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Woody Herman: Columbia Years

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The big band era didn't end with the rise of bebop in 1944. Bands simply figured out how to adapt to the new music's language and soldiered on. For big bands, this language shift meant a need for musicians familiar with the idiom and arrangers who could put the new concepts on paper. Charts had to be less dance focused and more performance driven. In this new era, star soloists had bigger roles to play and greater room to express themselves. Woody Herman's mid-1940s band was among the finest examples of this meaningful adaptation, and Mosaic's The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947) documents this transition splendidly.

Between 1936 and 1942, Herman was a lesser-known clarinetist, saxophonist and bandleader whose specialty was Dixieland and the blues. Mixed in were plenty of novelty tunes like The Whistler's Mother in Law and Three Ways to Smoke a Pipe. But in 1943, with the draft depleting the ranks of bands and the musicians' union recording ban halting studio work, Herman's vision of his band began to change.

As Herman told then writer-musician Loren Schoenberg in 1984:

“I had become quite ambitious about trying to make a better band out of our band. This was my whole intent, and I wanted to have better players. The war had come along and thrown our band to the winds. Consequently, if I was going to be around, I was going to try to improve the standard of what we were doing, and that's really what I was trying to do."

What Herman did, for starters, was hire Chubby Jackson [pictured], a high-energy bassist who was deeply networked with leading young musicians of the day. Jackson urged Herman to hire pianist and arranger Ralph Burns. Then in the summer of 1944, Neal Hefti, Dave Tough, Billy Bauer, Pete and Conte Candoli, Bill Harris, Flip Phillips and other bright young lights joined.

In February 1945, Herman signed with Columbia Records, and he began a prodigious and highly exciting period of recording. The band's strength was that it was packed with gifted, hip musicians who could execute straight-up recordings and novelty tunes as well as frenzied bop and swinging blues. Whatever the Herman band recorded, the result was rarely square.

What's remarkable about this Herman band is how wide-ranging its sound was. In fact, the band had no real distinguishable sound at first. Instead, recordings seemed to be a hodgepodge of different styles and influences. There might be an overly sincere vocal by Frances Wayne [pictured] followed by Herman warbling a Bob Eberle-like ballad or singing a white-man blues. And then there were folksy “race" songs delivered by Herman in a faux Southern accent, sounding remarkably like Johnny Mercer.

But what made Herman's bands so astonishing during this four-year period were its searing instrumentals. On these tracks, you hear the red-hot passion of the band's musicians and their high-wire acts on solos. You also hear a cohesive revolution taking place in arranging, Songs like Ralph Burns' [pictured] chart for Apple Honey and Northwest Passage, and Neal Hefti's The Good Earth are terrific examples, albeit derivative of Gene Krupa's book at the time.

If there's a turning point when the band's output starts to gel and become consistently superior, it comes in the fall of 1945 with Neal Hefti's Wild Root. It's at this point that Shorty Rogers and Don Lamond joined the band and made a considerable contribution to the excitement. The band even assumed a more modern feel on Herman's vocals. Dig the writing on Boyd Raeburn-esque Pipe Dreaming or Mabel, Mabel, both arranged by Ralph Burns. And how about John LaPorta's Non-Alcoholic of December 1946, which has to be one of the great sleeper Herman instrumentals. Shorty Rogers' Back Talk (with Red Norvo on vibes) from this period is up there as well, along with Neal Hefti's Woodchopper's Ball. [Photo: Don Lamond with Woody Herman]

I may be in the minority, but I also love the clutch of recordings Herman made with the Blue Flames, the band's vocal group. Tracks like You Haven't Changed at All, When We Meet Again, Stars Fell on Alabama and Heaven Knows are, to put it bluntly, swell.

By the fall of 1947, the band started to break toward an even more modern sound with fresh blood in Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Earl Swope, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. The band's recordings over the next two months are simply staggering. They included Shorty Rogers' Keen and Peachy, Al Cohn's The Goof and I and Jimmy Giuffre's Four Brothers. And let's not forget Ralph Burns' Lazy Lullaby. Even a novelty tune like My Pal Gonzales had a wicked bebop snap.

The box set includes ambitious suites like Ralph Burns' Summer Sequence (with alternate takes) and Igor Stravinsky's Ebony Concerto conducted by Stravinsky himself. The story of this box ends at the bottom of 1947. On January 1, 1948, a second musicians' union recording ban began that would last for much of the year, keeping Herman's band out of the studios. When Herman returned to formal recording at the end of 1948, he had left Columbia and signed with Capitol--Johnny Mercer's label.

But what's most exciting about this 1945-1947 box is how often Herman's sound changed. While the big bands of the late 1930s and early 1940s prized consistency, Herman's Columbia bands thrived on change and superior musicianship. It was a sound shaped by its parts and passions, and encouraged by a leader of the pack, not a control freak or limelight Lothario. To Herman's credit, he was modest enough to allow his arrangers and musicians to express themselves. What you have here is a fabulous set that captures a bandleader searching for an identity and finding it by late 1947 among the very musicians he had hired.

JazzWax tracks: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers: 1945-1947 (Mosaic) is available here. I noticed the box was out of stock for a while at Mosaic but it's now back. If there's a set that illustrates the bridge between the big band era and the performance-jazz years to follow, this is it. Plus, there are loads of alternate takes of key recordings, including the band's first hit with Herman's vocal on Laura. It's one of those sets you'll cry over once it goes out of print (the Herman Capitol box is history).

The liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, are exceptional, particularly his 1984 interview with Woody Herman (mid-shave!) and track-by-track analysis.

JazzWax clip: Here's a short by Woody Herman and his orchestra in February 1948, filmed in Hollywood a few months after the last recording in this box. The songs performed here, Caldonia and Northwest Passage, are covered in the Columbia set. On Caldonia, you get to hear the famed bop trumpet soli arranged by Neal Hefti. The soloists are Stan Getz and Shorty Rogers...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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