In the end, he will be remembered as a man of swing: the laughing horn man who, like Peter Pan, never got old. One of the last of the great big band men, Woody Herman, died yesterday. An era died with him. Swing has gone to heaven.
Herman, 74, was among the most prolific and admired of big band leaders, part of a select club that included Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Herman's band, known as the Thundering Herd, brought big band jazz to millions and was often a model for musicians on the high school and conservatory level.
True to the jazz creed, Herman survived one series of disasters after another, enduring his hard times with smiles and grace. Financial problems, including a $1.6 million debt to the Internal Revenue Service, led to the breakup of several of his bands and the seizure of his Hollywood Hills house in 1985. In September, a group of entertainers including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and Clint Eastwood rallied to raise more than $70,000 toward the tax debt and to pay $4,600 in back rent, preventing the ailing jazzman from being evicted from the home he'd lived in for 41 years.
But Herman's real home was on the road -- the great beyond, the great Out There -- where audiences romped and stomped with one of the finest big bands in American jazz history. "Music is a great escape," Herman once said. "As long as you're playing, nobody can get to you -- about anything. If you're an independent kind of person who values freedom in music, the best existence is to be on the road. If you stay in one area you'll soon be playing the music somebody else wants you to play."
So the road it was. For 50 years, under nine presidents, the laughing clarinetist/saxophonist and his Herd marched on: from Africa to Asia to Alabama. At its height, the Thundering Herd was unmatched when it came to flat-out roaring, spitting, straight-ahead in-your-face jazz. It was most noted for wild, technically skilled soloists like the tenor saxophonist Frank Tiberi, who often played like a man on fire, and bassist Chubby Jackson, an infectious humorist who was one of the band's great cheerleaders.
In Herman's heyday, jazzmen were "cats" and technically polished players were "blowers" who were "crazy." Herman always had a keen eye for young blowers, and literally hundreds passed through the ranks of his group, which played everything from the classic "Four Brothers" to Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." Poke around today in musical corners ranging from Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show Band, North Texas State University and the Mel Lewis Big Band to numerous other colleges, conservatories and recording sessions and you're bound to turn up a Herman alumnus. Included in that number are Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Urbie Green, not to mention arrangers Sal Nistico and Jimmy Giuffre and vocalists Frances Wayne and Mary Ann McCall. "The band stays young," Herman once said. "It's just the coach that got very old."
A number of modern big bands took their cue from the Thundering Herd -- Doc Severinsen's among them -- but no band reflected the character of its leader more than the Herd, which swung with such enthusiasm that crowds would dance in the aisles. "I can tell you honestly," Herman said in 1981, "that at some of the high school and college dates we play nowadays, the kids are so damned enthusiastic that you'd think it was a basketball game, not a jazz concert."
The traveling got harder with age, and in 1986, the old jazzman said he considered quitting "once a week," but Herman could never quit. His shared a dream with jazzmen the world over that the music would stay alive. That "was one of his biggest dreams, to keep the music alive," his manager, Tom Cassidy, said yesterday.
And the music is alive. It lives in Woody Herman charts played in high schools and colleges around America and throughout the world. Gone are the days when a teen-ager could show up at his Midwestern high school and pay $4 to see Woody Herman with some of the finest sidemen in America, usually in their twenties, many headed for fame and fortune. But his band inspired an era of increasing appreciation for jazz. Jazz education in America owes a great debt to Herman, whose music inspired many a high school music teacher to dust off the old trombone to see if his chops were still there.
Herman recorded more than 100 albums, and in his peak years earned more than $1 million annually. He loved the road, and often drove his own car, piling two or three band members in with him while the rest followed in the bus. A 1977 automobile accident in the midst of a grueling tour left him incapacitated for two months, yet he spent less than 50 months in his Hollywood Hills home during the four decades he owned it.
Even in his seventies, Herman continued to play an average of 27 halls and ballrooms a month, and he claimed to still have the ear of younger listeners. Band member Frank Tiberi recalled that Herman sometimes rebuffed people asking for Glenn Miller tunes by saying: "I'll tell Glenn when I see him high in the sky."
They're up there now, swinging like old times.