This giant two hour documentary, long overdue, starts with a dynamic Woody Herman big band concert clip from the 70s that drags your ears and eyes right into the TV screen, sets up an emotion of longing, and then unleashes a virtual torrent of top players, producers, arrangers, and critics to tell the Herman story. No segment of the man's long illustrious career is left untouched and probably the most basic foundation emerges early: Woody Herman, as Dr. Herb Wong puts it, was a Humanist—he cared, he loved great music, he touted and made many players, and he always gave the crowd what they wanted and a good deal more besides.
Another interesting point is made almost right off the bat: where Ellington and others were crafting complicated modernizing elements into their repertoires, Herman was a straight ahead bop player and, once he established himself after a bop swing blues period, never really deviated. It was his raison d'être. His swingin' style wasn't just the energetic mode still so favored by many, it was also crammed with improv, solos, and a wealth of intelligent ingredients from the ground up. Along the way, a trove of anecdotes is unveiled, from Herman himself over the years and from the people who surrounded him or watched avidly from the near sidelines.
Woody was considered something of a prodigy at the precocious age of 8 and well into acting, singing, and playing musical instruments long before adulthood. As he joined big bands in teen years and early adulthood, the man quickly rose to acclaim, and when Isham Jones, his last employer, retired to run a chicken ranch, Herman founded what was one day to be his Herd from Jone's core constituents. As WWII came on and men were drafted en masse, it was tough to keep the band together, but Woody persevered. However, one single guy can only do so much, so the leader of the pack hired great writers and arrangers, building up repertoire. Nonetheless, everyone agrees on this point: Ralph Burns was Herman's true backbone. Somewhere along the line, even Igor Stravinsky caught wind of Herman's music, was intrigued, and went so far as to write a piece for and one time conduct the ensemble. How many jazz bands can make a claim like that?
The TV clips here are priceless, taking us back to the old era of Ozzie 'n Harriett days, b&w elder years, and then Ed Sullivan and later celebrity. Terri Gibbs relates how he and Stan Getz, who was a cocky sonofabitch, would hector Herman to choose certain takes of songs over others, their concern being zeroed in on their own solo performances. But Woody was completely unmovable and would piss 'em off by never giving in to what he knew was wrongheaded. Gibbs now readily admits with a chuckle that Herman was always right. Getz, for all his immense talent, was a troublemaker, and he and a gaggle of top dawgz would ride Herman for his chops on clarinet and sax, but the leader was very good at what he did and, no matter what else, possessed that incredible ear, which made all the difference in the world. The so-called 'small traits', it turns out, are never really so small after all, Snarky Stan notwithstanding.
A plethora of complete song performances make this documentary a combination of timeline and concert, so you get double the goodies in one package. Narration is practically non-existent, and thus all attention is focused on the words of the cats who were there and who know the entire lowdown. The drug scene and other dilemmas are covered (and, geez, those supposedly clean-cut jazzbos made the hippies look like teetotalers in comparison! Herman's groups was packed to the rafters with junkies, alcoholics, and addicts), but, when all is said and done, Blue Flame is a good, honest, cheerful, and zesty reminiscence of one of the giants of the time. It can only be hoped that such DVDs will help preserve the story and music for a long long time to come. I can't imagine a future where people are not wowed by swing music.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2012, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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