Friday, November 19, 2004


The Herd's in town

Woody Herman, Sidewalks of Cuba.

Woody Herman was one of the few big band leaders to escape the brutal collapse of the swing era (eight big bands folded in December '46 alone)--he carried on with various incarnations of his Thundering Herds throughout the '70s and '80s. But Herman had always been a maverick, and always had been open to the new sounds. He hired Dizzy Gillespie as an arranger for a time during the war, and by 1945, Herman had assembled what would be known as the First Herd--a bunch of young, ambitious players (Herman's pianist and arranger Ralph Burns would later call them "a football team up from the minors").

While Benny Goodman's band, for example, had to learn arrangements perfectly to the note, Herman's band was happy anarchy. Herman served more as coach or eager onlooker, asking his players to think up riffs, and then, when a good riff came along, each section of the band would work up their own parts around it. Drummer Don Lamond: Woody used to say, 'put in whatever you want to put in.' Arrangers like Burns and Neal Hefti hastily glued it all together.

"Sidewalks of Cuba" is a fine example of this approach. The basic song is nothing much, a piece of light 1930s pop, but the Herd turns it into a masterpiece--the interplay of the reeds and horns, guitarist Chuck Wayne's bop-influenced solo, and, most of all, Sonny Berman's incredible trumpet solo, which starts by quoting "Flight of the Bumblebee" and goes off from there. Berman, who was only 21 and who could have been one of the master postwar trumpeters, would die of a heroin overdose in January 1947.

"Sidewalks" was recorded on Sept. 17, 1946 in Los Angeles. The First Herd consisted of about 20 players, including Herman on clarinet, Lamond on drums, a five-man trumpet section including Berman and Shorty Rogers; the unconventional trombonist Bill Harris; Joe Mondragon on bass and the ubiquitous Red Norvo on vibes. Buy the best of the Herd.

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