially significant in view of the fact that Woody Herman's early band, as mentioned a direct descendant of the Jones orchestra, had a heavy component of blues in its repertory, and was in fact known as "the band that plays the blues." Many of Jones's early 1920s' blues were, of course, more ragtime than blues, or at least retained many of the rhythmic and stylistic characteristics of late ragtime. But here again Jones was a master at blending these two style elements with his own adaptations of the New Orleans collective improvisational idioms, all assimilated into an unerringly successful dance music.
And dance music is what Jones called it, even though much of it is clearly jazz or leans heavily in a jazz direction. It is, in fact, for the most part, truer to the spirit and rhythmic energy of Jazz than many of the self-proclaimed Jazz bands of the period, both black and white. (There is no question, for example, that the Isham Jones band of the early and mid-1920s swung much more than Fletcher Henderson's or Duke Ellington's bands in their early years. And that wasn't because Jones wanted to play jazz, but rather because he wanted to provide the ultimate in rhythmic dance music, music that would simply compel people get on the dance floor and dance.)
Later, when Jones felt obliged to give up playing and arranging and just lead his orchestra, he engaged two excellent composer-arrangers, Joe Bishop and Gordon Jenkins, to maintain the previous high levels of creativity, along with outstanding players like trumpeter Johnny Carlson, trombonist Jack Jenney, reedman Milt Yaner -and in 1934 Woody Herman.
In the thirties, Jones was able to maintain a striking balance between old and new, combining traditional elements with some of the more advanced directions of the period, especially in his highly effective blending of both a two-beat and 4/4 rhythmic pulse.**
[** Jones's retention of the tuba well into the mid-1930s should not, however, be construed as evidence of a conservative penchant on his part, or of a longing to maintain an "old-fashioned" rhythmic feeling. On the contrary, it was Jones's desire to strengthen the bass lines by using both tuba and string bass (pizzicato) in order to provide a stronger harmonic foundation and rhythmic pulse, as well as a depth of sonority which orchestras like Tommy Dorsey's, for example, didn't discover until the very late 1930s, but which Whiteman on the other hand had already pioneered in the twenties and maintained well into the Swing Era.]
One simple device Jones used to produce a strong rhythmic momentum was maintaining a constant four-beats-to-the-bar accompaniment on the guitar (played expertly by Jack Blanchette), regardless of whether the rest of the rhythm section was in two or in four. With its emphasis of a steady swinging beat, Jones's orchestra could even make a waltz swing compellingly, as witness their 1932 I'll Never Have To Dream Again. (Other outstanding at times strong I swinging Jones performances are Sentimental Gentleman from Georgia (1932) and Georgia Jubilee and Blue Room (both from 1934.)”
[At this point in Mr. Schuller’s narrative, he jumps from his discussion of the origins and development of Isham’s Jones and his orchestra, including Woody Herman’s place in it, to a resumption of Woody’s career in 1936 without explaining how the transition from one to the other came about. To better explain these circumstances, what follows is an except from
Gene Lees’ Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman, : New York , 1995, pp. 56-57]: Oxford
“For all his success, according to Woody, Isham Jones was always talking about "quitting the business." There have been any number of musicians-and other artists, for that matter-who have abandoned careers at their peak, including Rossini, Sibelius, and later, another clarinet-playing bandleader, Artie Shaw. We can only speculate that Jones, who, like Shaw, hated audiences, simply had had enough of the business. Aside from the money he had already accumulated, there was much more that would come willy-nilly in royalties from his considerable catalogue of songs. The ASCAP logging of radio performances of his songs alone assured him a life of ease.
Woody always insisted that, for all his musical sophistication, Jones was essentially a country boy. Woody said, "He bought this ranch a few miles outside of
, and, oh, he had books of instruction, and he set up a great plant for turkey raising, and I don't know how many eggs he bought. It takes a fantastic amount of care, particularly in a climate of that sort. He sent a brother out there to oversee it and hire people and run it." Denver
Thus, a year after the Goodman breakthrough at the Palomar, in the summer of 1936, while the band was in Tennessee, Isham Jones, only forty years old, gave his musicians notice. In 1940, when his memory of the incident was comparatively fresh, Woody described how Jones did it:
"It was in
, that he called us all into his room. He was very simple and straightforward about it. 'I've got a ranch near Knoxville, Tennessee ,' he said. 'I'm going there to write music and take it easy. We've had a good outfit, and it was nice while it lasted, but I'm retiring. We're breaking up.' He paid us off, rather nicely, too, shook us all by the hand and wished us luck. And we were in Denver without jobs. Knoxville
"Most of us were ready to pack it in and look for other jobs, but there were those of us who felt that we were a pretty good outfit, and that we ought to stick together and keep on being a pretty good outfit. It takes a long time for musicians to 'work into' each other, and it seemed a crime to break up our now-excellent outfit."
