For 50 years—with relatively brief interruptions—Woody Herman has led one of the greatest of all big bands. And not surprisingly, he’s had some of the greatest drummers driving his band. From Frank Carlson in the ’30s; to Davey Tough, Don Lamond, and Shelly Manne in the ’40s; to Sonny Igoe, Chuck Flores, and Jimmy Campbell in the ’50s; to Jake Hanna, Ronnie Zito, and Ed Soph in the ’60s; to Danny D’lmperio, Steve Houghton, and Jeff Hamilton in the ’70s. . . the list goes on. And if Herman’s drummers of the ’80s, such as Dave Ratajczak and Dave Miller, haven’t yet gained the renown of their predecessors, well, just give them time.
“You look back and see the guys who had played drums with that band. They were all monsters. They were all masters of their instrument. They all left a mark. And they’re all responsible for the way most serious drummers play today,” Ed Soph told me. Soph, who first joined Herman in 1968, and who returned to the band on a half-dozen other occasions in the ’70s and early ’80s, familiarized himself early on with the old recordings featuring Frank Carlson and Davey Tough, just as some Herman drummers of more recent years have familiarized themselves with record ings featuring Jake Hanna and Ed Soph. Herman doesn’t seek out drummers who copy their predecessors in the band. But it sure doesn’t hurt to know a bit of the legacy. “When you go with a band like that,” Soph noted, “you’re not just going on as a drummer; you’re going on as part of a continuation of a tradition.”
The tradition began in 1936. That was the year that Isham Jones retired from bandleading, and five of his sidemen decided they wanted to keep on working together; they chose Woody Herman, who had been playing clarinet and singing in Jones’ orchestra, to be their leader. But they wanted a hotter band than the one Jones had led, and that meant finding a strong jazz drummer. (Jones’ drummer, Walter Lageson, was, in the words of arranger Gordon Jenkins: “real good looking . . . but almost a total loss on getting a beat going.”) They found one in Frank Carlson, who had been working around New York. He sparked the new Woody Herman Orchestra when it made its debut in November of 1936, and he stayed on for seven years. A January, 1937 review of the new Herman band by George Simon praised its “terrific drummer . . .swinging away like hell, solid and steady as they come.”
Carlson was then playing four beats to the bar on the bass drum, as was the custom of the day. The band’s repertoire initially included a good deal of what today would be termed Dixieland numbers: “Royal Garden Blues,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Jazz Me Blues,” “It Happened In Dixieland,” etc., although the band soon moved into more blues and free-flowing swing.
In 1937, a new band from Kansas City—Count Basie’s—arrived in New York, playing opposite Woody Herman’s at Roseland Ballroom. Basie’s not-yet famous drummer made a tremendous impression upon Frank Carlson. “Basie came, and of course, Jo Jones was with him,” Carlson told me. “Up until that point, I was still banging on woodblocks and all that crap. But when I heard Jo play with the hi-hat cymbals and all that, I thought, ‘That’s for me.’ That was the biggest influence in my life, because Jo was not a rudimental drummer like some people were at that time. He played so loose and free. I used to sit in with him all the time. Between Jo and Chick Webb—those were the two that did it for me.”
Carlson was basically self-taught. He tried to take lessons once, but when the instructor told him he was playing backwards (using his left hand the way drummers usually use their right) and would have to switch to drum “properly,” he walked out. (Carlson describes himself as a natural “lefty” at drumming, although he writes with his right hand, and he’s never switched.) “I used to go to the Rhythm Club in Harlem—I was the only Caucasian in the place—and play drums all night long,” he told me. “That was my education in drumming.”
Carlson initially used a 26″ Slingerland bass drum for his big band work with Herman. He eventually got a second, smaller bass drum, he recalled, for use on numbers by a small group within the band. “And I had lots of cymbals; I loved cymbals,” he added. Jones was a pioneer in the practice of playing time on a cymbal, rather than on the bass drum, and Carlson followed his lead, giving his recordings of the early ’40s a more modern feel than those of many of his contemporaries. “Towards the last couple of years in the band, I started to play a lot freer than I did in the beginning.”
But the Herman band was still in its formative stages. Despite one huge hit (“Woodchopper’s Ball,” 1939), it remained on the second rung of popularity among big bands, below the bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, etc. Carlson drummed on record dates with both Miller and Goodman, but he declined opportunities to join their bands, he said, because he preferred the freedom Herman gave his musicians and the looser feeling of Herman’s music. After leaving Herman’s band, Carlson went to MGM, where he drummed for some 30 years, before retiring to Hawaii. He told me, “Wow! What I’d give just to sit down with Woody’s band today and just play for a while!”
Cliff Leeman came on in mid-1943 and stayed through mid-’44. Herman was making a lot of personnel changes now, moving from “the band that plays the blues” (as his outfit was originally billed) to something more modern, which would become known as “the First Herd” of 1944-46. Leeman was an excellent drummer, as his work with Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and a host of Dixieland small groups proves. But he was not the ideal man for the new thing Herman was striving for. Herman’s new sidemen—such as Neal Hefti, the Condoli brothers, Ralph Burns, Flip Philips, Bill Harris, and Chubby Jackson—were moving in a fresh direction. The band was finding a unique identity.
