Leading a group called "The Herd," Herman was one of the most popular of the 1930s and '40s bandleaders.
"At the end of 1944 [...] Woody signed a contract with Columbia records. He said later that he liked the sound the company's engineers got in Liederkrantz Hall in New York City [...]." [Lees 108] Liederkrantz Hall was a "former church and had a very high ceiling." [Lees 108] The Columbia contract coincided with a change in the band's repertoire. The First Herd's music was heavily influenced by Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Its lively, swinging arrangements, combining bop themes with swing rhythm parts, were greatly admired. As of February, 1945 the personnel included Sonny Berman, Pete Candoli, Billy Bauer (later replaced by Chuck Wayne), Ralph Burns, Davey Tough and Flip Phillips. [Lees 109] On February 26, 1945 in New York City, the Woody Herman band recorded "Caldonia". [Clancy 68] "Ralph [Burns] caught Louis Jordan [singing "Caldonia"] in an act and wrote the opening twelve bars and the eight bar tag." [Clancy 68] "But the most amazing thing on the record was a soaring eight bar passage by trumpets near the end." These eight measures have wrongly been attributed to a Dizzy Gillespie solo, but were in fact originally written by Neal Hefti. [Lees 109]
In 1946 the band won Downbeat, Metronome, Billboard and Esquire polls for best band, nominated by their peers in the big band business.[Clancy 90] Along with the high acclaim for their jazz and blues performances, classical composer Igor Stravinsky wrote the Ebony Concerto, one in a series of compositions commissioned by Woody with solo clarinet, for this band. Woody Herman would record this work in the Belock Recording Studio at Bayside New York in 1959, and released in January 1959 as SDBR 3009. The recording has been released on a CD by Everest EVC 9049.
Woody Herman said about the Concerto: "What we were doing then, the First Herd [...] were heavy, strong, jazz things, with lots of open brass and so forth [...]. [...] [Ebony Concerto is a] very delicate and a very sad piece." [Clancy 88] Stravinsky felt that the jazz musicians would have a hard time with the various time signatures. Saxophonist Flip Philips said "during the rehearsal [...] there was a passage I had to play there and I was playing it soft, and Stravinsky said 'Play it, here I am!' and I blew it louder and he threw me a kiss!'" [Clancy 89] Ebony Concerto opened March 25, 1946 at Carnegie Hall.
Despite the Carnegie Hall success and other triumphs, Herman was forced to disband the orchestra in 1946 at the height of its success. This was his only financially successful band; he left it to spend more time with his wife and family. During this time, he and his family had just moved into the former Hollywood home of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. One reason Herman may have disbanded was his wife Charlotte's growing problems with alcoholism and pill addiction. "[After Woody Herman broke up his band] Charlotte joined Alcoholics Anonymous. [...] Charlotte gave up even wine[...].[...] Woody said, laughing, 'I went to an AA meeting with Charlotte and my old band was sitting there.'" [Lees 147] Many critics cite December of 1946 as the actual date the big band era ended and eight other bands in addition to Herman's, called it quits. [Lees 147]
Herman's other bands include the Third Herd (1950–1956) and various editions of the New Thundering Herd (1959–1987). In the 1950s, the Third Herd went on a successful European tour. [Clancy 192] He was known for hiring the best young musicians and using their arrangements. His band's book in the sixties consequently came to be heavily influenced by rock and roll. [Clancy 275] "In 1968 Woody started to use an electronic rhythm section with electric piano and bass, combined with the traditional big band instrumentation [...] producing the fusion of a rock beat with the timbre of horns." [Clancy 271] He was also known too feature brass and woodwind instruments not traditionally associated with jazz, such as the bassoon, oboe or French horn.
In 1974, Woody Herman and his "Young Thundering Herd" appeared with Frank Sinatra for his television special The Main Event and subsequent album, The Main Event – Live. Both were recorded on October 13 1974 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. [Clancy 291] On November 20, 1976, a reconstituted Woody Herman band played at Carnegie Hall in New York City, celebrating Herman's fortieth anniversary as a bandleader. [Clancy 299] By the 1980s, Herman had returned to straight forward jazz, dropping some of the newer rock and fusion approaches. [Clancy 312-313] Circa 1980, Woody Herman signed a recording contract with Concord Records, now the Concord Music Group. [Wilson, 1981] On March 15, 1981, John S. Wilson wrote in The New York Times of one of Herman's first Concord recordings "Woody Herman Presents a Concord Jam, Vol. I": "[This recording] takes him back to the days before his high pressure First Herd of 1944 and 1945, to the more relaxed feeling of his original band of the late 1930s, 'the band that plays the blues [...]."
Before his death in 1987 he delegated most of his duties to leader of the reed section, Frank Tiberi Tiberi leads the current version of the Woody Herman orchestra. Frank Tiberi said at the time of Herman's death "I wouldn't play anyone else's arrangements [...] We're going to remain with what [Woody Herman] was doing." [Clancy 397] Woody Herman's funeral and "Requiem Mass, conducted by Monsignor George J. Parnassus, began at 10 am on the morning of November 2, 1987 at St. Victor's Catholic Church, in West Hollywood [California] [...]." [Lees 368]
Concord Music Group's website mentions these awards won by the various Woody Herman orchestras: "Voted best swing band in 1945 Down Beat poll; Silver Award by critics in 1946 and 1947 Esquire polls; won Metronome poll, band division, 1946 and 1953; won NARAS Grammy Award for Encore as best big band jazz album of 1963; won NARAS Grammy Award for Giant Steps as best big band jazz album of 1973." Woody Herman was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987