Born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herman, May 16, 1913, in Milwaukee, WI; died of congestive heart failure, emphysema, and pneumonia, October 29, 1987, in Los Angeles, CA; father was a shoemaker, mother's name, Martha; married Charlotte Neste, September 21, 1936; children: Ingrid.

No other bandleader in the history of jazz had the staying power of Woody Herman. From the Band That Plays the Blues, Herman's first ensemble, organized in 1936, through the many "Herds" that came and went from the 1940s to the 1980s, Herman managed to maintain vitality in his big bands as others ran out of steam and dropped out of the race. There were two keys to Herman's success. First, he continuously hired talented young players and arrangers. Second, he refused to lead a nostalgia band that played only hits of the past. The result was an ensemble that was always fresh and exciting, musically sharp, and--especially notable from the 1960s on, as rock music was eclipsing jazz--popular.

Woodrow Charles Thomas Herman was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1913. He began performing at the age of eight in a children's group that performed skits before the screening of silent films. He took music and dance lessons, and by age ten was performing year-round in local theaters. Appearing in a Chicago vaudeville house, he was billed as "The Boy Wonder."

By 1925 Herman knew that he wanted to be a jazz musician. He joined Tom Gerun's band, playing saxophones and clarinet, performing later with Harry Sosnick on radio broadcasts, then with Gus Arnheim. He got his big break in 1934 when he joined the Isham Jones Orchestra, in which he added singing to his other duties. In 1936 Herman and some other members of the defunct Jones orchestra formed their own ensemble and called it the Band That Plays the Blues.

The group made several recordings for the Decca label, most notably Joe Bishop's up-tempo blues chart, "Woodchopper's Ball," which was recorded for the first time for Decca in 1939. Herman remarked in his autobiography that when the record was first released, "it was really a sleeper. But Decca kept re-releasing it, and over a period of three or four years it became a hit. Eventually it sold more than five million copies--the biggest hit I ever had."

Herman's bands were always characterized by their rhythmic drive and intensity and by the enthusiasm of the players. In Herman's autobiography, jazz critic Gene Lees is quoted as saying that "Woody had an astonishing capacity to spot talent before it was particularly obvious to anybody else ... the list of careers that he either made or advanced is staggering." Herman's personnel lineup over the years reads like an index to jazz, including such notables as sax players Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Flip Phillips; trumpeters Shorty Rogers, Pete and Conte Candoli, and Sonny Berman; trombonists Bill Watrous, Jim Pugh, and Bill Harris; pianists Ralph Burns and Jimmy Rowles; vibraphonists Milt Jackson, Red Norvo, Marjorie Hyams, and Terry Gibbs; bassists Oscar Pettiford and Chubby Jackson; and drummers Dave Tough, Shelley Manne, and Ed Soph.

By the early 1940s, recordings and newspaper advertisements were calling the Band That Plays the Blues the Woody Herman Band, and around 1944, it became widely known as Woody Herman's Herd, the name by which Metronome jazz critic George T. Simon had been referring to it since the early 1940s. The Herd became tremendously popular during World War II. They appeared on radio broadcasts sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, and shrewd promotion by Columbia Records--who featured the Herd's recordings in ads along with those of popular singers Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore--launched it into superstardom. "We became Number One in the country because of that, as much as anything," Herman related in his autobiography. "It pushed us to the very peak of popularity." The Herd made recordings of some of its most successful numbers for Columbia, including "Caldonia," "Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe," "Goosey Gander," and "Your Father's Moustache."

In October of 1945 the band became the first to sign a contract for a weekly radio show. The program was sponsored by Wildroot, a hair products company. Composer/arranger Neal Hefti wrote a chart based on Lionel Hampton's "Flyin' Home," and called it "Wild Root." "Wild Root" turned into another of the band's most popular arrangements. Classical composer Igor Stravinsky was so taken with Herman and the band that he wrote a piece especially for them that same year--the Ebony Concerto. The piece had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in March of 1946.

Herman was different from many other bandleaders of the day-- such as Benny Goodman, Harry James, or Artie Shaw--because he never made himself the star attraction of the band. Herman, who played alto saxophone, clarinet, and sang some of the group's numbers, was never as strong a soloist as Goodman, James, or Shaw, and preferred to let the other members of the band have their day in the sun. "I call myself a coach more than a bandleader," he was quoted as saying in an article in Down Beat in 1986. "And my teams win."