A small group of the musicians, comprising Woody, Saxie Mansfield, flugelhorn player and arranger Joe Bishop, bassist Walt Yoder, arranger Jiggs Noble, and a violinist and arranger named Nick Hupfer, whom Woody had known in Milwaukee, held a series of meetings. Woody had always admired the Ben Pollack band. When Pollack retired, some of the men from his band decided to stay together in a co-operative, with singer Bob Crosby, Woody's erstwhile
roommate, as their elected leader. There was another precedent for a co-operative in the Casa Loma orchestra. Woody and his friends decided to follow the pattern, forming their own group, with members holding shares in the band. The Isham Jones Juniors had recorded for the Decca label, and Woody had been doing studio work for the company. He quickly arranged a contract with Decca. San Francisco
Two or three of the other musicians joined the Ray Noble band at the Rainbow Room atop
in Rockefeller Center . The remaining six men - Yoder, Mansfield, Bishop, Herman, Hupfer, and arranger Gordon Jenkins - discussed which of them should be the leader. Jenkins said in later years that the discussion centered on himself and Woody, but Jenkins got an assignment to orchestrate a Broadway show and finally the men elected Woody their nominal leader because of his wide show-business background, though he was the youngest among them-twenty-two years old. Jenkins contributed a number of arrangements, which, Woody said, “were more or less gifts, because we couldn't afford them." New York
Where the discussion that led to Woody's election as leader occurred is unclear. Woody said in a 1940 interview, "We argued about it all the way from
to Knoxville , and by the time we hit the big town, we were Woody Herman and the Band That Plays the Blues." New York
, the men began auditions to find seven more musicians to make up a complement of twelve. Woody at last had his own band, even if he was only an elected leader. ..." New York
“But to return to Woody Herman, the years 1936 to 1944 were for the Herman band a lengthy (and often economically precarious) period of growth and search for stylistic identity. Ironically, it was the orchestra's exceptional versatility that hindered it in readily finding a large sustaining audience. It excelled in not one but a number of stylistic areas and was unwilling to abandon any one of them, thereby undoubtedly fragmenting its potential audience. "The band that played the blues" also did very well with romantic ballads (especially those by the excellent songwriter-arranger-pianist Gordon Jenkins), also with dance numbers, Dixieland-style instrumentals, even "novelty" tunes, on which Herman and the band lavished a high degree of musical skill and entertainment know-how - again the twin legacy of his own vaudeville background and Isham Jones's philosophy of treating all manner of material with respect and high craft. In all of these eclectic endeavors Herman managed to keep commercialism to a minimum, more so than most bands of the period, including many black ones. Even Herman's solitary commercial and popular success, a 1939 hit called Woodchoppers' Ball, was in essence a jazz piece: an "original" and an instrumental, featuring Woody's blues clarinet, Nell Reid's swing trombone, Steady Nelson's Cootie-Williams-style trumpet, and some nicely swinging riff-ensemble choruses.
The transformation into the orchestra that startled the music world in 1945, known as the First Herd, was very gradual, almost imperceptible. Some of the effects of these changes could be heard as early as 1941 in Lowell Martin’s excellent (but too short) Woodsheddin' with Woody, his Ten Day Furlough, Robert Hartsell's Hot Chestnuts -all hard-swinging jazz instrumentals that not only matched the best that other leaders in the field, like Benny Goodman, Shaw and Barnet were turning out, but already captured some of the drive and excitement of the 1945 Apple Honey, Caldonia and Northwest Passage. Starting with a fairly strong rhythm section of Hy White (guitar), Walt Yoder (bass), and Frank Carlson (drums) and such players as trumpeters Ray Linn and Cappy Lewis, tenor saxophonist Herbie Haymer -only transitionally in the band - Herman by 1943, was hiring Ellington sidemen such as Ben Webster, Johnny and Ray Nance to sit in on his record dates (as well as performing and/or recording, in 1942, two of Dizzy Gillespie's earliest compositions and arrangements). Ben Webster's richly florid solos can be heard to good advantage on such Herman recordings as The Music Stopped (also notable for being singer Frances Wayne's first recording with Herman), Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and Who Dat Up There. But even speedier and more dramatic changes were in the offing.
