Although he outlasted most of his big band-era contemporaries, working steadily for more than 50 years and never resorting to nostalgia, Woody Herman is rarely considered iconic today. Perhaps that’s because-as some of the clarinetist, saxophonist and singer’s former employees readily attest in this nearly two-hour documentary-he was never a true virtuoso. As saxophonist Dick Hafer tells it, when Stan Getz, a member of one of Herman’s outfits in the late ’40s, informed his boss, “You play the worst,” Herman didn’t dispute him. Instead, he shot back, “That’s why I’m paying you to play, schmuck.”
What Woody Herman was very, very good at was putting together exemplary bands and keeping them busy. The bandleader’s nickname, “Road Father,” doubles as the title of the first chapter of this chronologically sequenced program, which ultimately makes a convincing case for a reconsideration of its subject. A parade of performance footage from throughout the years and testimonials from now-gray former colleagues and critics supports that notion.
Herman got an early start in jazz-a photo of a 1930s theater marquee advertises Woodrow Herman, Boy Wonder Saxophonist-and by the time he wrapped his career he had embraced and incorporated bebop and even fusion. But although he is best known for his ’40s success, Herman’s most exciting Herd-variations on the word provided all of his bands’ names from 1944 on-was arguably one that flourished some two decades later, at the height of the rock era. A 1960 clip of the Swingin’ Herd performing “Your Father’s Mustache” is hot and animated, and “Caldonia,” from a 1963 Ed Sullivan Show appearance, is furious. When saxophonist Roger Neumann proclaims, “I think Woody’s bands had more of that out and out enthusiasm and spirit and raw swing than almost any other band,” it’s difficult to argue with him.