Of all the big bands that performed in the Triangle during the 1970s and ’80s, the Woody Herman Band – by an unofficial estimate – appeared most often. There were shows at Stewart Theatre (three), the Frog and Nightgown (at least two), Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse, The Governor’s Inn and UNC-Chapel Hill. Herman’s career as a leader spanned from 1936 (“The Band That Plays the Blues”) until his death in 1987. In latter years the title “Road Father” adorned his band’s music stands.
“Blue Flame, Portrait of a Jazz Legend” (Jazzed Media), a documentary DVD, offers the Herman story in film clips of various editions of the band and interviews with Herman, his arrangers and sidemen, and jazz reporters and historians. A couple of themes emerge: The musicians overwhelmingly liked and respected Herman as a leader, player (clarinet, alto and soprano saxophone) and singer. And the critics and historians never heard a bad Herman band. Herman attracted great players – Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Terry Gibbs, Bill Chase, Phil Wilson, Jake Hanna, Nat Pierce, Sal Nistico, Joe Lovano, Marvin Stamm, John Fedchock, Gregory Herbert, Alan Broadbent, Frank Tiberi – the interviewees agree. And he let them be free. He liked the wild side of the band.
The clips of the band performing confirm the wild side – but rooted in musical discipline, too. We see Herman and Gibbs scat-singing “Lemon Drop” in the late ’40s, a 1976 performance of “Early Autumn” (still thrilling then, 30 years after its debut, and now), Alan Broadbent’s fantasia on “Blues in the Night” with Herman singing – and many more. There was no going through the motions with Herman’s bands. They always aimed for the heart, the feet and the head with a vengeance.
Correspondent Owen Cordle