With a $1.5 Million Debt to the IRS, Woody Herman Plays on to Pay the Piper

His friends call him “Father Time” these days, and it’s a term of affection that 73-year-old Woody Herman well deserves. He is, after all, the last big name of the Big Band era still working those one-night stands the way Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and the Dorseys did back in the 1930s and ’40s. To mark his 50th year as a bandleader, Herman celebrated with an anniversary concert this summer at the Hollywood Bowl, and to the 11,762 fans out front, the music sounded as good as ever.

Few in the audience, however, knew anything of the downbeat turn Herman’s offstage life has taken. A 20-year battle with the IRS has left him with a tax bill that, thanks to ever-mounting interest and penalties, now exceeds $1.5 million. According to Herman’s friends, it is a debt for which the aging musician bears little blame, but it has cost him everything he owns. Says Leonard Garment, a former Nixon White House counsel who is now trying to help untangle Herman’s problems, “All he’s got left are his clothes, his instruments, his talent and his great contribution to jazz.”

For Herman, that’s almost enough. “Music is what keeps me going, and when I’m working I’m a happy guy,” he says. “But I’d like to have a justifiable settlement with the IRS so that for my last remaining breaths the heat would be off. Once they have you, they have no pity. I keep paying and paying and nothing changes.”

According to pianist Nat Pierce, Herman’s former arranger, the bandleader’s tax problems are the result of his priorities. “Woody always put the music first and let other people handle the business,” says Pierce. Adds music publisher Lou Levy, a longtime friend: “He could cherry pick the best arrangers, the best trombone and sax players, but Woody never picked a good business manager.”

One of the men Herman chose to keep the band’s books was the late Abe Turchen, whom Herman’s associates now blame for much of his troubles. The two met toward the end of the Second World War when Herman’s band, the Thundering Herd, was playing in Sioux City, Iowa. A local vet and a band groupie, Turchen was “an immediate fixer who left you with wonderment as he did the impossible,” says Herman. When no one else could get a car during those years, Turchen had a new one, plus all the gas he could use. If transportation was needed, Abe jumped in as chauffeur. Later, he followed the Herd out to California and Herman hired him as manager. “He was a charmer,” says retired bandleader Charlie Barnet. “And everyone thought he was good for Woody as a manager ’cause he always found bookings when there weren’t any around.”

During Herman’s boom years in the 1940s a team of New York lawyers and accountants managed the finances. As the Big Band era waned and the Herd fell on hard times, Turchen, a notorious gambler, took over the bookkeeping. Then, in the late ’60s, the IRS came after Herman, claiming he had not filed personal returns from 1964 through 1966. The government calculated that he owed more than $800,000 in back taxes plus $360,000 in penalties and interest. Herman says he was shocked that Turchen hadn’t filed his returns and even more astounded by the figures. Those had been lean years and, he says, “Financially, the band was just hanging on. We were roaming the wilds, scraping the bottom of the barrel just to come up with booking dates.”

Turchen insisted that Uncle Sam had it all wrong, says Herman, but when the bookkeeper was asked for the ledgers, he claimed they had disappeared from his car. Fired in 1968, he was later arrested for passing bad checks. “His gambling finally devoured him,” says Herman, who still refuses to place any blame. “I knew he was a professional con man and a gambler, but I liked Abe and allowed him to do the job. So it must be my fault. I’m guilty of trusting people I shouldn’t have trusted.”

Herman believes that the IRS estimated a tax bill which was based on earnings from his peak years, when he pulled in more than $1 million annually. Because the band wasn’t incorporated, the Herd’s gross was computed as personal income, making the burden even greater. Then, to compound the problem, the band’s payroll taxes from October 1969 to September 1973 went unpaid amid all the financial turmoil, thus putting Herman in hock for another $400,000.

In the years that followed, he barely kept one step ahead of disaster. “Every place I went I had to make deals to keep the government off my back,” he says. “I had to take money off the top of each booking to pay the IRS. But all we were doing was buying time.”

Although he won two Grammys during the 1970s, Herman’s problems mounted. A New Orleans jazz club, opened in 1981 as a home base, collapsed within a year. Then, days later, his wife of 45 years died. In 1984 the IRS placed a levy on the Hollywood home that he had bought in 1946 from Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and the house was soon auctioned off. “The IRS massacred him,” says saxophonist Frank Tiberi, who has been with the band 17 years. “I never saw him in such pain.”

When Herman refused their proffered loans, friends began writing letters to Washington. Eventually attorney Garment, who had filled in for a few weeks with Herman’s Herd in 1944 as an aspiring saxophonist, took up the cause. “I didn’t make it as a musician,” says Garment, “but those weeks were the high point of my life, more than working for the White House.” Garment has since enlisted New York Senator and jazz buff Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other legislators, hoping to engineer some help from Congress.

Herman recently released a new LP to celebrate his 50th anniversary tour, but his royalties, as always, will go straight to the IRS. He’s resigned to that, but not surrendering. Sounding like the old-time bandman that he is, he vows: “I will go down swinging.”

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