Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Woody Herman and the Sweetwind

By 1945, Woody Herman had one of the most popular big bands in the country, particularly among younger, more jazz-oriented listeners. The band was brash, fiery, and given to fast tempos. It was full of exciting soloists (Flip Phillips, Bill Harris, Pete Candoli, etc.) and was sparked by an excellent rhythm section: Ralph Burns on piano, guitarist Billy Bauer, the ebullient Chubby Jackson on bass, and veteran drummer Dave Tough, who was replaced toward the end of the year by Don Lamond. It was a band full of virtuosos, and they played with a "modern," forward-looking attitude. The band's abilities and progressive style even caught the attention of Igor Stravinsky, who composed Ebony Concerto for them, even stealing a brass lick from the band's recording of "Goosey Gander."

But paying a band full of stars wasn't cheap, and Herman was not in a position to turn down any sources of revenue that became available. So in 1945 or 1946, he endorsed the Sweetwind, a cheap plastic instrument
of the type usually known as flutophone or song flute. The Sweetwind was a far cry from being the "exact copy of Woody Herman's Celebrated Clarinet," as an ad in the November, 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics claimed it to be. But I imagine that a lot of kids shelled out the two bucks and pretended that they were famous bandleaders like Woody.

To promote the instrument, the Pioneer Musicial Instrument Company of Chicago, the manufacturers of the Sweetwind, issued two promotional records. The recordings were made in Chicago sometime in 1946, possibly in May, when the Herd (as the band was known) was in residence in that city. Herman was under contract to Columbia at the time, and I suspect that the records were made in Columbia's Chicago studios, or at least pressed by them; the distinctive script typeface of the matrix numbers stamped into the dead wax matches that of other Columbia records of the time.

The records are credited to Woody Herman and his Wood Choppers, but Herman is nowhere to be found on these four sides. The demonstration of the Sweetwind's capabilities is left in the hands of Flip Phillips; he is credited on the labels as playing "Sweetwind & tenor sax," but there is no saxophone on the records - just
Phillips' Sweetwind accompanied by the rhythm section. There is what sounds like a jazz head arrangement, "Sweet Wind Stomp," the Herd's closing theme, "Blue Flame," and two sides of music that were probably chosen because they were in the public domain, "Mighty Like a Rose" and "Folk Medley."

The records reveal the Sweetwind to be what it was: a toy. Phillips couldn't have been enamored of the instrument's impoverished sound. And the instrument was apparently difficult to play in tune, as are most such plastic flutes. But Flip does a decent job, considering the limitations of the instrument. And the two records provide a rare and fascinating glimpse of the Herman band's activities at the time, and of course, give us four more recorded examples of one of jazz's great rhythm sections.

Sweet Wind Stomp

Mighty Like a Rose

Folk Medley

Blue Flame


  1. Just picked up this toy at a recycle store today!

  2. Even Nat King Cole got into the act (at 13:10)