According to Herman, “I never will forget: Cliff Leeman had recommended [bassist] Chubby Jackson, and after Chubby was in the band for a while, Chubby started working on me about, ‘Shouldn’t we get a different drummer? I don’t think Cliff is doing the right thing.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll get a different drummer, but I’m going to get a guy that I know can handle this and do it beautifully. His name is Dave Tough.’ And Chubby didn’t think that maybe Dave would be hip enough for what we were into. After about the first night, he found out what I’d already known—that Dave was a giant. “Dave Tough was probably the best drummer in the country at that point. This guy was probably the best timekeeper that ever was. He had a distinct sound, and he played with such tremendous good taste.” Johnny Blowers, who replaced Tough on one Herman V-disc recording session and later subbed in the band for two weeks, told me, “Davey just detested soloing.” Herman agreed, “A fill was a big thing to Dave. He was not a soloist.” Tough said he just wanted to keep the rhythm flowing and that he did.
New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett recently termed Tough one of the three greatest drummers in jazz. Ed Shaughnessy has called him perhaps the greatest cymbal player “of all time.” Jim Rupp, one of Herman’s most recent drummers, noted, “Woody still talks about Davey Tough. Woody said Dave could just play straight quarter notes, and it would feel like a shuffle. So of course I had to go back and really listen to him. Some of the things he was doing are still so timeless.”
In his year and a half in the band (1944-45), Tough played on such definitive Herman recordings as “Apple Honey,” “Wild Root,” “Bijou,” “Northwest Passage,” and “Caldonia.” And Herman’s First Herd became the nation’s favorite band in 1945-46. Occasionally, due to ill health or other reasons, Tough could not make a gig. On Herman’s hit 1945 record ing of “Your Father’s Mustache,” for example, Buddy Rich (who was then with Tommy Dorsey) subbed for Tough. (Rich gets a sharper sound, and his drumming is more extroverted. Towards the close of that record, he makes the Herman band sound rather like the Dorsey band of that time. Tough’s drums had a softer, more distant sound.)
“Then when Dave became not really well enough to continue with us, Don Lamond came in,” Herman recalled. (Tough died only three years later, indirectly as a result of his alcoholism.)
Lamond had previously drummed for Sonny Dunham and Boyd Raeburn, besides leading his own band. Lamond told me that, for his first few months on the Herman band (in late ’45), he played on Tough’s drumset. “And I tell you, I didn’t even want to pick up my own drums. Davey had the bass drum tuned in such a way that it blended with the string bass; it sounded as if the bass notes were coming out of the bass drum.
“He was a real adhesive-tape dude. He had one strip of felt on the batter head of the bass drum, which was a 24″ bass drum if I remember. It was solid adhesive tape, all the way across it. He also had great cymbals. He had a Chinese cymbal that was the type you can’t get anymore. It was made in China, and was hand-beaten for something like a bowl of rice a day. It was paper thin, and he had rivets in it. You didn’t hear any of the gong that goes along with it; you just heard the tip beat and the edge, you know—terrific sound. That was really his claim to fame, you know. When the rhythm section would get going with that cymbal, it was on fire. Dave didn’t have a lot of technique, but he had that certain something, that beat—you know, that terrific drive. He really had the secret of swinging a big band.”
Like Tough before him, Lamond did not believe in tuning his drums too tightly. “The bottom was pretty tight,” he recalled. “But it was never as tight on the top. It was almost as tight as on the bottom but then I would back off about a half a turn. And I would do that on all the drums,” he said. Herman broke up his tremendously popular First Herd, and then formed a virtually all-new, bebop-oriented band (the Second Herd) in 1947, featuring Ernie Royal, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, and Serge Chaloff. Lamond was one of the few carryovers from the First Herd. With the Second Herd, Lamond really got to shine, on numbers such as “The Goof And I,” “Four Brothers,” and “I’ve Got News For You.” Drumming had changed, due to bebop innovators such as Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and Lamond was right on top of the trends. “I think I was more successful with that band than with the first, because there was nothing on that first band that I could have done any better than Davey. The second band was more modern,” Lamond recalled. Herman remembered, “When we started that bebop band in ’47, I told Don that I would like for him to play whatever he felt at any time, and we would have the rhythm section work as a unit with him.” Lamond stayed on through 1948. Lamond’s influence may be heard at times in the Herman band today. For example, Jim Rupp told me, “You know, we play ‘Four Brothers’ all the time. And you’re setting up the fills. Well, one night Woody said to me, ‘You can really let loose on that. Don’t worry about being so metric. Just play the fills straight through there; just let the band blow, and don’t worry about setting it up so precisely. Listen to Don Lamond play those fills.’ So I got a recording of Don playing it, and I started to do that.”
Lamond left the Herman Herd to pursue a career in the New York studios, but periodically reunited with Herman for record or concert dates in later years. A Floridabased big band drummer today, Lamond also plays at various festivals throughout the U.S. and abroad each year.