In 1947, Herman formed the Second Herd. The centerpiece of the band was a three-tenor/one-baritone sax section--a feature that Herman kept in every succeeding band. The band's theme, based on this sax section, was the Jimmy Giuffre chart "Four Brothers." Herman said of the Second Herd in his autobiography: "The bebop evolution had become the core of our music.... Musically, the bebop route [for the Second Herd] was magnificent. But business-wise, it was the dumbest thing I ever did." The Second Herd was dissolved in 1949.

A good part of the various Herds' recognition is due to Herman's composers and arrangers. He made a point of using, whenever possible, his own players to write charts for the band. "I was always intrigued from the earliest days of having guys who were in the band write for the band," said Herman in an article in Down Beat in 1986. "I think they'll usually come up with better material than an outsider. And I was always very proud of the fact that we'd have a couple of guys in the sections who also arranged; this was the best situation. In the First Herd we had Ralph Burns and Neal Hefti. I have always tried to utilize people like these. They were closer to the music than I was in many cases. They knew best what guys should take what solos." Other notable composers and arrangers that wrote for Herman were Al Cohn, Shorty Rogers, Dave Matthews, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nat Pierce.

Herman disbanded the Second Herd in 1949, and went on to form a Third Herd. "We stopped numbering the Herds after the third one," Herman says in his autobiography, "but we were still thundering across the country nicely in the seventies." The band came to be called the Thundering Herd, and through the 1980s, captured the attention of young musicians by playing arrangements of tunes by songwriters such as Donald Fagen and Stevie Wonder.

While the Thundering Herd was successful, Herman's own life became progressively more difficult. In the early 1960s he took on a business manager, who was a chronic gambler and so mishandled Herman's finances that a few years later, Herman learned that he owed the Internal Revenue Service 1.6 million dollars. Herman worked the rest of his life to pay off the debt. In 1977, his leg was seriously injured in an automobile accident, and his wife Charlotte died of cancer in 1982. As if all of this were not enough, his house was auctioned off in 1985, with the proceeds going to the government.

Herman's last years did have their up side, however. His band received a Grammy award for their album Giant Steps in 1973, and another in 1974 for the Thundering Herd album. Also in 1974, the University of Houston established the Woody Herman Music Archives at its School of Music. Recovering from the car accident in 1977, Herman received an honorary doctor of music degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston--one of the schools from which he drew his players. And in 1987, he celebrated 50 years as a bandleader with a concert at the Paramount Theater in New York City, attended by nearly 3,000 people.

Herman died on October 29, 1987, of congestive heart failure, emphysema, and pneumonia. In September of 1993 alumni from the many Herds gathered in Newport Beach, California, for a performance in his honor.

by Joyce Harrison

Woody Herman's Career

Performed as a child in dramatic and musical acts in the Great Lakes region; performed with bands led by Tom Gerun and Gus Arnheim, 1920s; joined Isham Jones Orchestra and played saxophone and clarinet, 1934; formed the Band That Plays the Blues, 1936; recorded "Woodchopper's Ball," 1939; band renamed Woody Herman's Herd, mid-1940s; band appeared in motion pictures, including What's Cookin'?, 1942, Wintertime, 1943, Earl Carroll Vanities, 1944, Sensations of 1945, and New Orleans, 1945; signed with Columbia Records, 1944; premiered Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1946; formed Second Herd, 1947; moved from Columbia Records to Capitol Records, 1948; formed Third Herd, early 1950s; Third Herd replaced by successive "Herd" incarnations throughout 1980s; Herman established nightclub Woody Herman's at the New Orleans Hyatt Regency, 1981; performed in 50th Anniversary Concert at the Paramount Theater in New York City, July 16, 1987.

Woody Herman's Awards

Grammy awards for the albums Encore, 1963, Giant Steps, 1973, and Thundering Herd, 1974; Woody Herman Music Archives established at the University of Houston School of Music, 1974; honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, 1977.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 14 years ago

In my opinion the only big band that had the ultra-aggressive 'hard rock' feel. I love rock, blues and soul but really appreciated the later Herds. Mind you, Buddy Rich came a close second with Chicago and BS&T 3rd. Great bands - and if you meet any past members thank them for making my 20's during the 70's in London so enjoyable (and making me feel such an inadequate sax player). The best.

about 16 years ago

My son was awarded the Woody Herman Jazz Award tonight. We are very proud of him and I visited this web site to find out more about it. My son's name is John T. Roberson IV, eighth grade. He plays Alto Sax, Bari Sax, Tenor Sax, Suprano Sax, Guitar and Tuba.