Woody Herman 1982

Written By: Richard Grudens

WOODY HERMAN 1982 RELEGATED TO THE CELLAR 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 somewhere in southern California. Not this time. The setting was in the summer playlands of Southampton, in an unlikely posh in-spot called Le Mans Disco. Remember? Earlier one afternoon, my L.I.P.M. Magazine editor said that Herman was performing a one-nighter there. Well, by 6:00, photographer Gus Young and I were on the way to Southampton in my old ’69 Mercedes 280, heading East on Sunrise Highway to the Hampton Road intersection where a quonset-style converted bowling alley building with a sign Le Mans Disco, stood facing us. I knew Woody was inside. His band bus was parked in the rear lot . It was almost show time. I was sure that if we didn’t talk with Woody now, we would have to wait until the show was over, and then, for certain, tired and hungry, Woody would have no time for an interview: An opportunity lost forever. Searching for Woody we explored the unusual club as the band tuned up. The scene 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, all which formed the nightclub’s decor. Le Mans, of course, was named after the famous racetrack in France. With time running low, our search ended suddenly when we ran smack into Woody exiting the Men’s Room. We quickly claimed him. He was cordial and willing to talk but needed to get to rehearsal, so we hastily led him to a spot in the “Quiet Zone” and quickly began our historic conversation with this world-famous, first class musician. “It feels like I’m meeting a living legend, and it feels good,” I began as Gus set up his camera. “That’s because I’ve lasted longer than I should’ve,” Woody chuckled. “ The only reason I’m a legend is because I am still alive and kicking. I’m too old to retire and as long as I have reasonable health, I’ll continue pushing out those notes through my beloved clarinet. “It’s odd. I love the music but I hate the travel,” confessed my hero in that telltale, midwestern drawl, his age beginning to reveal itself in that sixty-seven year old face. And you knew he was unmistakably that lovable pint-sized giant whose Band That Played The Blues, played for so many years. His 1930’s skyrocket ride to the top remains legendary in and out of jazz circles. His renditions of the jazz pieces “Caledonia” and “Apple Honey” alone would have been enough for the world to enjoy. 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 boy’s 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 that time who ran 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.” The record industry today ( 1982) is ran by accountants who have no knowledge of music and they don’t want any,” he revealed, “it’s just a business with no feelings and they are successful—so they must be right. They have relieved themselves of the responsibility of having creative people a long time ago.” It cost then about $25,000.00 a week to keep the Herman band on the road for six weeks. Payroll had to be met, plus the bus, hotels, commissions, and other expenses. That is an average amount for a band of 16 players. If the band had well-known sidemen, instead of young players, it would be even more. Add a vocalist and it gets bigger. Bookers say you break even the first four nights. If someone requests the band specifically, then the profit goes up, and maybe that’s a seventh day, too. For a a few minutes we discussed comparisons of yesterday’s and early eighties music. There’s Hamptons favorite singer-songwriter-pianist Billy Joel, and Rush, Pink Floyd, versus the Big Bands of the past: “Well there is a lot of material that has quality and there is a lot of garbage. But there was a lot of garbage 45 years ago. My music was not accepted by the mature person, they said it was noise. My records were bought by kids and their parents who relegated them to the cellar with their 78’s.” How poignant—I was one of them! As of that day in 1982, Woody had been clearly out of the cellar for 44 years and was still part of the scene. The crowds still came – – some young and some older. His sixteen players were very young, the average being 25. “I consider myself a coach—a coach can be old, but not the players.” he advised, “You need energy to play.” You couldn’t help but notice Woody’s slumped-forward shoulders and pale, somewhat drooping countenance. He seemed older than his years, like someone who was carrying great weight , but you couldn’t tell it by his enthusiasm: “Music constantly changes and that’s one gratifying thing about the whole scene. It’s completely different from the music of the forties.” Woody Herman is responsible for the success of many jazz greats including sax player Stan Getz and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs who were once band members. They still were getting together at annual reunions at Woody’s home in the Hollywood Hills and at various festivals. In 1977, almost everyone from his past bands and herds showed up for his 40th anniversary performance at Carnegie Hall, “…and they all played. Zoot Sims, The Candoli Brothers, Pete and Conte…Chubby Jackson, Don Lamond—they all came out. Then a few months ago we did the Monterey Jazz Festival and Getz was there and I had him do one of our charts.” Woody never arranged his charts, but he claims to be a very good editor. He prides himself on his ability to make a young player perform better than he would ordinarily by rubbing off some of the Herman experience. That, I think, kept him musically sharpened and in tune with the continuous growth of music on a day-by-day basis, which explains his joy at remaining in the business. “Over 80 percent of my year is spent visiting high schools and colleges. What we do there is hold seminars with clinic sessions where our young men are utilized by players as teachers— so I learn from youth, being around them so much—it’s a different environment so you are open to learning where most people my age are not.” Woody wouldn’t let us go without telling us about his revered experience recording with Igor Stravinsky, then considered to be the world’s greatest living composer, who wrote a piece entitled “Ebony Concerto” just for Woody’s band. Woody called it the high point of his career. He also admitted he has a lot of miles on him and reminded me that he has spent 44 years as a jazzman and the same amount of years married to the same woman. “Which is a record for a jazz musician,” he touted as we shook hands and exchanged goodbye’s then watched him slowly amble over to the bandstand, ready to lead his young players. Woody passed from us in 1987. The following year the Woody Herman “Ghost Band” hit the road. The phrase “Ghost Band” originated from Woody Herman’’s own lips, as if he knew.