Between late 1943 and late 1944 - a period when the recording ban was still partly in force -
Dave Tough joined the rhythm section, the remarkable trombonist Bill Harris came over from Bob Chester's band, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips (playing in a manner that combined all three major tenor styles: Hawkins, Webster, and Young) joined up, and arrangers Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti began revolutionizing the Herman band's style by moving it firmly forward in the direction of the new bop frontier, the first major white band to do so unequivocally and consistently.
But perhaps the most influential addition to the Herman band was bassist Chubby Jackson in 1943, not necessarily as an all-that-outstanding bass player (although by adding a fifth string to his bass, pitched at high C, a fourth above the usual upper G-string of the bass, he explored some new frontiers of his own in his walking bass lines and solos), but as an energetic catalytic force in the rhythm section, and -perhaps even more important - as a kind of self-proclaimed associate-leader to Woody, ferreting out new young talent and maintaining a lively contact with all that was new in jazz at the time.
What is so remarkable about the Herman band's stylistic transformation, from an eclectic all-purpose ensemble to the best "bop" or "modern jazz" orchestra in the land, is that this metamorphosis resulted from a thorough fusion of several specific early-1940s' style ingredients: the feel and swing of Basic's rhythm section; the fresh streamlined and linear virtuoso conception of brass-writing already articulated by Dizzy Gillespie [We can hear such lines as early as 1942 on Herman’s recordings of Gillespie’s ‘Down Under’] ; and the new harmonic language previously explored by Ellington, Eddie Sauter, Sy Oliver, Buster Harding, and Ray Conniff. The primary synergistic agent in all this was the new post-Swing-Era technical skills possessed by the best young players, relentlessly energetic and virtuosic. This made possible a level of sheer instrumental excitement that was simply not available earlier, except in isolated instances.
These new qualities were effectively captured on a surprisingly large number of Herman recordings, starting with the up-tempo Apple Honey and Caldonia (1945), on through Northwest Passage, Bijou, Blowing Up a Storm (although in the last title the Carnegie Hall performance of March 25, 1946, is superior to the commercial recording in all respects), and Your Father's Moustache, Wild Root, Fan It, Back Talk, Non-Alcoholic, and finally to Ralph Burns's 1946 four-movement orchestral suite Summer Sequence.
On the lyric and ballad side there were also major contributions to the genre, invariably arranged by Ralph Burns: notably David Raksin's superb Laura (how well Woody plays and sings on this!); I Surrender Dear, a fine vehicle for Red Norvo's creative artistry; Panacea; Bill Harris's lyric masterpiece Everywhere; and, above all, Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe, with Frances Wayne's sublime singing, surely one of the dozen most memorable vocals of the entire Big Band and Swing Era. The singer captured the haunting bittersweet quality of Harold Arlen's song with a maturity, vocal imagination, and taste that avoids all cloying sentimentality - even in her copious use of portamenti [singing a sliding pitch to the targeted note] - and that belies the fact that she was only twenty at the time. Ralph Burns's sensitive arrangement, subdued in pastel-colored muted brass and soft saxes (except for dramatic 4-bar double-time outburst), provides a well-nigh perfect underscoring.