After Lamond, Herman brought in Shadow Wilson, who had previously drummed for Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton, and Count Basie. The Second Herd, at that time, included five or six black musicians, Herman recalled. And Herman soon ran up against racial prejudice.
“Shadow was not in our band too long, because we had a situation in Washington, D.C., which is ‘the seat of democracy,’ where we couldn’t have a mixed band,” Herman recalled with some bitterness. “We were booked into the Capitol Theater in Washington, which was an MGM owned theater. They threatened to cut off my tour of 10 or 12 weeks if I did not show up in Washington with an all-white band—which I think proves something. So overnight we changed the band, bringing in guys from California and everything. And that was when Shelly Manne came in the band. I gave the other musicians a two week vacation. I sent them all to New York to have a ball for the two weeks while the band played in Washington, and then most of them came back. But I hung on with Shelly Manne, because he really fit the band better.”
Manne, who was at that time the nation’s number-one drummer in the Metronome readers’ poll, stayed on for a little over a year. Manne told down beat‘s Herb Nolan in 1976, “It was always my ambition to join Woody, from the early days when my idol, Davey Tough, was in the band . . . .When the chance finally came to join Woody, in 1949, I jumped at it.
This was a true jazz band, and he had a marvelous feeling for the music and the musicians . . . .Woody is one of the most important big band leaders of all time, because he has never sold out in any way.” “When I got Shelly, he had been with Stan Kenton for a long time,” Herman told me. “But now he felt like he wanted to swing. He even said in his interviews with different people that it was a great pleasure to be able to be in a band that swings—you know, instead of a big machine.”
The Second Herd was a critical success but a commercial failure. Herman lost nearly $200,000 in one year, he recalled. He broke up the big band and started over again in 1950 with a small group. He brought Sonny Igoe, fresh from Benny Goodman’s big band, in on drums. He expanded the group into a big band that spring, which became known as his “Third Herd,” with Dave McKenna, Red Mitchell, Urbie Green, and others.
Igoe has only fond recollections of Herman. “He would always expect that the drummer would play the right tempo, no matter what he’d beat off. That was the first thing he told me; the first night I joined him, he said, ‘I always beat off the wrong tempo. When you know the right tempos, you play the right tempo, no matter what I do.’ ” A high-spirited, exuberant drummer, Igoe made a big impression right away. He stayed with Herman, off and on, for nearly three years. (Today, Igoe teaches, and with fellow Herman alumnus Dick Meldonian, he also co-leads a big band that has released albums on Progressive Records.) Igoe was followed, for a year and a half, by the late Art Mardigan.
Joe McDonald, who also drummed with Herman in the early ’50s, and who is today head of the Boston musicians’ union, told me, “You’re never going to see it, man—anybody better than Woodrow Charles Herman—because he let human beings breathe.” McDonald referred to Herman as “the magnet—he drew it right out, man. He inspired guys—not loud—just the way he could do with his head, and that right hand just going back and forth in two. And he’d get that certain gait when the thing was cooking.”
Chuck Flores, who handled Herman’s drums for much of 1954 and ’55, was only 19 and had never played with a name band when Herman hired him. Flores’ two biggest idols on the drums were Shelly Manne and Sonny Igoe. He was awed at first at the idea of succeeding his heroes in the Herman Herd. He wasn’t always confident that he was as good as Herman believed he was. He recalled, “Several times I wanted to leave the band. Woody was like a father to me. He would always talk to me, encourage me, and just reinforce a feeling of being appreciated, which made me feel very good. . . . I see Woody as a very special person. I put him right up there with the great bandleaders of all time. And one of the reasons I think he’s always stayed in the limelight through the years is because he always liked to help young players. You know, it’s been 30 years since I drummed with the band, and I’m still getting benefits from it.”
Bookings were getting harder to come by for the band in the mid-’50s. At times, Herman cut back to an octet. For a while, Flores recalled, the octet was forced to work a Las Vegas shift from 12:30 to 6:30 in the morning. It was a grueling gig.
After leaving Herman, Flores drummed for Stan Kenton, Tex Beneke, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and others, and became prominent in the L.A. studio scene. He also has a big band of his own today. When we spoke, Flores was looking forward to drumming with Herman once again, as part of a 50th anniversary celebration concert in Hollywood.
Will Bradley, Jr. (son of the famed trombonist, who had also played with Herman) came in briefly on drums in ’56, followed by Gus Gustofson, who told me simply, “I was just trying to play time; that’s what I was there for.” Gustofson especially enjoyed working in Atlantic City. “Jerry Lewis would come in all the time and bring his son Gary. The kid would sit in and play drums with the band—on my lap.”
Through the years, there were plenty of drummers who worked with the band too briefly (sometimes lasting no more than a single night) to be listed here. And some drummers came in just for recording sessions. Louis Bellson took Sonny Igoe’s place, for example, at one 1951 recording session. It is Panama Francis, not Flores, setting the beat on Herman’s 1954 recordings of “Castle Rock” and “Mess Around,” and it’s unmistakably Buddy Rich on Herman’s 1955 recording, “Hi-Fi Drums.” Don Lamond returned for a rerecording of the 1946 “Ebony Concerto,” and a few other things in 1958-59.
