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Woody Herman At 100: 'A Blues Player From His Heart'

Woody Herman in 1946.
William Gottlieb
The Library of Congress/Flickr
Woody Herman in 1946.

Woody Herman was one of the premier bandleaders in jazz, saxophonist Joe Lovano says.

"He didn't have the same chops and virtuosic approach like Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, but he told a deep story," says Lovano, who played with Herman early in his career. "He was a blues player from his heart, and really had a beautiful voice on alto saxophone."

Born in 1913, Herman would have turned 100 on Thursday. Over the course of a long career, the reedman explored many of the styles of 20th-century jazz, and was one of the first big-band leaders to incorporate melodic lines from bebop.

Herman's bands were generally known as the Herd — later, the Thundering Herd — and featured a tremendous rhythmic drive. His was one of the country's most popular musical acts in the 1940s, and respected enough musically to inspire and introduce an "Ebony Concerto" from Igor Stravinsky. His records from that period remain touchstones and still swing hard. (Well, maybe not the Stravinsky.)

Herman was also an amazing talent scout, giving work to not only countless arrangers, but also an unending roster of strong soloists, including Flip Phillips, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Pete and Conte Candoli, Gene Ammons, Sal Nistico, Frank Tiberi and Dave McKenna.

"He heard all kinds of young players all the time, and was attracted by the modern sounds as different generations developed under him," Lovano says. "He featured cats and let them really be themselves."

Herman performed nearly all of his life. As a child performer on vaudeville, he was known as the Boy Wonder. Later in life, he kept working long after his health started to fail him, as he sought to pay off a never-ending debt to the IRS.

Here are five songs that sound fresh decades down the road, offering just a sample of Woody Herman's many sounds.

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Alan Greenblatt
Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.