A scene from St. Paul School of Agriculture, 1950s

A scene from St. Paul School of Agriculture, 1950s
The late Ralph E. Williams, UMM music founder, directs choral musicians at the St. Paul campus of the U of M in the 1950s.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Woody Herman "thundered" through phases of music

Woody Herman was a jewel of a bandleader. He was well-known but probably deserved even more attention and accolades. He was truly like the Energizer Bunny, leading his band until close to the end of his life.
I suspect he would have shown that commitment regardless. Truth be told, his commitment into the 1980s was partly due to financial pressure. He had a commitment to Uncle Sam. He had a burden of paying back taxes. He had been bamboozled by a business manager in the 1960s.
The 1960s were arduous enough for big band artists. This thrilling genre of music had a substantial downturn from its heyday a couple of decades earlier. Small groups with guitars became all the rage. Big bands had to re-define themselves and refocus.
Herman hung in there through various incarnations of his Thundering Herd band. His staying power was really incredible. He may have led his band through necessity toward the end, as he owed the IRS millions, but there was unmistakable inspiration. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. In that year he left us for that great ballroom in the sky.
I had the pleasure of hearing the Thundering Herd in the 1970s at the St. Paul Prom Ballroom. This was the band that put out the "Herd at Montreux" album in 1974. The band was riveting with its sound.
We all visualize Woody playing the clarinet, like Benny Goodman. He was just as capable on soprano sax. The soprano sax does not look like the standard saxophone. It looks more like the clarinet and is handled as such. Woody plays only the soprano sax on "Herd at Montreux."
The "old-time" Woody had no problem handling contemporary funk and fusion music. Transitions in popular music can be drastic. Could Glenn Miller have handled it? We can only wonder. Maynard Ferguson was a visionary performer who transitioned all the way into disco. Maynard jolted us with his "Primal Scream" album. That was wholly disco. Us Maynard fans had quite mixed feelings about that. To the extent he got more popular, we were quite fine with that. Maynard got on "the charts" with his "Rocky" theme cover, remember? Disco city!
Disco was a big wave or maybe more like a rip tide, pulling us away from what might have been more palatable. Maynard made two or three more attempts to crash that pop chart, but I could tell instantly each time these efforts were going nowhere. He tried covers of "Battlestar Gallactica" and "Star Wars" that just didn't have the simple up-tempo feel of "Meco's" hits of the same time. With better handling, Maynard could have had those hits. Meco! That's a trivia answer.
I don't recall Woody Herman ever doing disco. Artistically he stayed on the cutting edge. But disco wasn't so much art as a pop craze. This isn't to say the lyrics couldn't be well-crafted.
 
Woody's alums come to Morris
Jim Pugh played trombone on Woody's "Herd at Montreux" album. He would come to Morris in the 1980s for our University of Minnesota-Morris Jazz Festival. I attended Jim's clinic presentation even though I'm a trumpet player.
Years later we would get another Woody Herman alum coming to the jazz fest, name of Dave Stahl. He's considered among the elite big band trumpeters. He played at the Prom Ballroom when I took in the Herman band's performance. You could never forget how he slid up to the high note on "Superstar."
Young big band fans went gaga over high-note trumpet players. As I get older I have a hard time understanding why. My mother was once like the boy who said the emperor has no clothes. This was when I had a DVD of the Ferguson band on. Maynard was of course the grand poobah of high-note trumpet players. Mom said "if they want to play such high notes, why don't they play a different instrument?"
Well, whatever the explanation, us band youth of the 1970s worshipped at the shrine of high-note trumpet players.
Stahl's appearance for the UMM Jazz Fest ended up not really happy, the legend goes. Sources told me he tried to get out of that commitment. As they say, "a better opportunity came along." Stahl was refused and he came here in a reportedly sullen frame of mind. Lead trumpet players are an ego-driven lot. They don't handle frustrations well.
Actually, trumpet players as a whole are strangely "chair conscious." There's first chair, second chair and third chair - quite the "tier" or "caste" system. The lower the section (third being lowest), the lower the notes you play. Of course, all the notes are important for packaging the final product. And yet "first chair" or "lead" is privilege-laden. Let's adorn that person with a royal cape just like for the cowardly lion in "The Wizard of Oz." (They improvised with a rug, remember?)
Stahl is the quintessential lead trumpet player. While in the service, he was soloist with the Army Band, lead trumpet in the "Army Blues," and principal trumpet in the White House Herald Trumpets. A friend and I went up on the stage after the St. Paul concert to chat with him. He told us something about proper playing posture.
 
