Woody Herman became a bandleader the night Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a second term.
Forty-three years later he's still doing it, and tonight and Sunday he'll rev up his group in the Smithsonian's Jazz Heritage concert series.
It's been a long road, for Herman -- strewn with three Grammies, State Department tours and hits like "Laura," "Caldonia" and "Woodchopper's Ball." But he's not into nostalgia.
Herman, 66, even shies away from playing his old material, unless it's something like "Blues in the Night," which he's dressed up in a contemporary, brassy arrangement.
"The truth of the matter is that I generally preferr to play for youth because their minds are open," he says in a nasal accent. "They're not clogged up and they haven't made such definite opinions."
The band he'll lead at the Smithsonian is representative of his eternal youth movement. It's made up largely of recent graduates of music schools like Eastman and Berklee and the big universities.
They play pieces like "Suite for Hot Band," by jazz-rock fusionist Chick Corea, Frank Iberi's score of John Coltrane's "Countdown," or a bright arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing."
The band, called the Young Thundering Herd (Herman's groups have been a succession of herds, a term jazz writer George Simon coined in the 30s), is a bit more electrified than previous Herman groups. It still plays with a powerful ensemble thrust, punctuated by crackling solos.
A parade of jazz heroes has passed through Herman's bands: Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, Red Norvo, Urbie Green, Shorty Rogers, Flip Phillips Phil Wilson. And then there are the arrangers, like Ralph Burns, Neal Hefti, Jimmy Giuffre and Sal Nistico. Not to mention singers Frances Wayne and Mary Ann McCall.
"Ninety-nine percent of all the players I've ever worked with are still my friends," he says. "Whenever we meet, we have big reunions and 'kill' each other."
Herman has no recruiting system. The sidemen, by virtue of the grapevine, gravitate toward him. "Most of our replacements are recommended by the players in the band, he explains.
On the road 46 weeks a year, Herman admits to hitting an occasional low. "But the thing I did is the phenomenal experience.
The experience began when he was a youngster in Milwaukee. By age 9 he had toured the Midwest with a group of children performing prologues to films like Booth Tarkington's "Penrod."
He started playing with a band while in high school, left home in 1930 with Tom Gerun's orchestra and later performed with Harry Sosnik and Gus Arnheim. Two years after he played with Isham Jones, the leader retired, and Herman and five others picked up the pieces to form a cooperative group, the first Woody Herman Orchestra.
Success came quickly. Known as "the band that plays the blues," the group turned out a string of hits, including "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet," "Golden Wedding" and "Blues on Parade." Herman sang and featured his alto, saxophone and clarinet work.
In 1946 the ensemble premiered Igor Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" at a Carnegie Hall concert. Stravinsky wrote it as a Christmas present to the band, and showed up personally for rehearsal.
The piece was "pure Stravinsky," says Herman."The challenge for him was in our instrumentation -- saxophones, trumpets, trombones and rhythm. He utilized that and added French horn, timpani and harp. However, he wanted our king of playing to interpret it.
"I think he meant for it to sound to some degree grotesque. The clarinet solo he wrote for me is one of the toughest things God ever saw. I sought advice from all sorts of musicians. They just said, 'Suffer!'"
"The first rehearsal was in the loft at the Paramount Theater," he recalls. "We did it between shows. The guys in the band were sweating trying to read this music and Stravinsky had the patience of Job. He'd hum the parts, whistle, sing, count, and when we finished the hour or two, he said to me, 'Woody, you have a wonderful family.' "He liked to teach. He had some terrible things to say about certain symphony players, particularly the best-known ones. He really couldn't stand a lot of them, their egos and so on.
"He'd added a horn player from the New York Philharmonic for the piece. This guy was a typical commercial symphony player, asking questions like, 'What time is it? When does the session start?' "At one point, he said, 'Let me hear that,' and he turned away and let the guy hold the note for about 10 minutes."
The composer gave the band his manuscript of the score. But later his manager called and explained that Stravinsky was hard-pressed financially and needed a commission. So Herman's manager sent a check for several thousand dollars.
"We became quite good friends," recalls Herman. "We were almost like neighbors. We lived about a mile from each other in the hills in Los Angeles. We'd have dinner at one another's house."
Herman and his wife of 43 years, Charlotte, a former actress, still live in the same house (they have a daughter and two grandchildren, 20 and 18). The Hermans bought it from Bogart and Bacall, who had lived there during the first year of their marriage.
"It's a nice house," he says with a smile, "We've fixed it up over the years. We've got a fenced-off yard where we keep our three poodles. And it's high enough so that it's above the smog."
In his spare time, Herman is a sports fan, especially pro football and auto racing. He used to play the governor's ball every year the night before the Indianapolis 500.
After decades of one-nighters, Herman has set no deadline for retiring. "As long as my health remains reasonable, I'll be working," he says. I'd like to lighten my workload a bit because I could use more spare time. But other than that I'd like to continue as long as I possibly can."
He takes a sip of his Heineken and smiles.
"When you get to a certain point, you have to pump yourself up to do it every day. I don't think hat's absolutely necessary to keep in good shape!"