Woody Herman, grand old man of the big-band sound, says he considers himself a "coach," and his band "a team of players." At 69, he presides over his Young Thundering Herd, the latest in a long line of Herman herds, the way Tom Landry manages the Dallas Cowboys -- that is, dominating from the sidelines.
The other night at Blues Alley, where he's settled in for a week-long gig, he was emcee and leader; the band, 15 young fellows in yellow sportshirts and wristwatches, made most of the music while Herman -- in a seersucker jacket, which he doffed midway through the set -- waved his arms and smiled.
Every so often, with his "Herd" thundering through such numbers as Jimmy Giuffre's "Four Brothers," a '40's be-bop tune called "Lemon Drop" and John Coltrane's "Countdown" -- something of a primer from swing to jazz -- he'd pick up his clarinet or soprano sax to blow a few bars. (On one number, Hoagie Carmichael's "Old Rockin' Chair," he even sang.) But then he'd turn his back to the crowd, unburden himself of the instrument and come back smiling again.
The sound -- big, indeed, especially for the room -- is on-the-button, spic-and-span and produced by a group of accomplished musicians. But it's not full of surprises, almost as if Herman wants to be record-perfect rather than spontaneous. Still, it's fun to listen to.
Between sets, Herman said most of his players, many of them in their 20s, come from Pennsylvania's Eastman School of Music. He hasn't spent a lot of time whipping them into shape.
"Musically," he said, "they're so much better educated than we were when I was starting out. Fifty years ago, when we were working on a number, we'd just hum it to each other." And the matching yellow shirts? "Oh, I just let them wear what they want." WOODY HERMAN & THE YOUNG THUNDERING HERD At Blues Alley through Sunday. 337-4141. With Photo