An album that connected
Woody Herman's band recorded "Herd at Monteux" at 3:30 a.m. They followed Sonny Rollins' set. I loved the arrangement of The Temptations' hit "Can't Get Next to You." The band played with a flourish on Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." (None of us can forget PDQ Bach's "Fanfare for the Common Cold.")
Tenor sax players Greg Herbert and Frank Tiberi stand out. Tiberi would later lead the Herman "ghost band" after Woody's death. Andy LaVerne played electric piano, standing out as much with his long fuzzy hair as with his playing. Ferguson had his own "hippie keyboardist" for a time, name of Allan Zavod. These guys look like anything but hippies today, I'm sure. Their old persona came and went like disco. In those old days, you might get teased if you were bald or overweight. Not today. "Plus" sizes have taken over.
Dave Stahl left the service in 1973, whereupon he went to work putting together the finest possible jazz resume, even managing the Buddy Rich band. I give him special kudos for that, given Rich's famous volatile personality.
Stahl was lead trumpet or soloist with an 'A' list of bands including, in addition to Herman and Rich: Count Basie, Larry Elgart and Toshiko Akiyoshi. He has backed up Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme and Jack Jones. He formed his own band in 1977. In '87 he came out with "Anaconda," an album I remember purchasing in that old vinyl format. It was contemporary pop.
 
The great Bill Chase, RIP
Remember the trumpet player Bill Chase? He was closely associated with Woody Herman. Chase formed his own group and gave us the hit "Get It On," remember? He died in a plane crash in southern Minnesota in the mid-1970s. He was barely hanging on (financially) with his own group at the time of his death, reportedly. This was in spite of the fact his music had made a real splash. But remember, fans of such modern "hip" groups of that time were largely kids - not real well financially endowed. Chase could play today as an "oldie" act at casinos.
At the time of his untimely death, rumors were rife that Chase was going back to Woody Herman's band. His "name" presence would have been good for all involved. We never got to see that of course.
Woody Herman occasionally sang with a voice that frankly wasn't any better than mine. His solos really only required a sense of pitch and in some cases not even that, as on his hit "Caldonia." The band made those tunes. The signature part of "Caldonia" was a soaring eight-bar passage by the trumpets near the end. All hail trumpets!
Woody's first hit was "Woodchopper's Ball" in 1939. The song needed time to gain popularity. The Decca company kept re-releasing it. My, 3-4 years passed before it caught on. It sold over five million copies. I played this tune with the "Tempo Kings" orchestra in the 1970s. I remember the late Walt Sarlette doing a little showboating on clarinet, holding his hand behind his head as he elevated his clarinet for the final rousing section. The dancers always reacted with enthusiasm when we announced that tune.
 