Jake Hanna, who was eventually to become one of the greatest of all Herman drummers, didn’t work out the first time he joined the band (briefly in ’57 to ’58). Hanna made one album in that period, and then went on to play with Maynard Ferguson and Harry James. Thirty-year-old Mel Lewis is the drummer with the Herman band on a “live” album recorded at the 1959 Monterey Jazz Festival. Lewis told me he played at that festival but never toured with the band. Herman invited him to join the band a couple times, Lewis recalled, but he was working for Stan Kenton, which in that period was a better-paying gig. The late ’50s was an unsettled period for the Herman band.
The drummer Herman used the most in the late ’50s was Jimmy Campbell, whom Herman discovered playing with a trio at Birdland. Campbell joined Herman in 1957 or ’58, and stayed with him (with a few interruptions) through 1961. Campbell told me, “Woody didn’t have a drum book. Well, he had one, but he wouldn’t let me see it; he had it hidden away someplace. He had gone through a couple of drummers that had buried their heads in the book and didn’t swing. So he didn’t believe in it. Fortunately, I had been following the band so long that I knew most everything anyway. And I’m a self-taught drummer. I’d learned to read off trumpet and trombone parts. So I’d be sitting there, reading off the trombone part, when I didn’t know it from memory.” But business was uneven. Herman fluctuated between using a small group and a big band. Campbell went on to work with Stan Kenton, and in Broadway show bands, before resettling in Las Vegas, where he free-lances today.
The great Gus Johnson, who had played with Basie and today is in strong demand on the international concert and festival circuit, was Herman’s drummer in early ’62. But these were the leanest of times for Herman. He was down to a sextet now and really scuffling to get dates. Johnson’s only record date with Herman (January, 1962) was with the new “Woody Herman Quartet.” When Johnson had to leave, Jake Hanna was hired to replace him. Hanna told me that, when he filled in for Johnson in New York the first night, “I was trying to play Gus Johnson’s drums, and I couldn’t reach his pedals because he was so big. I really couldn’t play his drums, and I couldn’t read. I sounded pretty bad. Woody said to [pianist] Nat Pierce, ‘Is this the guy you recommended? Forget it.'”
But Pierce persuaded Herman to take Hanna. Herman was planning to do one final big band tour of a few weeks, before returning to small-group work for good. The new big band, with Hanna on drums, Chuck Andrus on bass, Pierce on piano, Bill Chase on lead trumpet, and Sal Nistico as the hot tenor man, went out on the road. Everything clicked. Within weeks, the band was booked solid for the next year. One of the most remarkable comebacks in big band jazz was taking place.
Hanna recalled, “Woody didn’t intend to have the band very long. He was going to go back to the combo, permanently. But when the band hit New York City, it took off. That was in ’62—and it’s been working ever since. I had also played with his band in ’57, but that was a bop-oriented band, and it never got swinging.” Herman’s early ’60s band most definitely swung. Hanna had left Harry James to go with Herman this time, he added, “… for a lot less money, but a lot more music and a lot more fun!” Herman soon came to love his playing.
“Woody told me, ‘You get carte blanche. You do anything you want to do on the drums. Nobody says anything to you. You can lay out, you can play on the tom-tom, you can play Dixieland—whatever you want to do—because I know whatever you’re going to do is going to fit. The other guy I said that to was Dave Tough. And you got it.’ Well, that frees you, man. It’s like taking a bridle off a racehorse and letting him go.”
If some detect a hint of a Davey Tough influence in Hanna’s work—well, Hanna will readily admit how much he’s enjoyed listening to airchecks of Tough’s work. And his equipment definitely helps get a swing-era feel. He plays on a 1937 Slingerland Radio King bass drum (trimmed to a depth of five-and-a-half inches). One of his cymbals dates back to 1927; another—shades of Davey Tough—is an antique Chinese cymbal.
Herman commented, “Jake came back in the band in 1962, and it worked out great. Jake became one of my very favorite people, because I got to know him very well.” Fans often focused their attention on Nistico’s mile-a-minute solos. Herman suggested, “Jake and that rhythm section were the only ones that could have played with Sal.”
Hanna left the band in mid-’65, but he never fully severed his ties. When I interviewed him at his hotel room in New York, he was doing an extended all-star gig with Herman once again, and looking forward to touring with Herman in Europe as well. And Herman was introducing him to audiences as: “Jake Hanna, who’s been my favorite drummer for many years.”
