Woody Herman's Thundering Herd

I first met Woody Herman at a jazz club on W. 52nd St. in NYC. It was dark in this basement lair though it was still late afternoon on the street. I’d been invited to “sit in” by the writer/critic/ drummer, George Simon. The band struck up “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and after I played George said, “There’s somebody I want you to meet.” We walked over to a table in the back and a dapper gentleman, well-dressed with a silk ascot, shook my hand and said, “I’m Woody Herman.” Oh, my god I thought, I just played a mediocre chorus on my clarinet for the leader of the Thundering Herd—one of the greatest big bands in the world!

Ignoring my effusive enthusiasm and my bumbling apologies for my solo, Woody just went straight ahead to address the reason he was here. The 50th anniversary of his band was coming up the next year with celebrations at the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall and he wanted me to take his part on Igor Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, which he had commissioned in the '40s! Oh wow, if only my Dad had lived to see this day. He had collected all the great Herd recordings (Woodchopper’s Ball, Blue Flame, Four Brothers, Apple Honey, Caledonia, etc., etc.). And of course my poor Dad couldn’t believe I had given up on his hope that I would become a rich dentist, instead playing classical clarinet. Teaming up with Woody—Dad would be singing in heaven.

Whenever we performed the Ebony Concerto, Woody would tell this special story…

The band was playing a stint at the Paramount movie theater where they would take over as soon as the feature film finished. “The Herd Live” was a spectacular draw for the theater and the giant reels of film could be rewound for the next show. The band then ascended to a fifth floor rehearsal room high above the stage to prepare for the imminent arrival of "the Maestro,” Igor Stravinsky himself, who had agreed to hear a private performance by the musicians. Woody said, “All the guys in the band were nervous wrecks.” They of course were well aware of the stature of this greatest modern composer of the century and they had all dressed in their best suits for the audition. In walked Stravinsky in a sweatshirt, a towel around his neck, and ready to get down to work. Well, they played for the maestro in a sweat. When, somehow, they got through it, Woody remembers Stravinsky putting his arm around his shoulder and telling him, “Voody, you have a grrreat family!”

copyright Richard Stoltzman