In all the political excitement of the past few weeks, I’ve missed the centennial of the birth of bandleader Woody Herman (born 16 May 1913 – died 29 October 1987).
Woody deserves to be remembered because of his great ‘Herd’ bands from the 1940s onwards, and because he was a very rare phenomenon in the world of (white) swing-era big bands: a leader who was universally loved and respected by his musicians (Gene Krupa is the only other case I know of)
Above: Woody on clarinet and vocals in 1964, introducing the band including Jake Hanna on drums at a crazy tempo (NB: by this time, the band was ‘clean’).
I had the privilege of seeing Woody’s band in action in the 1970′s, and they were great. I didn’t know that by then Woody was desperately tired but had no choice but to stay on the road because the IRS were after him for unpaid taxes, due to fraud by his manager.
Woody’s Herds, over the years, had included the likes of Bill Harris, Dave Tough, Flip Phillips, Ralph Burns and the famous ‘Four Brothers’ sax section of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Stewart and Serge Chaloff.
I said that Woody was loved by all, which is true. But some of his sidemen (especially those who had “the habit”) caused him considerable grief and one – Serge Chaloff – drove even the placid Woody to retribution. Woody’s account of his revenge was told to Gene Lees and published in Bill Crow’s book Jazz Anecdotes:
Woody began to be aware of what was wrong with his collection of sleeping beauties. And he found that Serge Chaloff was the band’s druggist, as well as its number one junkie. Serge would hang a blanket in front of the back seats of the bus and behind it he would dispense the stuff to colleagues. This led to an incident in Washington D.C.
The band not only looked bad, it sounded bad. And Woody, furious at what had happened to it, had a row right on the bandstand with “Mr Chaloff,” as he called him, emphasis on the first syllable.
“He was getting farther and farther out of there,” Woody said. “And the farther he got out there he got the more he sounded like a faygallah. He kept saying ‘Hey, Woody, baby, I’m straight, man, I’m clean.’ And I shouted, ‘Just play your goddam part and shut up!’
“I was so depressed after that gig. There was this after-hours joint in Washington called the Turf and Grid. It was owned by a couple of guys with connections, book-makers. Numbers guys. Everybody used to go there. That night President Truman had a party at the White House, and afterwards all his guests went over to the Turf and Grid. They were seven deep at the bar, and I had to fight my way through to get a drink, man. All I wanted was to have a drink and forget it. And finally I get a couple of drinks, and its hot in there, and I’m sweating, and somebody’s got their hands on me, and I hear, “Hey, Woody, baby, whadya wanna talk to me like that for? I’m straight, baby, I’m straight.’ And it’s Mr Chaloff. And then I remembered an old Joe Venuti bit. We were jammed in there, packed in, and … I peed down Serge’s leg.
“You know, man, when you do that to someone, it takes a while before it sinks in what’s happened to him. And when Serge realized, he lets out a howl like a banshee. He pushed out through the crowd and went into a telephone booth. And I’m banging on the door and trying to get at him, and one of the owners comes up and says, ‘Hey, Woody, you know, we love you, and we love the band, but we can’t have you doing things like that in here.’ And he asked me to please cool it.
“Well, not long after that, I was back here on the coast, working at some club on the beach. Joe Venuti was playing just down the street, and I was walking on the beach with him after the gig one night, and I told him I had a confession to make. I’d stolen one of his bits. Well, Joe just about went into shock. He was horrified. he said, “Woody, you can’t do things like that! I can do things like that, but you can’t! You’re a gentleman. It’s all right for me, but not you!”
Woody’s ‘First Herd’ at its best (1945): North West Passage.