Woody Herman’s “practical joker”

November 20th, 2014


Woody Herman


     In the March, 1945 Down Beat, under the headline “Herman’s Is Finest Ofay Swing Band,” Frank Stacy wrote this about Woody Herman and his “Herd.”

     Woody Herman has the greatest ofay band in the country — bar none! That’s what all the band popularity contests said this year and that’s just the way I feel about it. Out of 1,606 swing fans who named the Herman Herd their favorite dispenser of jive in Down Beat‘s annual contest, undoubtedly some (the bobby soxers) cast their votes that way because they go for the snappy corduroy jackets that Woody sports on the stand. Most fans, however, pick Woody’s crew for its crack over-all musicianship, for its up-to-the-minute presentation of advanced big band orchestrations, for Woody’s superior talents as an instrumentalist, singer, showmanly stick-waver, and, above all, for his grasp of the right band ideas.

     In addition to the band’s excellence that Stacy opines on, the band was filled with interesting and humorous personalities — among them the pot head (bassist Chubby Jackson) and the practical joker (trombonist Bill Harris). Check out this story about one of Harris’s best “jokes,” excerpted from Leader of the Band: The Life of Woody Herman, by Gene Lees:

     Despite a professorial mien, Bill Harris was one of the more famous practical jokers in jazz. “Like,” Woody said, “Bill Harris and Red Norvo borrowed a couple of life-sized dummies from some girl dancers that worked with these dummies. And they had them dressed in band uniforms.

     “And Bill was more drastic in humor than Red, I think, and Bill would keep his dummy in the car with him. Whoever drove with him would have to ride three in the front seat, with the dummy in the middle. We reached the high point when we opened Tommy Dorsey’s place on the beach in Santa Monica, the Casino Gardens. And all of a sudden I realized that we had four trombones, and the dummy was playing fourth trombone. And then all night Bill was arguing with him. Every time there was two bars out, here was Bill having a terrible beef with this dummy. It just held the trombone all night. Bill said, ‘Man, come in when I tell you!'”

     Flip Phillips said, “When the trombone section would get to play, Bill would kick the dummy and say, ‘Get up, get up!’ It would just there.

     “But the big story with that dummy, I was part of. We were in Detroit, and Bill and I were on the fifteenth floor of the hotel, holding the dummy in a window. The dummy was trying to commit suicide. And Sonny Berman was down on the street. The street filled up with people. Yelling, ‘Stop, don’t do it!’ We were holding him back.

     “Well, we threw him out the window. You should have heard the screams. When he came down ‘Bam!’ Sonny Berman picked him up and took him into the hotel. The fire department came, the police came, and we split.’

     “That band did crazy things like that.”

     Chubby Jackson said Bill Harris was incapable of walking by a novelty store without entering and emerging with a dribble glass, disappearing ink, a squirting flower, a rubber chicken, or worse. Chubby Jackson would laugh helplessly during the most passionate Harris ballad performances. What the audience couldn’t see, when Harris was turned profile to them, was that while the side of his face they could see was perfectly serious, the other side, which Chubby could see, was performing maniacal grimaces, with Bill’s left eye rolling madly. When he would take a breath, he would stick his tongue out of the left side of his mouth at Chubby.

     Harris found some instrument maker or repairman to make him a right-angle crook to fit between his mouthpiece and his horn. He would slip this thing into place as he walked downstage to the microphone for a solo and then play with his horn angled from his right side. Woody, with his back to the audience and to Harris as he conducted, couldn’t understand the audience reaction, and when he looked, he couldn’t understand how Harris was playing the horn sideways.

     Harris told Eddie Bert, who was in the section with him, that he wanted to have these crooks made for all the trombones, but he never did. Woody not only tolerated these antic dispositions but actively encouraged them, sometimes as instigator, sometimes participant. In a theater in Passaic, New Jersey, the band worked with a slapstick comic named Don Rice. Rice worked with water props. He would say “Spitome” and someone would throw a bucket of water in his face. “Well, in the closing show,” Woody said, “it got into a water fight, which ended up that I had the fire hoses out on the stage. And I think we had to give them about two thousand dollars for breakage. But was worth it. P.S. We never played that theater in Passaic again.”



Excerpted from Leader of the Band:  The Life of Woody Herman

by Gene Lees


A short clip of Woody Herman’s Herd, 1945

A musical short of Herman from 1938

“Pennies From Heaven,” featuring Bill Harris, with Lester Young, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich

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