This extensive repertory, primarily the creation of Burns and Hefti - there more, of course, some of it at not quite as high a level, and some of it not recorded commercially at all - has hardly dated in retrospect. It is as fresh exciting now - even when played today by younger orchestras as "older repertory” - as it was then, over forty years ago. The reasons are obvious: the Burns/Hefti pieces were really new and original at the time, a striking amalgam of first rate jazz solos (by the likes of Bill Harris, Flip Phillips, trumpeter Sonny Berman,[Berman, one of the earliest Dizzy Gillespie disciples, was developing into an important soloist of increasing originality when his career was cut short in a fatal auto accident at the age of twenty-two] and Red Norvo, supported by a dynamic and indefatigable rhythm section, and orchestral writing derived from these very same fresh improvisatory styles. Secondly, the musicians played this material, night after night, with infectious exuberance, an almost physically palpable excitement and a never-say-die energy. As I say, this partially represented the sheer pleasure of frolic in such high-level instrumental virtuosity. But the band also played with a of pride in its individual and collective accomplishments. And it appreciated, indeed relished the newness of their style's harmonic and melodic language. rich advanced harmonies, the lean, sleek bop lines. The musicians also they were playing for a leader who deeply appreciated their talents and contributions to the cooperative whole.
Some four decades later we tend to forget how new this all was. As a result of the constant recycling since the late 1940s of that genre of big-band style by dozens of orchestras, we tend to take much of it for granted today. We should not forget, however, that there has been very little substantively new in big-band styling since Woody's First Herd, and that the ultimate perpetuation of that style during the last thirty years fell to Count Basie (for whom Hefti arranged for many years).
On the other hand, lest I appear to be overstating the case for the importance and influence of the Herman band, two points should be clarified. It was not the full sense of the term a true bop band. Though Hefti, Sonny Berman , Chubby Jackson were enthusiastic disciples of Gillespie and Parker and brought much of the new bop concepts into the Herman band, other players like Phillips, Harris, and Tough (and of course Woody himself) could not be readily aligned with the bop movement. They were "modern jazz" players with roots firmly ensconced in the late-thirties' swing styles. Thus the 1945 Herman band was only intermittently and/or somewhat exteriorly in a genuine bop mold. The distance between it and the pure bop-styled orchestras -Billy Eckstine's of 1944, Dizzy Gillespie's of 1946, and Oscar Pettiford's short-lived eighteen-piece of early 1945 -can be measured by comparing Herman's Apple Honey, Caldonia, or Back Talk with such pieces as Gillespie's Things to Come and Emanon, Pettiford's Something for You, Eckstine's I Stay in the Mood for You or Blowing the Blues Away.
…, the Herman band was not only an early innovator in the new bop or bop-tinged orchestral style, but it committed itself to it with a perseverance and consistent quality not equaled by any other white band of the time. This was due in large measure, as we shall see, to Ralph Burns's arrangements and compositions, and the fortuitous coming together of a young, dynamic, exceptionally talented group of players. Although all the other major white bands of the 1940s -Barnet, James, Shaw,
Kenton, Raeburn, and a lesser extent Goodman - also drew on a whole fresh generation of arrangers and players, they all adopted the new modern jazz language well after the Herman band had made the change-over. Barnet, James, Shaw, and Raeburn were the first to follow suit, with Kenton and Les Brown trailing by a year or more. Moreover, except for Herman - and James with his 1945-46 band - all those orchestras retained a high proportion of pop and purely dance repertory. Their conversion and commitment to the idiom was not as deep as Herman's and his Herd.
As to the question of who got there first, clearly Eckstine's recording of I Stay in the Mood, with its exciting unison bop lines in the brass and Dizzy's concluding solo, takes precedence chronologically; it was recorded in April 1944 when Dizzy was just organizing the Eckstine band. On the other hand, the Herman band's Apple Honey and Caldonia , basically head arrangements with some of their bop-ish brass figures supplied by Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti, were performed as early as the summer of 1944 (but not recorded until February 1945). Unquestionably, Gillespie and Eckstine's arranger Gerry Valentine inaugurated the new style on records (already explored with the Hines band in 1943, however not recorded - presumably because of the 1942-43 ban). But Woody Herman, with Jackson's and Hefti's ears close to the ground, picking up the new vibrations from
Harlem and Minton's was certainly not far behind. It is also a fair assumption that Herman's enormous commercial success with Columbia Records in 1945 - along with Eckstine's - helped pave the way for the establishment in 1945 of Dizzy's prophetic band (it however did not record tm mid-1946).
