Woody Herman made a familiar gesture the night I took a couple of young musicians to hear him and his band about 30 years after I first heard him at their age. He said the next number would be ``Woodchopper's Ball'' - ``which we first played in 19...'' - and then he rubbed his hand across his mouth so the actual antediluvian year could not be heard. It was just a little gag to pretend he wouldn't admit to going back that far. But as he swung on to the half-century mark as a band leader, I saw him rub away the years several more times - why retire a good gag? - and in a way it was more truth than show biz. When Woody Herman died last week, the tributes all noted that he had moved with or ahead of the times. He played the old favorites (often with a startling harmonic or rhythmic twist) but constantly tried the new sounds of popular music and turned them into jazz.
Small wonder that Boston had a standing-room-only benefit concert for Woody during the past weeks when financial distress was added to health problems. On the bandstand were Herman alumni like saxophonist Andy McGhee and trombonist Phil Wilson, who are passing along their talents as teachers at the Berklee College of Music. Their presence hinted at the hundreds of musicians who appeared in his bands and then went on to their own careers, using what they had learned. Small wonder that a galaxy of celebrities turned out for a more recent benefit in Los Angeles.
And, to consult the next generation, it's hardly surprising that a young listener at a Philadelphia benefit says she was blown away by the latest Herman ``Thundering Herd,'' traveling without the man known as ``Road Father'' for shepherding them night after night across the land.
Of all the leaders from the burst of big-band energy in the 1930s and '40s, Herman was the last to persist in holding a band together on the road. There are leaders from those days still making music - Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, for example - but they don't always have those 16 or so instruments shouting behind them now.
Woody rarely took an intermission, making sheer style do for virtuosity on the clarinet, singing a tender ballad with unexpected grace. Keeper of the flame. Or maybe keeper of the ``Blue Flame,'' the title of that theme song that began with the slow tom-toms before the curtain opened. ``And now ... the Band That Plays the Blues playing - `Blue Flame'!'' For certain people at a certain age, such a moment with a big blazing band was a moment of anticipation unlike any other. Woody Herman seemed always at that certain age, too.