LEADER OF THE BAND: The Life of Woody Herman by Gene Lees

LEADER OF THE BAND: The Life of Woody Herman

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Workmanlike biography of a famed big bandsman. Woody Herman (1913--87) was one of the great figures of the big-band era, as instrumentalist, vocalist, and particularly as band leader. His famous series of ""herds"" introduced many key musicians, particularly the noted saxophone section of the Second Herd, featuring Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Al Cohn. Herman's first group, which came to prominence in 1937, took a more swinging approach to the music than other bands of the day and became known as ""The Band that Plays the Blues,"" thanks to their earthy repertoire. After the war, Herman was one of the first to embrace the progressive harmonies and jagged melodies of bebop, which was pushing out the edges of acceptable jazz. However, with the decline of the big bands in the '50s--attributed by Lees to the success of rock 'n' roll and the closing of many large ballrooms--Herman struggled to keep his group going. By the late '60s, he had half-heartedly embraced rock 'n' roll, even recording the Doors' ""Light My Fire"" and other rock songs. In his later years, charged by the IRS with tax evasion, Herman had to keep performing despite declining band standards and his own poor health. Lees (Cats of Any Color, 1994, etc.) is a noted jazz writer and a friend of Herman's; he even worked for a while as a publicist for him. Although obviously a dedicated fan (his negative feelings toward rock and contemporary pop make for some curmudgeonly passages), he is even-handed. Lees covers much the same ground as William Clancy's recent Woody Herman: Chronicle of the Herds (p. 191), although Clancy's book is more of an oral history, while this is a straight narrative. A few high notes from the past, bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0195115740
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.