Hanna was succeeded by Ronnie Zito (“who did a great job for the band,” Herman recalled) in 1965-67. Zito had been working with top-drawer singers such as Peggy Lee and Bobby Darin, and—like Hanna—he took a pay cut to join the band. “I knew that, if I didn’t try doing this thing with Woody, I’d regret it for the rest of my life,” he told me. Working with Herman, he added, “was the best music lesson I ever had. Woody taught musicians how not to be intimidated by the printed page. It doesn’t become music until you play it. I always got that feeling from him: Hey, we know how this goes.” Herman repeatedly threw music at the band cold in the recording studio. According to Zito, such great Herman albums as My Kind Of Broadway and The Jazz Swinger were basically created in the studio; the band hadn’t been playing those charts on the road, prior to the recording sessions. Herman’s confidence that the band could pull off anything was infectious, Zito said. Zito went on to become one of the busiest studio musicians in New York. “After leaving Woody, I felt like I could apply that attitude towards any other job. Woody had a way of making us feel that we were going to do it and it was going to swing.’‘
John Von Ohlen, who followed Zito in 1967-68, had worked with Ralph Marterie, Warren Covington, and Billy Maxted before joining Herman. He viewed himself, then and now, as a “big band drummer.” He worked with Stan Kenton after leaving Herman and today co-leads the Blue Wisp big band in Cincinnati.
“Woody’s the guy who taught me how to play big band drums,” Von Ohlen said. “He’s a master, you know. It’s indescribable. It’d be nice to be able to tell you in print exactly what he does, but it’s not like that. When you’re on the bandstand with him, it’s looks. It’s vibes. When the vibes weren’t right, he’d look kind of like an old fogy up there. You’d be playing, and he’d be looking at you like—we used to call it the fish eye. He’d be looking at you like, ‘What are you doing?’ But boy, when it was right, he’d let you know it—just with a look! He never said a goddamn thing. What he does is kind of a subliminal thing.
“In Woody’s band, as a drummer, you’d just play time; time was what it was all about. I’d be spanking that cymbal, and he’d turn around, look at me, and give me a fish eye, you know, like the time’s not making it. So one night, I was playing time on the cymbals, and I got kind of an inner feeling. I felt this thing and I thought, ‘Well, I think I’ll go with that.’ Right away, as soon as I did, Woody turned around and smiled. Boy, he was beaming! I changed what I was doing and Woody noticed it right away. He knew exactly what was going on. The first time I saw the light on drums was with Woody. He’s a giant. He’s the best.”
Von Ohlen tended to lay back much more than Hanna. There were some musicians in the band who told him to play more in Hanna’s style. Herman, however, made it clear that he believes that each drummer has to be an individual, and that the drummer maintains control.
Ed Soph joined the band, on the recommendation of Cannonball Adderley, the day after he graduated from North Texas State in ’68. He was to become one of the most successful of Herman drummers, but his first night, he recalled, felt rather like a trial by fire. “‘The first gig was in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I got out to the club, and Bill Byrne, who’s the road manager, said, ‘Well, there’s no bass player tonight.’ He had gotten drunk and passed out. I thought, ‘Holy shit,’ “Soph told me. But Soph’s night had only just begun. Herman went into his theme, “Blue Flame,” and then “Woodchopper’s Ball,” both of which Soph naturally knew. “But then for the third tune, Woody said, ‘Okay, number 36—one, two, three, four!’ He gave no time whatsoever for me to get the music up. And he did this all through the course of the evening. Finally, after I’d been on the band for a while, I asked him about that. He said he just wanted to see if I could use my ears. He said he didn’t care if I could read and catch everything on paper; he just wanted to find out if I could keep time, listen to the band, and play dynamically.
“Woody’s band was, as far as I’m concerned, the drummer’s band,” Soph added. “What really was required of the drummer was extreme skill in accompanying not only soloists, but ensembles as well. The reason Woody went through so many drummers was because the band had a small-group feel to it. It was just like an out-and-out screaming, hauling band. And the time feel was always on top of it— always had an edge on it. And so what Woody really looked for, and I think what he found in the drummers that he liked, was the ability to kick the ensemble but then, when the soloist was out front, to be able to play just as though one were in a good bebop small group.” Soph was in and out of the band over the next five years or so. Today, he performs and gives clinics across the U.S. and overseas.
Vince Lateano, perhaps best known for his work with Cal Tjader, filled the drum chair in the summer of 1971, but had to leave due to tendonitis, which sidelined him for several years. He said, “I remember Woody telling me, ‘Get your face out of the charts!’ The music’s only a road map, you know.”
Joe LaBarbera was 20 when he joined on the recommendation of Sal Nistico and/or Joe Romano, in 1971. “I grew up with the band, because starting around 1961, when I was a kid, Woody’s band was really hot; it was making a comeback.” But Herman was never one to stand still. The ’70s Herman band was not offering the sound of his ’60s band. “We were playing an equal amount of dance music, straight-ahead jazz, and some kind of rock or rock-fusion stuff. I was comfortable with the music,” LaBarbera noted. From this period onward, Herman’s drummers had to be able to spark rock-inflected charts no less effectively than the straight-ahead jazz charts that their predecessors had dealt with. After leaving Herman, LaBarbera went on to work with Chuck Mangione and then Bill Evans, before connecting with Tony Bennett, with whom he tours today. “I still get to work with Woody a few times a year,” LaBarbera noted happily, “when Woody does dates with Tony Bennett.”
