Welcome to Night Lights… I’m David Brent Johnson. Woody Herman’s big bands of the mid-to-late 1940s have acquired a legendary status in jazz history for their musicianship and hard-swinging modernism. In the next hour we’ll hear some of the music that both preceded and followed Herman’s so-called “Second Herd” of the late 40s, including rarely-heard recordings, guest appearances by Duke Ellington saxophonists Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, and sides that the bandleader made for his own Mars label in the early 1950s… and we’ll have commentary as well from big band scholar Jeff Sultanof. It’s “Woody Herman’s Trip To Mars”… coming up on this edition of Night Lights.
Woody Herman, “Your Father’s Mustache” (4:30) + Leonard Feather intro from 1946 Carnegie
Woody Herman’s big band live at Carnegie Hall in 1946, performing a tune co-written by Herman and trombonist Bill Harris called “Your Father’s Mustache,” and featuring solos by Herman, Harris, trumpeter Sonny Berman, tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips, and vibraphonist Red Norvo… from the Mosaic Records collection of Herman’s recordings made for the Decca, MGM and Mars labels in the 1940s and early 50s.
Segment 3/music bed: “Blue Flame”
Woody Herman was a clarinetist, alto saxophonist, singer, and most prominently a bandleader, leading orchestras from the late 1930s all the way to the end of his life in 1987. These ensembles often reflected the musical tenor of the times, from the swing-era unit called “The Band That Plays The Blues” to the bebop-tinged First, Second and Third Herds of the late 40s and early 50s, and the Herman orchestras of the 1960s and 70s that incorporated modern pop-rock music into their repertoire. The Herman bands of any age tended to be dynamic and driven by younger musicians and arrangers, and Herman’s musical achievements as a bandleader for 50 years put him in the same league as his contemporaries Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
A recent box set from jazz specialty label Mosaic Records fills in some of the gaps from Herman’s mid-20th century discography, gathering studio and live recordings that the Herman band made for Decca, MGM, and Woody’s own Mars label, and which haven’t been readily available to listeners for many years. Set annotator Jeff Sultanof sets the scene for the opening recordings of this Herman collection:
JS intro (1:16)
And Decca was Woody Herman’s label. In November of 1943, Herman took his band into the studio to make a commercial recording for the first time in a year and a half. With him was tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, whose gruffly tender and kinetic sound had until recently found a home in the Duke Ellington orchestra. And it’s an Ellington song with which we begin, featuring Woody Herman on vocals… “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” on Night Lights:
Woody Herman, “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” (3:21)
Woody Herman, “Basie’s Basement” (3:26) (total time: 6:47)
Woody Herman’s big band in November 1943 doing “Basie’s Basement” and before that “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” with both tracks featuring tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, recently-departed from the Duke Ellington orchestra at that point.
Another Ellingtonian, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, joins the Herman band on the next two selections we’re going to hear, made for Decca’s World Transcription service, 16-inch records that were meant exclusively for radio airplay and commercially unavailable. Jeff Sultanof on the presence of Ellington musicians on these rarely-heard Herman recordings:
JS on Ellingtonians: (0:26)
Woody Herman, “As Long As I Live” (version w/Hodges) (3:10)
Woody Herman, “Blue Lullaby” (3:30) (total time: 6:40)
Woody Herman in 1944 singing “Blue Lullaby,” with Johnny Hodges performing that alto sax solo… we also heard Hodges and singer Frances Wayne from the same session on “As Long As I Live.” Both of those recordings made as transcriptions for radio stations, and part of Mosaic Records’ box set featuring music that Herman’s bands made for the Decca, MGM and Mars labels in the 1940s and 50s. Set annotator Jeff Sultanof on why Herman left the Decca label in 1945 after many years to sign with Columbia Records, where he recorded some of his most commercially and artistically notable sides:
JS on transition from Decca to Columbia: (0:27)
In March of 1946 that #1 band in the country played a celebrated concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall that included the premiere of “Ebony Concerto,” a work that Herman had commissioned renowned composer Igor Stravinsky to write for the band. We’ll hear the full orchestra on arranger Neal Hefti’s “The Good Earth,” as well as Woody’s smaller “band-within-a-band” unit, the Woodchoppers, doing Shorty Rogers and Red Norvo’s “Heads Up.” The Woody Herman big band live at Carnegie Hall, on Night Lights:
Woody Herman, “The Good Earth” (2:26)
Woody Herman/Woodchoppers, “Heads Up” (2:37) (total time: 5:03)
Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers doing “Heads Up” and the full band before that with “The Good Earth,” live at Carnegie Hall in 1946. The recordings were released a few years later when Woody was signed to MGM, and are therefore included in Mosaic Records’ box set of Herman’s work for the Decca, MGM and Mars labels. I’ll have more of Woody Herman’s music and commentary from jazz scholar Jeffrey Sultanof in just a few moments. You can hear many previous Night Lights programs on our website at wfiu.org/nightlights. Production support for Night Lights comes from Columbus Visitor's Center, celebrating EVERYWHERE ART AND UNEXPECTED ARCHITECTURE in Columbus, Indiana. Modern architecture and design to explore forty-five minutes south of Indianapolis. More at Columbus dot I-N dot U-S. I’m David Brent Johnson, and you’re listening to “Woody Herman’s Trip To Mars,” on Night Lights.
