The Troy Street Observer

Woody Herman’s Boston Connection

Woody Herman kicked off 1956 by bringing his brand-new Herd to Storyville on January 2 for one week. The band was originally scheduled for the Hi-Hat the previous month, but a two-alarm fire closed that club the day Herman was to open. Knowing Woody was always a good draw in Boston, George Wein hired the new band, sound unheard.

Photo of Woody Herman
Woody, early 1960s. Sure looks like Phil Wilson behind him.

This was a new Herd, organized in late 1955. The Hi-Hat job might have been the band’s debut, but instead that honor went to a Philadelphia location. If we were counting, we could call this the “Fourth Herd,” but Herman was done counting. It included a few Third Herd carryovers alongside the new crew, and among those on the bandstand in Boston were saxophonist Richie Kamuca, bass trumpeter Cy Touff, trombonist Wayne Andre, pianist Vince Guaraldi, and vibist Victor Feldman. The one man with a Boston connection was trumpeter Dud Harvey. Coming Herman bands would have more.

Woody Herman’s connection to Boston started in spring 1938, when he worked four weeks at the Raymor Ballroom on Huntington Ave. He was back for four more weeks in fall 1938, and for four more early in 1939. In and around these dates, Herman’s “Band That Plays the Blues” had their big break at the Famous Door in New York. But like the Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller bands, Herman’s band mastered its book and its sound while working in Boston.

Herman often played Boston in the 1940s, the years when he started featuring Boston musicians. Vocalist Frances Wayne sang with the First Herd, and pianist/arranger Ralph Burns did much to define that band’s distinctive sound.

Burns continued as an arranger for the late-forties Second Herd, which included the gifted baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, the band’s bad boy. Tired of Chaloff’s junkie antics, Herman wanted to fire him, but Serge threw his baritone parts into the Charles River one night at Nuttings in Waltham, and Herman had to keep him while the baritone parts were being recopied. Chaloff’s behavior so angered Herman that he confessed to pissing on Chaloff’s leg in a crowded bar.

The Third Herd introduced more Bostonians. Dave McKenna, trumpeters Ray Caton and Nick Capezuto, bassist Frank Gallagher, drummer Dave MacDonald, tenor saxophonist Art Pirie, and trombonist Everett Longstreth all spent time with this early/mid 1950s Herd. But the most important contributor was pianist and arranger Nat Pierce, who replaced McKenna in 1951 and remained until 1955. He returned for five more years in 1961.

The 1957 Herd included saxophonists Jay Migliori and Jimmy Mosher, and drummer Jake Hanna. Dick Wetmore, doubling on cornet and violin, worked with Woody in a small group in Las Vegas in 1958.

For the 1959 iteration of the Herd, Herman hired trumpeters Bill Chase and Paul Fontaine, and  trombonist Joe Ciavardone.

In the 1960s, Herman relied heavily on Boston players, and especially Berklee players, to fill out his band. He called the early ‘60s band  “The Swingin’ Herd,” but it may as well have been called “The Boston Herd.” Comings and goings were frequent, and my list is probably incomplete, but between 1960 and 1965 Herman’s band included:

  • Trumpet: Fontaine, Chase, Gerry Lamy, Dave Gale, Danny Nolan, Dusko Goykovich
  • Trombone: Phil Wilson, Bob Rudolph, Eddie Morgan, Kenny Wenzel
  • Saxophone: Gordon Brisker, Larry Cavelli, Jack Stevens, Frank Hittner, Andy McGhee, Dave Figg, Jimmy Derba, Tom Anastas
  • Rhythm: Nat Pierce, Chuck Andrus, Jake Hanna
  • Arrangers: Pierce especially, but also Chase and Goykovich

These bands made some very good records, for example the Grammy-winning Woody Herman 1963 (Philips PHS 600-065), Woody’s Big Band Goodies (Philips PHS 600-171), and Woody’s Winners (Columbia CL 2436). The Philips LPs are currently available in a Mosaic Select set (MS-031).

The Swingin’ Herd was one of Herman’s best bands, and he never reached those heights again. His later bands continued to rely on musicians coming out of the Boston schools, and we’ll look into those in a later post.

Here’s a high-quality video of “Lonesome Old Town” with Phil Wilson soloing.

And here is “23 Red,” from the 1965 LP Woody’s Winners. It’s Bill Chase’s arrangement, and he leads the trumpet charge:

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