Ron Davis, today the drummer in Doc Severinson’s road band, followed Ed Soph (who had returned to the band after LaBarbera) for six months in ’73. “What I learned on Woody’s band was the stuff that you don’t learn in school, like how to hold a big band together and how to keep the customers satisfied. If you go to Berklee or these other colleges, you play jazz charts. But when you get out on the road with a big band like Woody’s, it’s a certain style of playing that you don’t really learn in school. You don’t learn how to really bear down and play really good strong 2 and 4 in school, and a really good, solid beat, so that the band can play off of that. With the band, you’re not really too concerned with the inside stuff with the left hand or mixing up the cymbal beat. At certain times with a big band, you’ve got to really lay it down solid,” he told me. “On ‘Woodchopper’s Ball,’ you can’t play stuff a la Elvin Jones. You’ve got to play the style of ‘Woodchopper’s Ball.’ And that’s with the stick across the snare drum on the fourth beat of every bar. When you play the old things, you have to play in the style they were originally performed in, because that’s what made them what they were.”
Jeff Brillinger, who today freelances in New York, was Herman’s drummer from February ’74 through June ’75. He said that Joe LaBarbera and Ron Davis were major influences on him. He commented, “Woody doesn’t care for the typical big band drummer so much. The Louis Bellson-Buddy Rich kind of drummer would not really make it in Woody’s band. Woody definitely needs somebody capable of a small-group, modern kind of sound, as well as being able to comply with standard big band stuff. Guys like Ron Davis, Joe LaBarbera, and me bring a smallgroup kind of bebop playing to the big band, as opposed to what is thought of as typical big band playing. Ron Davis and Joe LaBarbera before me used small drumsets that are associated with small groups or bebop jazz: 18″ or 20″ bass drums—basically like four-piece drumsets, as opposed to a big bass drum or even double bass drums, or something like that associated with Louis Bellson or Buddy Rich. And the sound of the drums is more of the small-group sound, as opposed to someone who might be like a Buddy Rich fanatic, and copy Buddy’s setup with no tilt on the cymbals and like a heavy 4/4 on the bass drum. That kind of thing just does not make it for Woody. A drummer who’s influenced by Mel Lewis would fit better with Woody than a drummer influenced by Buddy Rich.”
(Many of Herman’s recent drummers told me, as Brillinger did, that they strove to play with a small-group feel when musicians in the band were soloing. John Riley suggested, “It would be a more interactive kind of playing, rather than just being strictly a timekeeper and letting a soloist play on top of that, as the older drummers would do. It would be more of a conversational style.”)
Brillinger started with a basic bebop set featuring an 18″ bass drum, and then moved to a 20″ because he felt he needed more sound. The 20″ bass drum seems to have become the most common on the band in the ’70s and ’80s. Jeff Hamilton initially used a 22″ bass drum when he played with the band in 1977, but switched to a 20″ on his subsequent returns to the band. “You have to be a small-group bebop drummer on the solos,” he said. “There’s a lot of blowing, and the guys don’t want as tubby a sound as the 22″.” Dave Miller has worked quite effectively with a 22″ bass drum in the ’80s, but he noted that he put enough foam padding in it to keep it from being obtrusive. Brillinger added that any article about drumming with Woody Herman should also describe honestly the pressures inherent in the job. “Touring with a band is a very hard life. It’s just incredible traveling dues. You’re on a bus all day, and then getting to a gig, you’re tired and hungry and everything. There isn’t enough time to sleep, eat, and get cleaned up. I remember one European tour we did where we had 21 plane flights in 18 days. You have to be able to play under those conditions, just dragging your suitcase around all the time. And you come into the band without rehearsals. You’ve got to sight-read everything and try to make it swing. And there’s a certain excitement level Woody always wants to maintain,” he noted. He added quietly, “There are always drummers after the gig, too.”
Brillinger was surprised when Herman decided in mid-’75 to replace the band’s entire rhythm section with one from North Texas State University, after hearing the North Texas Band at a jazz festival. So three musicians were suddenly out of the band, and pianist Lyle Mays, bassist Kirby Stewart, and drummer Steve Houghton were in. Houghton told me he figured Herman must have “heard a real cohesiveness in the way that we played as a section.” Houghton added that getting into the Herman band had been his goal ever since the band had played at his high school in 1972. He had met Herman then and had stayed in touch with Herman’s drummer Ed Soph. Houghton named Soph and Joe LaBarbera as two drummers who influenced him most.
“When I was on Woody’s band, at first I was trying things that I’d used in college. I didn’t really have the maturity that you need,” Houghton said. “Mel Lewis pulled me aside in New York one time and straightened me out. He said I wasn’t using enough bass drum; my playing lacked the bottom end. And I was approaching the older tunes like the newer tunes. He suggested that I do a little more research and treat the older tunes more in the older style. It was tremendously valuable advice.” (Mel Lewis told me, “Many of the younger drummers today have a hard time on the older numbers. They can play [Chick Corea’s] ‘Spain,’ but they can’t play ‘Four Brothers.’ “) Houghton went on to play in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s band and then Freddie Hubbard’s band. And like many of Herman’s better drummers, he has returned on occasion to pinch hit with Herman’s band.
