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.