Herman was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a child Herman worked as a singer in vaudeville, then became a professional saxophone player at age 15. When Isham Jones's band, of which he had been a member, broke up in 1936, he formed his own band, the Woody Herman Orchestra, with some of the other members. This band became known for its orchestrations of the blues and were sometimes billed as "The Band That Plays The Blues". Chief among the more than 50 hits recorded by this band were "Woodchoppers' Ball," "Blue Flame," and "Blues in the Night."
In 1943 Herman renamed the band Woody Herman and his Herd. This band's music was heavily influenced by Duke Ellington. Its lively, swinging arrangements combining bop themes with swing rhythm parts were greatly admired; Igor Stravinsky wrote "Ebony Concerto" for this band. Other pieces for which the band was known include "Caldonia" and "Northwest Passage."
Herman disbanded the Herd in 1946 so he could spend more time with his wife, but in 1947 organized the Second Herd. This band featured a cooler sound, provided by musicians such as Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Serge Chaloff, Gene Ammons, Clark Terry, Lou Levy, Oscar Pettiford, Terry Gibbs, Shelly Manne, and Herbie Steward. Among this band's hits were "Early Autumn," "The Goof and I," and "Four Brothers" (this band was also known as the Four Brothers band).
His many later bands included the Third Herd and the New Thundering Herd. He was known for hiring the best young musicians and using their arrangements. His band's book consequently came to be heavily influenced by rock and roll.
He continued to perform into the 1980s, chiefly because of tax problems created by a band manager in the 1960s. When he became ill and was forced to give up the band, the Internal Revenue Service seized his assets, including his home.