Bebop with "Dizzy" comes along
Time passed and "bebop" started infusing the big band world. Bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie wrote three arrangements for Woody in 1942.
I heard Dizzy with a small combo at St. Cloud State's Kimberly Ritsche Auditorium. Dizzy's physical faculties for playing the trumpet were at a bare minimum. Remember, he had that unorthodox style of puffing out his cheeks. It's unnatural.
I got the impression that in Dizzy's "small-time" concerts like at St. Cloud, he didn't expend himself any more than he had to. I don't think anyone would argue with me saying his playing that night was terrible - uncomfortable to watch. He had no range at all. But he was Dizzy Gillespie! He got applause when he said he was of the Bahai faith. He showed humor introducing his ensemble. He went one by one saying they were "natives" of someplace, until he got to the drummer, a quite dark-skinned fellow, who Gillespie said was simply "a native." (Movies set in Africa once gave us the term "native" as synonymous with the black indigenous people.) I suspect Gillespie's humor would be politically incorrect today. The audience did laugh.
I later saw a contemporaneously filmed performance by Dizzy on PBS in which he suddenly found he could play his trumpet with range. I guess he saved such efforts for the "important" commitments. He probably had no choice. His style of trumpet playing was too taxing physically. His cheeks could have become detached from his face.
Woody Herman had a successful recording of "Laura" from the 1944 movie. He recorded "Caldonia" in 1945. "What makes your big head so hard?" I'd need an explanation on those lyrics.
The band broke up in 1946. Several bands disbanded in December of that year, just as America was getting back to normal after the war years. Some say the storied big band era ended in December of 1946. Of course this was just a hiccup for the indefatigable Woody Herman. In 1947 he formed "The Second Herd," a.k.a. "The Four Brothers Band." They recorded "Four Brothers" in 1947.
Woody had another hit in "Early Autumn." The "Third Herd" came along in the 1950s. And then, "The New Thundering Herd" from 1959 to 1987.
By the 1980s, as with Maynard Ferguson, Woody "came home" to straight-ahead jazz, putting aside the rock and fusion. A steady diet of jazz and conventional big band charts became commercially feasible again. Woody kept packing in the crowds, thus helping him pay off the IRS! He was in danger of eviction from his house.
I would firmly state that Woody Herman was underrated. He had no trouble staying hip even though he didn't look the part, certainly not in the '70s when rock groups held sway. He never grew his hair out or fluffed it up. He looked like he could be the skyscraper owner in the movie "the Towering Inferno," you know, a guy on the wrong end of the generation gap. (That was William Holden BTW.)
Don't be fooled by appearances. Woody didn't need to change how he looked to play exciting music, captivating the young crowd.
I remember when us kids raced to get our Prom Ballroom seats right when they opened the doors - standard custom - and we raced right past Woody himself. Woody was out in the commons area with an unassuming presence, playing some warm-up notes on his clarinet with his open case in front of him. Had this been Maynard, we would have swarmed him. We loved Woody's band but Woody himself wasn't really a cult figure. Ah, but we embraced Woody and his sound totally.
Woody Herman, RIP.
 
Addendum: Here's a remembrance nugget that ought to make Maynard fans misty: Remember how the great MF would play warm-up notes in a little room off to the side of the stage, at the Prom Center? There was a little exhibitionist purpose here. MF knew this would be a turn-on. Sure enough, each time he did this pre-concert, waves of cheers would come from the assembling crowd! Pianist Zavod was onstage once getting his stuff ready, and he reacted for humorous effect as if the cheers were for him! Can memories get any better than this?
 
The full lyrics to "Caldonia" strike me as rather bizarre. If I wrote this stuff, people would say I was off my rocker. But it's a classic. Would a previous generation understand it better?
Here are the lyrics:
 
Walkin' with my baby, she's got great big feet,
She long lean and lanky and ain't had nothin' to eat!
But she's my baby and I love her just the same,
Crazy about that woman 'cause Caldonia is her name.
 
Caldonia!
Caldonia!
What makes your big head so hard? Huh!
I love you, love you just the same,
I'll always love you baby 'cause Caldonia is your name.
 
You know,
My momma told me to leave Caldi]onia alone;
That's what she told me, no kiddin'!
That's what she said!
She says,
"Son, keep away from that woman,she ain't no good, don't bother with her!".
But momma didn't know what Caldonia was puttin' down!
So I'm goin' down to Caldonia's house, and ask her just one more time!
 
Caldonia!
Caldonia!
What makes your big head so hard?
Now!
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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