I have mentioned Herman's appreciativeness of his musicians' talents. But Herman was also a consistently accurate critical judge of talent, and allowed only his most creative players to solo. None was more gifted than Bill Harris [Emphasis mine], probably the most astonishingly original trombonist of the early modern-jazz era. Blessed with a seemingly unlimited technique, range, and endurance, Harris was at all times completely unpredictable, relentlessly original creatively. Yet he could always be relied upon to capture the essential mood or character of any given work or arrangement. A typical Harris solo could be passionate (
Northwest Passage), eccentric (the 1946 Woodchoppers' Ball), quirky (Nero's Conception), suave (Bijou), intensely lyrical (Everywhere), fantastical (Fan It), and bop-ishly driving (Apple Honey). Harris's solos were like recitatives, based on some private scenario of his own invention, which at the same time provided his personal commentary -occasionally a mite garrulous - on the work in question. In all of his playing there was an underlying hard-edged humor, a sharp wit which could instantly break out in the most startling utterances. His seemingly unmoving, tough, taciturn outward expression - surely a mask hiding a highly complex serious persona - kept Harris from ever descending to mere sentimentality – save perhaps to parody it. Even Harris's most extravagant musical expressions can usually be grasped in the light of his strange sense of humor and his penchant for the caustic and the sardonic. His control of musical content was as awesome as his control of technique. His often outrageous use of vibrato, for example was by no means an uncontrolled aberration.
It was on the contrary a finely calibrated, specifically embellishmental, expressive technique, always at the precise service of his musical intentions. It could cover the entire continuum from a searingly intense straight tone (no vibrato) to various extremes of vibrato (in both speed and pitch variance) and all gradations in between.[I know of only one other artist who has such consummate control of vibrato, and that is Sarah Vaughan – more precisely Sarah Vaughan of 1987 and the last 15 years or so] Harris also adapted with great effect the so-called "terminal vibrato" (Andre Hodeir's term), developed by Louis Armstrong and trombonists like Jimmy Harrison and Dickie Wells. Harris often carried this effect one step further by stopping notes with abrupt "ripped" kind of release, thereby adding powerful rhythmic punctuations to his phrases that heightened their sense of swing. [Harris’s countless imaginative solos really defy notation …. They must by heard to be appreciated fully. The relatively “simple” “Apple Honey” solo and the dazzlingly “extravagant” one on ‘Fan It’ are two examples of Harris’s art, suggested for the further-interested reader/listener]
Ralph Burns's always outstanding contributions to the Herman book were climaxed in 1946 with an ambitious four-movement twelve-minute work entitled Summer Sequence. Given the precedent in 1943 of Ellington's breakthrough extended-form suite Black, Brown and Beige and Burns's deep admiration Ellington's art, it was perhaps inevitable that, with his composer's (as opposed to arrangers) creative imagination, Burns would be inspired to try his hand at a similar large-scale work.
Summer Sequence was mostly composed in the summer of 1946 while on a
Long Island vacation sojourn. Its four movements (played without pause) comprise a lively scherzo-like second movement, a quieter lyrical third movement, both enclosed by two outer movements whose central portions use an attractive rhapsodic 32-bar ballad theme. First stated by the guitar (Chuck Wayne) and further proclaimed by Bill Harris's trombone, this more or less traditional symmetrically formed theme contrasts strikingly with the two inner movements' many “asymmetrical" phrase structures (many of them an uncommon seven bars in duration). In addition, these latter sections abound with a constantly varied instrumentation, resulting in an unusual degree of textural and timbral variety. In these respects Burns was further surveying territory previously explored only by Ellington, Eddie Sauter, and (occasionally) Sy Oliver. In turn Summer Sequence, although never a large popular success - until, that is, its last movement was re-worked into Early Autumn, featuring Stan Getz's famous solo - exerted a considerable influence, in differing ways, to be sure, on such bands as Kenton's and Raeburn's, through their composer-arrangers Pete Rugolo, George Handy, and Eddie Finkel.
Summer Sequence is not without flaws. Some of its transitional passages are commonplace and seem stuck together out of extraneous material not intrinsic to the work; and its ending is weak indeed. But at its best, the work amply displays the potential for extended-form composition of the modern jazz orchestra, beyond the requisites of dance music.
The other work that radically broke through the confines of the traditional jazz-orchestral repertory, Herman's as well as any other, was Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto, premiered by the Herman orchestra in Carnegie Hall, on March 25, 1946, and recorded by them with Stravinsky conducting, in August of that year. The work was scored for Woody's eighteen-piece orchestra plus horn and harp, in effect in a wind-ensemble piece.
