Leader of the Band

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

THE LEADER OF THE BAND is not only the story of a man but the chronicle of a glorious but brief era in jazz that began in the Great Depression of the 1930’s and succumbed in the early 1950’s to television, closed ballrooms, and the decline of “live” radio “remotes.” No one died harder as a big-band-era leader, jazz clarinetist, and vocalist than the Milwaukee-reared Woody Herman, who was born Woodrow Charles Thomas Herrmann to a Polish-American mother and a German father in 1913. His career-long struggle against a gambling addicted manager, IRS agents who hounded him to the day of his death, and the explosion of rock music (to which he tried futilely to adjust) stands as a monument to the committed life.

What emerges from jazz aficionado Gene Lees’s book is a sense that Woody Herman’s devotion to the best in jazz was surpassed only by his extraordinary loyalty to his fellow musicians. This four- hundred-page book provides rich variations on a single theme sounded by scores of them: “Woody Herman got me through a very rough time in my life.”

The reader follows Woody’s rise to prominence in the 1930’s as leader of “the band that plays the blues,” when he quickly earned the love and respect of his peers. Lees illumines Herman’s great success between 1945 and 1950, when bebop rapidly developed, revealing how Herman successfully made the transition with bands that became famous as Herman’s “First Herd” and...

(The entire section is 409 words.)