Woody Herman – His Music was Relegated to the Cellar
by Richard Grudens
“They said it was noise”
You’d think an intimate conversation with vintage, creative jazz- artist, the great Woody Herman, would be held at a nostalgic reunion or memorial jazz concert . Not this time: the playlands of Eastern Long Island was the setting.
At 5 P.M. one evening in 198, I heard Herman was performing a one-nighter in the Hamptons at the posh in-spot, Le Mans Disco.
That’s all I had to hear!, By 6:00 P.M. photographer Gus Young and I headed to Southampton in my old ’69 Mercedes straight to the apex of Sunrise Highway and Hampton Road to find a musician named Woody Herman.
At that precise spot, we found a quonset-style converted bowling alley building now Le Mans Disco, and it was barely an hour before show time. Woody’s Band Bus was parked outside.
If we didn’t talk to Woody now, we would have to wait until the show was over, and then, perhaps they’d have no time for an interview and the trip would’ve been wasted.
We explored the club while the band tuned up. The entire place was auto-orientated. Tables were a tire above half an axle covered with glass, and seats were cut-off-parts of actual buses, cars, and wheels that all formed the nightclub’s decor. Le Mans was named after the famous racetrack in France.
With time running low, our search ended suddenly when we ran smack into Woodrow Charles Herman leaving the Men’s Room. We quickly corralled him. He was cordial and willing to talk but also needed to get to rehearsal, so we hastily found a spot in the “Quiet Zone” and began our conversation with this very friendly midwesterner:
“It feels like I’m meeting a legend, and it feels good,” I began as Gus Young set up his camera.
“That’s because I’ve lasted longer that I should’ve. The only reason I’m a legend is because I am still alive and kicking,” he said, “I’m too old to retire and as long as I have reasonable health, I’ll continue.
“I love the music but I hate the travel,” responded my hero to the inevitable retirement question which I put away early. Even though Woody spoke in that famous, pleasant drawl, and his age was beginning to show in his ever familiar face (he was 67 at the time), you knew he was unmistakably that lovable pint-sized giant whose Band That Played The Blues played it for so many years. His 1930’s skyrocket ride remains legendary in and out of jazz circles. His renditions of the jazz pieces “Caledonia” and “Apple Honey” alone would have been enough for me. But Woody would not dwell on the past although he acknowledged it helped his career. “Caledonia” and “Apple Honey” is simply history to Woody. His favorite record was unexpectedly “The one I’ll make next year.
“It’s very boring to play the same old music. But, there are things that I’m proud of that were very good for the time. I’m interested to prove to anyone who cares to listen that I know where my roots are and I am responsible for everything I’ve ever played. I never copped out and blamed the record producer. And I enjoy the music business or I couldn’t do it for all these years. If everything remained the same and I had to play only the old things, I’d have thrown in the towel a long time ago.”
Then, to my amazement, Woody disclosed his favorite instrument was not the clarinet, but rather the sax. “I feel I’m a better sax player, but when I was a young man it was important to play the American hot instrument of the day, and that was the clarinet.”
At the mere age of nine, Woody was a vaudeville trouper, billed as The Boy Wonder of the Clarinet when playing with local bands around Milwaukee, including the Isham Jones band. The boys first hit was the “Woodchopper’s Ball” in 1939, now an all-time jazz standard. Woody is still riled up about booking agencies of yesteryear and the record executives of today (1981) who run the music business. He recalled how he and Glenn Miller would sit in offices of booking agencies waiting to get bookings: “They’d throw a dart at a map like they did 100 years ago and that’s where you went. And it’s still the same now. Today Southampton. tomorrow Columbus,.. .no kidding.”