Ebony Concerto, like Stravinsky's earlier "ragtime" pieces, remains one of the master's more elusive scores, partly because it occupies a no-man's land halfway between jazz and Stravinsky's mid-period neo-classic style; and partly because, due to its stylistic ambiguousness, it is rarely performed convincingly or with much understanding of its special performance needs. Indeed, it may well be that its fundamental performance problems have yet to be resolved, since even to this day players who can meet the technical demands of this work and at the same time infuse it with the jazz feeling and rhythmic vitality the work cries for - which Stravinsky undoubtedly heard in Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia - are still extremely rare. They are even more rarely assembled in one place to perform the work.[ In some respects the finest performance of ‘Ebony Concerto’ I can recall to date, including my own attempts as a conductor of the work, was one given in the mid-fifties by Kurt Edelhagen and his orchestra of the South West German Radio (an orchestra, incidentally, which was later led for several years by Eddie Sauter).
Certainly the Herman orchestra was not quite equal to the task, typically becoming very tight and inexpressive when, as in this case, the composition seemed to eliminate the basic explicit beat and standard jazz feeling. Woody, with his characteristic honesty and modesty, stated on numerous occasions that the Herman band was not ready for this performing assignment. "We had no more right to play it than the man in the moon," he said.
The critics have never dealt fairly with Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto. Most jazz critics at the time of the premiere and recording were incapable of comprehending the work, casually dismissing it with comments of "not jazz" (or "inept jazz”) and other profoundly intellectual pronouncements, never realizing that what they heard was not Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto at all but rather a poor performance of it. The classical critics, too, for the most part belittled the work as minor Stravinsky fare, generally unable, it seems, to savor its jazz allusions and at the same time apparently even incapable of appreciating its impeccable craftsmanship. (This seems to be the usual critical fate of category or style hybrids). Ebony Concerto certainly does not deserve the status of an inconsequential trifle which most writers have accorded it. Nor could one argue that it ranks with Stravinsky's major works, like Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Symphony of Psalms and The Rake's Progress.
It is beyond the scope of this study to attempt to assign the work its ultimate “resting place"; let history and the future render that final verdict. What is relevant here, however, is that Stravinsky, with his usual unerringly sharp ear, com posed a work which relates precisely to the more experimental, progressive side of the Herman band's mid-1940s' repertory, albeit in unmistakably Stravinskian terms. I am referring primarily to his consistent use of a) major-minor harmonies and melodies-an integral part of Stravinsky's musical language since around 1905-and b) of cross-rhythms and asymmetrical rhythmic patterns. The major-minor ambivalence relates quite naturally to the blue-note tradition of jazz and some of its more modern harmonic expressions, such as "raised ninth" chords or bitonal harmonies, especially the tritonally related ones. [The raised ninth chord is actually a dominant seventh with a flat or “blue” third on top.] This was one aspect of Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto the Herman musicians could hear - or at least should have been able to identify with. ….
In Ebony Concerto, as in other Jazz-related works by Copland and Milhaud, Stravinsky was more interested in some of the music's externals, i.e. the sounds of jazz - its sonorities, the fascinating mutes (Harmon, plungers) and the “effects" jazz musicians could get with them - than its substantive essence and rhythmic spontaneity. It was Stravinsky's loyalty to ragtime that undoubtedly influenced, for example, his life-long inability to understand that jazz was primarily an improvisatory art (ragtime being non-improvised). Nor did he fully comprehend that swing, freedom of rhythmic inflection, and rhythmic spontaneity were all keyed to the creation of a steady underlying beat and pulse. I suspect that Stravinsky in Ebony Concerto abstracted, and used only those aspects of jazz performance that fascinated him. Nevertheless I am convinced that he also felt the drive and rhythmic energy in the Herman recordings he heard, and that he would dearly have loved to incorporate those elements in his work. But he realized, I am sure, that these are precisely what cannot be captured in our notation, and which - I might add - must be supplied in performances of Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto before we can fully appreciate and asses this unique work.
