A fine swing clarinetist, an altoist whose sound was influenced by Johnny Hodges, a good soprano saxophonist, and a spirited blues vocalist, Woody Herman's greatest significance to jazz was as the leader of a long line of big bands. He always encouraged young talent and more than practically any bandleader from the swing era, kept his repertoire quite modern. Although Herman was always stuck performing a few of his older hits (he played "Four Brothers" and "Early Autumn" nightly for nearly 40 years), he much preferred to play and create new music.
After playing with the Isham Jones orchestra for two years, Woody Herman formed one of his own in 1936, out of the remaining nucleus when Jones broke up the band. The great majority of the early Herman recordings feature the bandleader as a ballad vocalist, but it was the instrumentals that caught on, leading to his group being known as "The Band That Plays the Blues." Herman's theme "At the Woodchopper's Ball" became his first hit (1939).
By the end of 1944, Woody Herman had what was essentially a brand-new orchestra, the Herd (later renamed the First Herd). It was a wild, good-time band, with screaming ensembles and such Herman favorites entering the book as "Apple Honey," "Caldonia," "Northwest Passage," "Bijou," and the nutty "Your Father's Mustache." Family troubles caused Herman to break up the big band at the height of its success in 1946, though by the following year, he had a new orchestra. The Second Herd, also known as the Four Brothers band, featured the three cool-toned tenors of Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Herbie Steward (later replaced by Al Cohn), plus baritonist Serge Chaloff. Still, the band struggled financially and collapsed in 1949.
After leading the Third Herd during much of 1950-1956, Herman's New Thundering Herd became a hit at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival. Though his bop-ish unit gradually became more rock-oriented during the '60s and '70s, Herman returned to emphasizing straight-ahead jazz by the late '70s. He died in 1987, just one year after celebrating his 50th anniversary as a bandleader. ~ Scott Yanow