Woodrow Charles "Woody" Herman, leader of many bands called "The Herd," was an accomplished alto and tenor saxophone performer, vocalist, and a charismatic clarinetist. Even though he enjoyed introducing music that was considered experimental in its time, Herman rose to become one of the most popular bandleaders in the 1930s and '40s.
With the full support of his parents, Milwaukee, Wisconsin native Herman started performing in vaudeville as a child. By age 15, he was a professional saxophone player. Herman's first band achieved notice for playing blues tunes arranged for big band. Their first hit, released in 1939, was "Woodchoppers Ball," which the Decca label released multiple times until it eventually reached over 5 million copies in sales.
New York Times critic John S. Wilson said of Herman, "one of his own basic charms is the dry humor with which he shouts the blues." Certainly few bandleaders displayed Herman's staying power. From his first ensemble, organized in 1936, through all the "Herds" from the 1940s through the 1980s, Herman remained popular thanks to his knack for enlisting talented younger performers and music arrangers as well as for avoiding nostalgia and keeping his shows fresh and musically engaging.
Herman, who had an uncanny knack for spotting talented musicians, left behind a staggering list of careers that he helped advance, including those of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Shorty Rogers, Bill Watrous, Ralph Burns, Milt Jackson, Red Norvo, Marjorie Hyams, Oscar Pettiford, Dave Touch, Shelly Manne, and many others. Down Beat quoted Herman as saying, "I call myself a coach more than a bandleader, and my teams win."
Herman bands received Grammy awards for the 1963 album Encore, for 1973's Giant Steps, and for Thundering Herd in 1974. The University of Houston established the Woody Herman Music Archives at its School of Music also in 1974. Herman received a 1977 honorary doctor of music degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston—where he had mined many of his talented band members. In 1987, Herman celebrated 50 years as a bandleader with a concert at the Paramount Theater in New York City, attended by nearly 3,000 people. He died in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure, emphysema, and pneumonia on October 29, 1987.
The song, "When the Saints Go Marching In" has been performed so many times that it's practically been beaten to death. Yet this song—so closely associated with the name of Louis Armstrong—might never have been recorded by him had he listened to his sister who thought a secular recording of this traditional church tune was irreligious.
New Orleans marching bands usually played the gospel tune that Armstrong recorded somberly on their way to a funeral and joyously on their return. In the 1938 recording, Armstrong takes the role of a sermonizing preacher as he and the band deliver a rousing performance. Armstrong performs on trumpet as well as delivering the vocals. He's accompanied by trumpeter Shelton Hemphill, J. C. Higginbotham on trombone, Rupert Cole and Charlie Holmes on alto saxophone; Bingie Madison on tenor sax; Luis Russell on piano; Lee Blair on guitar, Pops Foster on bass, and Paul Barbarin on drums.
Armstrong's 1938 recording made in a New York City studio for Decca invigorates an old and predictable tune that Armstrong must have heard many times growing up in New Orleans, turning it into a masterpiece. Even more amazing, Armstrong went on to record the song more than 40 times during his career, and each performance draws one in with inventiveness variations on the theme.
Often confused with a similarly titled hymn by James Milton Black and Katherine E. Purvis, "When the Saints Are Marching In," Armstrong's 1938 pressing runs 2 minutes and 44 seconds and is responsible for popularizing the tune we know today. The Armstrong Decca 2230 version charted in 1939 and rose to the 10th best-selling recording within a month of its release.
Week of May 2, 2011
Event: New York's Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center Announces Addition of Rock, Pop, and Jazz Concerts
Birthday: Maynard Ferguson Born May 4, 1928
Week of April 25, 2011
Event: At Decca Studios Charlie Parker Made His First Commercial Recording April 30, 1941