Wall Street Journal
, August 2001
"At long last, Naxos, a classical label with a new Naxos Jazz Legends line of astutely selected reissues (Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet, Teddy Wilson), has restored that sound I heard so long ago on 'Woody Herman: The Band That Plays the Blues (1937-1941).' With all respect to the boisterous later Herds, these jazzmen created, for nine years, the most abidingly satisfying Woody Herman recordings...
Woody stuck with it, regenerated by the large, continuous record sales of his theme, 'Woodchopper's Ball.' The band didn't play only blues, but those of his original Decca recordings represented on this Naxos set gave the band its identity.
Woody, a clarinetist, alto saxophonist and singer, had come out of the popular Isham Jones orchestra, a band that definitely did not play the blues. On his own, Woody assembled players who -- like the Count Basie sidemen -- were not profligate with notes and daring harmonies. Among those letting the music breathe were Joe Bishop on flugelhorn, trumpet player Cappy Lewis, guitarist Hy White, trombonist Neil Reid and drummer Frankie Carlson. It was an ensemble band, with soloists seamlessly emerging over a beat that flowed as naturally as the blues.
As a clarinetist, Woody Herman never provided competition to Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw or the literally inimitable Pee Wee Russell. But his sound was warm and evocatively yearning. When his later bands were composed of daredevils shaped by the boldly new language of Charlie Parker and Gillespie, the leader's clarinet playing was not only dwarfed but often sounded miscast as the fleeter, proudly hip improvisers roared past him...
The Band That Plays the Blues startled many of its admirers, including me, by hiring a woman trumpet player. There were swinging female horn players in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and other all-women bands, and though the more renowned mainstream leaders had girl singers out front, no women played in the brass and reed sections.
Hearing of trumpeter Billie Rogers's arrival in 1941, after these recordings were made, I went to a Woody Herman engagement at a Boston theater -- the band performed before the feature film -- wondering if this chick, the term of the time, could hold her own with these deep swingers. The 22-year-old from Montana, of all places, didn't miss a cue or a beat.
One of the sidemen, embarrassed to be on the same stand with a woman, resigned. This did not seem to faze Rogers. Woody recalled that when the band played five or six theater shows a day, she had more stamina than the rest of the section. Mr. Lees writes that she 'always gave Woody credit for courage in opening the way for other women to follow.' Yet to this day the world-traveling Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra does not have a permanent woman member -- unlike the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington. Jazzwomen demonstrating recently outside Lincoln Center held aloft a sign addressed to women-free ensembles: 'Testosterone is not a musical instrument.' Woody wasn't mentioned...
His death occurred almost exactly 50 years after he had hit his peak. In 1937, the year-old Band That Plays the Blues was challenged by Count Basie's band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Basie and his men were new to the city, but Basie later said, without excuses, 'The only band that ever cut my band was the Woody Herman band' -- swinging the blues."