Woody Herman - clarinet, alto sax, soprano sax
Frank Vicari - tenor, alto saxophone
Sal Nistico - tenor saxophone
Joe Alexander - tenor saxophone
Ronnie Cuber - baritone saxophone
Robert Yance - trumpet, flute
Bill Hunt - trumpet
Thomas Nygard - trumpet
Bill Byrne - trumpet
David Luell - trumpet
Jules Rowell - trombone
Bobby Burgess - trombone
Joe Marguez - trombone
Melvin Anzo - trombone
Nat Pierce - piano
Carl Pruitt - bass
Ed Soph - drums
Jack Leonard - vocals
Erskine Hawkins - trumpet
Bob Eberly - vocals
One of the last of the great Swing era bandleaders, Woody Herman was a frequent guest over the years at George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival. For the 1968 edition, he made his usual entrance at Freebody Park on big band revival night to the strains of his theme song, "Blue Flame." With renowned radio DJ Andre Baruch (former voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team) acting as master of ceremonies for this nostalgic salute to big bands, Herman and his orchestra pay tribute to some of the leading lights of the Swing era throughout this ebullient set.
They open with an homage to Benny Goodman, kicking it off with the King of Swing's infectious theme song, "Let's Dance," to get things rolling. Next up is Edgar Sampson's "Don't Be That Way," another tune popularized during the golden age of Swing by the Goodman Orchestra. Herman's arrangement is streamlined and swinging and features potent solos by the leader on clarinet and Melvin Anzo on trombone, along with some crackling drumming from Ed Soph. They follow with strains from "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" to introduce a segment in tribute to Tommy Dorsey and follow up with an interpretation of the Swing era trombonist-bandleader's popular "Marie," featuring guest vocalist Jack Leonard.
A tribute to popular Swing era bandleader Glenn Miller begins with a faithful rendition of his soothing theme song, "Moonlight Serenade," which originally hit the top of the U.S. charts in 1939. Next is a sparkling arrangement of "In the Mood," another Miller hit that captured a nation of dancers back in 1939. (It was subsequently covered by everyone from Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and the Andrew Sisters, and more recently by Bette Midler, Chicago and the Brian Setzer Orchestra.) A version of "Tuxedo Junction," another popular Miller dance tune from that peak Swing era year of 1939, features a guest appearance by the co-composer of that lively number, trumpeter Erskine Hawkins. ("Tuxedo Junction" was later covered by groups like The Manhattan Transfer and Joe Jackson's Jumpin Jive.) Hawkins remains on stage to perform a rendition of his 1945 instrumental hit, "Tippin' In," which has Herman exchanging pungent alto lines with the trumpeter.
Big band singer Bob Eberly next takes the stage to deliver a medley of "Amapola" and "Green Eyes," the famous duets he sang with Helen O'Connell during their stint together in Jimmy Dorsey's band of the early 1940s. In paying tribute to his fellow Swing era clarinetist-bandleader Artie Shaw, Herman and his orchestra tackle two challenging Shaw numbers in the somber "Nightmare" and the loping swinger "Summit Ridge Drive," the latter a 1940 hit by Shaw's small group, the Gramercy Five.
Herman and his orchestra conclude their set by showing of some off their newer material, including a churning rendition of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man," a massive hit in 1963 for Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria; a soprano sax showcase for the bandleader on his gorgeous ballad "Free Again" and a driving rendition of Stevie Wonder's soul anthem, "(Uptight) Everything's Alright" that features Nistico stretching out on tenor sax and baritone sax ace Ronnie Cuber contributing a blazing solo before the two engage in some fiery exchanges near the end of this energized closer. As Herman leaves the stage to strains of his 1939 theme song, "Woodchopper's Ball," as George Wein brings this exhilarating big band tribute to a close.
Milwaukee native Woody Herman (born May 16, 1913) began performing as a child, billed as "The Boy Wonder of the Clarinet." He picked up the alto saxophone at age 11 and by age 15 was playing professionally around Milwaukee. Following a year of studies at Marquette University, Herman moved to California and joined a band led by Tom Gerun. His big break came in 1934 when he joined the Isham Jones Orchestra and two years later inherited the core of that big band when Jones decided to retire. The Woody Herman Orchestra was a favorite of dancers and jazz connoisseurs alike for its lively blues-oriented swing fare. Known as "The Band That Plays The Blues" for its intricate and dynamic arrangements of blues numbers (which Herman also often sang), Herman's group became one of the powerhouse aggregations to come out of the Swing Era. The band's 1939 recording of the instrumental "At the Woodchopper's Ball" became its theme song. Herman's Thundering Herd later scored a hit in 1945 with a big band arrangement of Louis Jordan's "Caldonia." In 1946, Herman disbanded the group and formed his Second Herd, which featured the formidable saxophone section of tenorists Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward and baritone sax ace Serge Chaloff. Together they were the Four Brothers, a tag that stuck in the wake of the popular tune by the same name written as a showcase for them by fellow band member Jimmy Giuffre. In 1946, that Herman lineup won polls for best band in Down Beat, Metronome, Billboard and Esquire magazines. That same year, Herman's band performed Ebony Concerto, a commissioned work by classical composer Igor Stravinsky, at Carnegie Hall.
A lifelong road warrior, Herman kept his band touring through the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, recording for the RCA, Capitol, MGM and Verve labels. By the late '60s, acknowledging the burgeoning rock scene, he began interpreting popular material like the Doors' "Light My Fire" (title track of a 1968 album) and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Proud Mary" (on 1971's Brand New, which also featured blues-rock guitarist Mike Bloomfield). And in 1978, he recorded an album of tunes by Chick Corea and Steely Dan founders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Herman celebrated his 40th anniversary as a leader with a gala Carnegie Hall concert in 1976. He worked into the '80s, finally passing away on October 29, 1987 at the age of 74. He was posthumously awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement later that year. (Milkowski)