Buddy Rich: In a Zone of His Own
Woody Herman's many fansand others who may have heard the name but know little else about the manare bound to appreciate Blue Flame, filmmaker / Herman enthusiast Graham Carter's earnest and well-composed homage to one of the twentieth century's most beloved and influential bandleaders. The 110-minute-long documentary, which touches all the bases from Herman's childhood in Milwaukee, WI, to his passing in October 1987, is divided into a dozen chapters, each of which sheds light on Herman's singular talents and larger-than-life personality, epitomized in commentary by some thirty-five friends, colleagues, jazz historians and former sidemen. The picture that emerges is that everyone (who was interviewed) loved and respected Woody not only as a successful bandleader and a warm and generous human being but as a musician as well (among other talents, he had a knack for editing other writers' charts and making them better).
Having paid his dues in bands led by Tom Gerun, Harry Sosnick, Gus Arnheim and Isham Jones, Herman took command of the Jones orchestra when the leader retired in 1936 and remained a bandleader for the rest of his life, more than half a century, somehow managing to keep his various groups (commonly known as "Herds") afloat even when tastes changed and most big bands had been consigned to the dust bin of history. Herman's remarkable staying power is among the themes that runs through the DVD, as even serious health problems toward the end of his life slowed Herman down but failed to stop him. One reason, as he remarked late in life, was that "this [leading a band] is really like a hobby," not like work. That "hobby" began with "The Band That Plays the Blues" (1936-43) and continued through the several Herds (the name was coined by writer George T. Simon), the last one of which was The Young Thundering Herd (1980-86). Although "Blue Flame" was Herman's "official" theme song, he was better known for another composition, Jimmy Giuffre's irrepressible "Four Brothers," which (with Ralph Burns' "Early Autumn") placed the Second Herd at the forefront of late-'40s bands, and Blue Flame opens, appropriately enough, with a concert version of that jazz classic, albeit from an Iowa Public Television broadcast in 1976 (alas, no footage of the original "Brothers"Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, Serge Chaloffis known to exist). Chapter 1, "Road Father," summarizes Woody's years as a leader and his remarkable rapport with musicians of all shapes, sizes and tastes (including drugs and alcohol). Commentary is provided by a number of former sidemen as well as jazz historians Dan Morgenstern and Herb Wong and Al Julian, head of the Woody Herman Society. Trumpeter Bobby Shew sums up the feeling of many sidemen and others in the music business, saying that time spent playing in one of the Herds was like "earning a degree in jazz from the university of Woody Herman; almost as if you'd never played on Woody's band you'd never played anywhere . . ."
Chapter 2, "The Early Years," begins with Herman's birth in Milwaukee and continues through his time as a sideman in various orchestras. After "The Band That Plays the Blues," Woody formed his first Herd in 1944, one that Dr. Wong says "set a standard for other bands" through 1946. One year later, the Second Herd burst on the scene with an all-star lineup playing bop-oriented charts by Giuffre, Burns, Shorty Rogers and others. Still widely acclaimed as the "Four Brothers" band, it was known by some closer to the scene as the "junkies' band." (According to vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, he was one of the few members of the band who was "clean"). Even so, the music the Second Herd produced was second to none. The Second Herd was succeeded by the Third (1950-55), the Fourth (1956-59), the Swingin' Herd (1960-67), the Fusion Herd (1968-79) and finally, the Young Thundering Herd (1980-86). Through it all, Herman remained essentially the same, a genial taskmaster for whom almost everyone wanted to play. Judging from their comments, those who were lucky enough to earn a place in one (or more) of Woody's bands are still in awe of the man, and one senses that were he still here, many of them would relish a chance to get back on the bus for one more trip with the Road Father.