Danny D’lmperio, who had studied with Sonny Igoe, handled Herman’s drums from ’76 to ’77, after having done the same for Buddy De Franco’s Glenn Miller Band and Maynard Ferguson’s band. He noted, “Woody didn’t want to hear about sore chops. When players seemed tired or hung over, he would use a gesture of a violin player, as though he were crying for you while playing the violin.” D’lmperio went on to sub for Buddy Rich in Rich’s band, when Rich was sidelined by a heart attack, and then became house drummer at Eddie Condon’s club in New York. Today, he leads his own hardbop group, The Metropolitan Bopera House. Jim Rupp named D’lmperio as one of his strong early influences.
“Woody’s book is, I’d say, the hardest big band book to play,” commented Jeff Hamilton, who joined the band in 1977, after working in the Tommy Dorsey Band and Lionel Hampton’s Band. He has also subbed in the Basie Band and is a member of the L.A. Four today. “It’s the hardest because there are so many styles. You’ve got to play Chick Corea, you’ve got to play a little rock ‘n’ roll, you’ve got to play some funk, you’ve got to play ‘Four Brothers’ from the ’40s, and you’ve got to play ‘I’ve Got News For You’ like Don Lamond did. You’ve got to know all those styles of the band.” He said that, when he joined, he had done his homework. “I knew what Don Lamond did, and I knew what Jake Hanna did. I had loved the band for years. Woody’s band had always been one of my goals, since I was a teenager.”
What had Hamilton picked up from listening to previous Herman drummers? “Davey Tough was just relentless groove. He didn’t have the chops to pull off some of the things that Jake did, but he could swing the band into bad health. What I liked about Don’s playing was that he was just carefree and kind of crazy with his drum fills. It was like bombs dropping. In the middle of a tune, there’d be this chaos for two or four beats. And you wondered if the band was ever going to come in again, but it always did. It was right on the money, and Don always had the time going through his head. Jake kind of put everything together. He did some bomb dropping of his own. He had the technique to do some things that other guys hadn’t been able to do, and the band was swinging. In my eyes, the greatest band Woody had was that one in the early ’60s.”
After Hamilton got comfortable in the driver’s seat, he began bringing the band in on final chords and cutting the musicians off, the way a leader customarily might. And—echoing Sonny Igoe’s recollection from 35 years ago—Hamilton said there were times when Herman expected the drummer to set the pace. For example, when Herman would count off “one, two, three, four” on “La Fiesta,” Hamilton said, “his four beats had nothing to do with the tempo; that was just four beats to get you started. The rhythm section would have to settle in.” But there were limits. Hamilton recalled the night in Seattle when Herman started counting off “Apple Honey” at a medium tempo. “He counted ‘one, two’—and I turned around to Alan Vizzutti, the lead trumpet player, and said, ‘Let’s take it up! Let’s kick it up!’ ” The rhythm section kicked the tempo way up, he recalled. “Woody just stood there in complete shock.” After about 16 bars, Herman walked up to the drums and told Hamilton quietly, “They can’t play it this fast, pal.” The tempo was too fast for Herman to execute his clarinet solo comfortably, too. Hamilton added, “Woody came up to me after the tune and said, ‘Take my tempo tomorrow night on this, alright?’ But he was still okay about it.” Indeed, Hamilton became one of Herman’s preferred drummers. He was with the band six months in ’77 to ’78, but has returned periodically throughout the ’80s.
Hamilton uses a standard four-piece Gretsch set. His 24″ K, which he still plays when he returns to the band, became something of a “band cymbal” for a while, since he loaned it to Paul Johnson, who drummed with Herman for the first three months in ’83, and to Dave Miller, who drummed with Herman, off and on, from late ’83 to ’85.
But not all of Herman’s recent drummers have been Herman aficionados when they joined the band. For example, John Riley, who joined Herman for seven or eight months in 1978 (and has returned on various occasions since, most recently in 1986), had never seen the band and had only heard one album when he was hired. (New drummers are customarily mailed a tape of the Herman band playing its current repertoire, but in Riley’s case, the tape did not reach him until after he had gone to join the band.) “So I went on pretty cold,” he recalled. “Your first night is your audition. You don’t rehearse. You just kind of go, and you have to be able to figure what it’s all about. One difficulty is that a lot of the music is 20, 30, or 40 years old, and the parts have been altered over the years. But a lot of times, you’re reading from the original part. They may have all kinds of pencil markings on them and be kind of tattered, so it’s a little hard to figure out from the part exactly what is required of you. In addition to that, a lot of the tunes will kind of come to a grinding halt, and then there will be a short drum fill and then a chord. But that wasn’t notated on the part. Take a tune like ‘Four Brothers.’ There’s a stop-time section, with the saxophones playing. They’re like trading twos or fours or something. And then they play a couple of bars together. As they finish that, there’s a short drum fill. It doesn’t say this on the music. And then there’s a chord. The hard part, on the first few nights, is getting Woody to have some sense of what you’re going to play, having his confidence that you have some idea of what’s appropriate, and having him have some idea of when you’re finished, so that he can cue the band for the chord. It doesn’t say play a certain type of fill; it doesn’t say anything. I don’t think it even tells you there’s a fill there. And there are a number of charts like that.”
