If you were asked to name a famous clarinettist who led a big band during the swing era, you would probably say Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. Yet Woody Herman is equally deserving of remembrance, especially as he led a big band for the best part of 50 years. This DVD helps to remind us of Woody's achievement, not only in keeping a big band together even in the most difficult years but also in leading an ensemble that included such great names as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Sal Nistico, Ralph Burns, Chubby Jackson, Phil Wilson and Neal Hefti.
The DVD opens with a 1976 film of the band playing one of Herman's greatest hits: Jimmy Giuffre's Four Brothers, featuring three tenorists and a baritone sax player in a memorably swirling arrangement. This piece had originally been premiered in 1947, and it exemplified an outstanding feature of Woody's Second Herd. The DVD then reverts to tracing Woody's early career: singing and dancing in public at the age of eight. He used his profits from these performances to buy an alto saxophone and then a clarinet - the latter instrument becoming his trademark, although he was a fine altoist, having Johnny Hodges as his mentor.
Woody's story is filled out with interviews with band members and jazz critics, portraying a bandleader whose overriding hobby was his band (or the Herd, as it became known). Herman joined Isham Jones's band in 1934 and, when Isham retired in 1936, Woody used the musicians as the basis for his own ensemble, which he tagged "The Band That Plays the Blues". The DVD is illustrated with appropriate film clips, including a swinging version of Down Under from Sensations of 1945, Apple Honey from Earl Carroll Varieties, and Woody doing an uproarious vocal duet on Lemon Drop with vibist Terry Gibbs.
Herman was a good singer as well as a useful instrumentalist, and the filmed extracts invariably show him smiling, clearly enjoying hearing his musicians play. He also moved with the times, as his band shifted from being the Swinging Herd to the Thundering Herd and then the Young Thundering Herd. Woody's Boogaloo shows him playing the soprano sax, and a 1977 version of Giant Steps filmed in Warsaw proves that he was willing to keep the band's repertoire up-to-date. Perhaps the most impressive film captures a long version of Blues in the Night, which passes through several different tempos and moods.
The DVD successfully explains Woody's success. Even if he seldom made any profit, the musicians felt that they were playing with Herman, not for him. And, in the words of Terry Gibbs, "He never had a bad band".