Woody Herman, “Men From Mars” (1:00)
I’m featuring music from a box-set of recordings that bandleader Woody Herman made in the 1940s and early 50s, for a variety of labels including Decca, MGM, and Mars, the latter a label that Herman co-owned. Herman’s time on MGM, where he landed after leaving Columbia Records, proved to be one of his most frustrating stints as a bandleader. The beginning of the 1950s was a challenging time for the big bands, facing a continuing change in musical tastes and an eroding audience base that was staying at home more often and watching television. Big band scholar Jeff Sultanof on Herman’s MGM period:
Jeff on Woody MGM (0:48)
Herman often found himself working with other artists and ensembles, with his own band relegated to the sidelines. Still, the MGM era produced some memorable music; we’ll start off this next set with “Leo The Lion,” on Night Lights:
Woody Herman, “Leo The Lion” (2:37)
Woody Herman, “New Golden Wedding”
Woody Herman, “This Is New” (3:15)
Three recordings from Woody Herman’s time at MGM in the early 1950s—“This Is New,” “New Golden Wedding” before that, featuring a spirited clarinet performance from the leader, and “Leo the Lion” leading off that set, all from Mosaic Records’ collection of Herman’s recordings for the Decca, MGM, and Mars label.
Woody Herman on Mars! No, it wasn’t space travel that Woody undertook at this point—it was his own label called Mars, which his friend, publicist Howie Richmond, helped him start after his time at MGM sputtered to an end. Although this big-band DIY enterprise failed to bring about renewed commercial success for Herman, in part because of the problems that independent labels encountered with distributors in this era, it did reenergize the band’s sound:
JS on Mars recordings: (0:25)
Woody Herman, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (2:33)
Woody Herman, “Early Autumn” (2:54)
Woody Herman singing “Early Autumn,” based on the fourth movement of Ralph Burns’ “Summer Sequence,” and the Herman band before that doing “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” both recorded for Herman’s own Mars label in 1952. Both pieces also arranged by Ralph Burns, a pianist and composer who first teamed up with Herman in the mid-1940s and played a significant role in shaping the sound of the bad into the next decade:
JS on Ralph Burns: (1:17)
Woody Herman, “Terrissita” (3:22)
Woody Herman, “Beau Jazz” (2:45)
Woody Herman doing two Ralph Burns compositions and arrangements—“Beau Jazz” and “Terrissita” before that, both recorded for Herman’s Mars label in the early 1950s, from Mosaic Records’ collection of Herman’s Decca, MGM, and Mars recordings. While the Mosaic set may not always rise to the level of what Herman’s First and Second Herds recorded for Columbia and Capitol in the mid to late 1940s, annotator and big band scholar Jeff Sultanof says it documents a great deal of significant work by one of jazz history’s most notable bandleaders:
JS final remarks
Woody Herman, “I Would Do Anything For You” (2:51)
I closed with Woody Herman performing “I Would Do Anything For You.” Thanks for tuning into this edition of Night Lights. Special thanks to Jeffrey Sultanof. You can listen to many previous Night Lights programs on our website at wfiu.org/nightlights. Production support for Night Lights comes from Columbus Visitor's Center, celebrating EVERYWHERE ART AND UNEXPECTED ARCHITECTURE in Columbus, Indiana. Modern architecture and design to explore forty-five minutes south of Indianapolis. More at Columbus dot I-N dot U-S. Night Lights is a production of WFIU and part of the educational mission of Indiana University. I’m David Brent Johnson, wishing you good listening for the week ahead.