According to Riley, to drum on something as complex as “Suite For A Hot Band,” a 15-minute piece in the Herman repertoire at the time, “you had to have an overall sense of where it was going in order to play it. You couldn’t play it bar by bar.” Riley spent free hours listening to the tape of that number.
Jeff Hirshfield, who drummed for a year in ’79 and ’80, noted that he joined Herman’s Herd after playing in Mose Alison’s blues trio, “which was about as soft a gig as you could play.” He had to learn a different approach, while working with Herman. “Woody wanted the music to really be out front. We used to call it ‘playing in his face.’ He really liked you to play strong. I was doing a good amount of bashing on the band, especially at concerts. I broke a lot of old K’s—some really great cymbals,” he remembered with a laugh.
Today’s Woody Herman drummer has to be ready to play just about anything. If a member of the band comes up with a new chart, be it swing, funk, or reggae, Herman will try it out on a gig. Jim Rupp observed, “You really never know what Woody’s going to call. The book is like four inches thick. He’ll pull a Steely Dan chart, if somebody asks for it. It keeps you on your toes.”
Dave Ratajczak, who played with Herman from 1980-82 and has also periodically returned for brief stints, noted that a drummer in the band today has to compromise, to some degree, in equipment or tuning. If you go for the drum setup and tuning that you consider ideal for the newest funk charts, you’ll find that you won’t be able to swing effectively on the Herman classics. You have to be ready to cover all of the bases, whether you’re playing Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” or a new Steps Ahead tune like “Pools.”
Ratajczak (described by Bill Byrne, Herman’s road manager for the past 20 years, as “one of the best drummers we’ve had”) suggested modestly that Herman probably took a liking to him because he’s “more of a timekeeping drummer than a soloistic kind of drummer.” A busy free-lancer in New York today, Ratajczak was drumming for the soundtrack of the forthcoming film Brighton Beach Memoirs the day I interviewed him.
If Herman likes a drummer, chances are the drummer will be called back to the band for short stints after he’s left the band. Jim Rupp, for example, no longer wants to tour full-time; he’s married and raising a family. But since first touring with the Herman band in 1982 (after drumming with the Glenn Miller band and Maynard Ferguson’s band), he’s been back with the band at least briefly every year since. “Woody will say he’s got an important festival coming up, and he doesn’t want to break in a new drummer right before it or something,” Rupp explained. “Two years ago, somebody left and they had the Monterey Jazz Festival coming up. I agreed to go back for three weeks. The band was so good and it was so much fun that I stayed on for three months.” Rupp cited former Herman drummer John Von Ohlen as a primary influence on his playing. “He’s got that big, wide trough of a groove that you just kind of flop into,” Rupp said.
At the end of 1982, Tim Froncek became the drummer in the Herman band. “It’s an honor,” he said at the time. “The best thing is the caliber of the musicians. Many of them have degrees in music, and they’re top-notch.”
Dave Miller, who drummed with Herman in 1983, ’84, and ’85 (and will be glad to return in the future, if the opportunity arises), commented that young drummers aspiring to get on the Herman band should familiarize themselves with the band as much as possible. Miller began listening to records of big bands such as Maynard Ferguson’s (with whom he was touring when I interviewed him) and Woody Herman’s back in high school. But Miller had never actually seen Herman perform live when he joined the band. And that led to a funny incident.
“My first night on the band, we played ‘Caldonia,’ ” he recalled. “We finished and Woody looked at me; he turned around and said, ‘Catch me.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Catch me!’ So I got up from behind my drums and walked around front, ready to catch him if he fell.” But Herman, who has been performing nightly since he started as a boy singer in vaudeville in 1922, was not concerned about falling. What Herman wanted was for Miller to “catch him” on the drums as he made certain movements, the way a vaudeville pit drummer might instinctively have done. “You see,” Miller explained, “on ‘Caldonia,’ he always does set kicks. He sticks his elbow out, and you’re supposed to hit that with your cymbal. He kicks his foot, and you’re supposed to hit with the bass drum. There are four or five things that he does at the end of ‘Caldonia.’ He wanted me to kick with him, on the drums. It’s a set thing. But when he said, ‘Catch me,’ I walked around front to catch him!”
Miller also encourages would-be Herman drummers to “keep listening to jazz. Don’t just go with the times and just get into rock. Listen to swing music. Woody suggested that I go back and listen to the greats. Davey Tough, Sam Woodyard, and Gus Johnson are some of the people he told me to listen to. I did, and I think it helped. I picked up more of where swing came from. That’s what I got from the band, more than anything—just to really swing.”
And that’s pretty much what Herman’s looking for. He’s not seeking any particular type of drummer—just so long as the drummer swings. In 50 years, he’s seen drummers with widely varied styles all work well with the band. He doesn’t ask new drummers to copy their predecessors on the band. As long as they can keep things cooking, he gives them plenty of freedom.