Much more in the central tradition of evolving modern jazz was the work of Herman's small group, The Woodchoppers, formed in 1946, to a large extent to accommodate the talents of Red Norvo, who had just left the Goodman Sextet. Indeed, Herman appointed Norvo as his associate leader of the First Herd band, and put him musically in charge of the Woodchoppers. The group recorded ten sides, of which three were composed by Norvo (in collaboration with Shorty
Rogers) and all arranged by him and Rogers. had worked with Norvo before in his 1945 Nonet and apparently was an ideal creative partner for Norvo, judging by the excellence of the Woodchopper recordings. The Woodchoppers were … progressive in their outlook, aware of advances in both recent jazz and contemporary classical music (especially the works of Stravinsky) without fawning over it, capable of superior and - in the case of Bill Harris - outrageously inventive solo work, all in a true chamber ensemble conception. Rogers
The best sides, compositionally, are Steps, Igor, Nero's Conception, and in terms of performance the hilarious Fan It and I Surrender Dear, the latter a major solo vehicle for Norvo's vibraphone. Although virtually all the solos in the entire set are, as mentioned, of a high order and, more importantly, neatly integrated into the compositions, Harris is clearly the most provocative soloist. He contributes imaginatively on every track, endlessly inventive, full of surprises and protean versatility, obviously inspired by the freedom the small-group format provided. Among the many startling, yet effective contributions, perhaps the most daring occurs near the end of Fan It. Coming after a solo which Harris begins with a four-octave (sic!) upward leap, then continuing in a mad-gallop of running eight notes-Fan It is played at a breakneck speed of about - quarter note = 270 -the final ensemble chorus breaks into fast-moving bop-ish riff figures. But Harris, unpredictable as ever, breaks through the ensemble mold, zanily braying out long-held notes in atonal dissonant opposition to the rest of the band. As the ensemble ritards and comes to a musical standstill, Harris lets out one more slithering two-octave yelp, punctuated by Don Lamond's final drum "bomb." It is hard to know what Harris was thinking, but it makes for one of the most hilarious yet musically valid endings in all of jazz.
Rogers and Berman play exceedingly well in their various assignments, albeit in a considerably more orthodox manner than Harris. Herman pays moving tributes to three of his reed idols: Barney Bigard (on Steps), Jimmy Noone (on Nero's Conception), and Johnny Hodges (on Pam).
Beyond that, except for guitarist Billy Bauer's struggling solos, all hands contributed handsomely to these sides. In their youthful exuberance, musical sophistication and taste, they were a bright spot in the early development of combo jazz, forming a bridge between such groups as the Goodman and Kirby Sextets and the new in-coming bop combos.
But by late 1946 the Herman Herd's popular success was so immense that, inevitably, the commercial interests began to move in on this potentially lucrative
target. Recording executives, agents, managers, and sponsors pressed Herman to broaden his appeal to gain an even larger audience. Temporarily succumbing to some of these pressures, Herman began to play more pop tunes even adding a vocal group. But some higher instinct told him that that was a not way for him to go. In December 1946 he disbanded his great orchestra, planning to take a long rest after more than twenty years of virtually uninterrupted, vacation-less toil.
But Herman's "retirement" lasted less than a year. By the end of 1947 he organized another orchestra, soon to be known as the Second Herd or the "Four Brothers" orchestra, referring, of course, to one of the most conspicuous successes of the modern jazz era, Jimmy Giuffre's Four Brothers, featuring a saxophone quartet (in ensemble and solos) of three tenors and baritone. With this and other works like Keen and Peachy (an updated re-working of an earlier Herman recording, Fine and Dandy), Chubby Jackson's and George Wallington’s Lemon Drop, Shorty
Rogers's Keeper of the Flame, Herman rekindled the flame of orchestral jazz at a time when the big band was otherwise a virtually extinct institution.
Herman has continued to lead successive Herds through the years since end of the big-band era, and is active to this day. [Woody died in late 1987, while this book was still in production.] While his orchestras have been in the importantly creative forefront since the 1950s, Herman has nonetheless remained a vital force in music, not only by remaining true to the spirit and essence of jazz, but by providing in effect a kind of "traveling conservatory” in which untold numbers of fine musicians have been able to acquire their advanced professional training. The list of Herman alumni reads like a Who’s Who of modern jazz. Few have not been touched by Woody's musical/professional integrity and benign leadership.
Now and then there are such things.”