“Trees” (1937)

“Trees”

Composed by Oscar Rasbach, aranged by Abe (later Glenn) Osser.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on December 23, 1937 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet; directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Sonny Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The story: On December 23, 1937, Bunny  Berigan led his bandsmen into Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street studios in Manhattan. The last time they had been there was on October 7, before they went on a tour of the major theaters and ballrooms of the eastern U.S. Despite fine trumpeting by Bunny, that session, as directed by Victor’s self-styled hit-maker Eli Oberstein,  produced only four forgettable pop tunes with vocals. This session, which began at 1:00 p.m., ran until 5:30,  produced five instrumentals, something that was virtually unheard of in the swing era. All of the performances recorded that afternoon are good, and a couple of them, including”Trees,” are more than that.

It would seem that the vintage tune “Trees” (written in 1922 by Oscar Rasbach as a melody for the poem previously written by Joyce Kilmer while he was serving in France during World War I, shortly before he was killed in action), was a rather odd choice as a vehicle for the dramatic and expressive Berigan trumpet. Nevertheless, with this recording, Bunny utterly transformed it into one of the essential performances not only of his career, but of the entire swing era.

The music: The arrangement  here, written by Abe Osser, is open and airy, and is taken at a perfect dance tempo. It provides an ideal showcase for Bunny’s unique talents as both a first trumpeter and as a jazz soloist. Joe Dixon on clarinet leads the reeds, which play the background figures while Berigan leads the cup-muted brass, which carry the melody through the first twenty-four bars. Bunny’s very personal sound, phrasing, and expressive vibrato utterly permeate and define the sound of the brass choir: no one else could ever play this music in precisely this way. When Dixon switches to alto saxophone, the four-man sax team steps out for sixteen bars of its own superb melodic playing under the supple lead of Mike Doty’s first alto, with the still muted brass punctuating behind them. At about bar 10 of this chorus, the brass are suddenly open, and warm; they then finish the chorus with eight glistening bars of melody. The saxes modulate into Berigan’s iconic open trumpet solo. The late jazz trumpeter and writer Richard M. Sudhalter, who knew what playing the trumpet was all about, explained what happened next:

“He chooses the trumpet’s lowest register to begin a solo that after many hearings seems less an improvisation than a commentary on both Kilmer’s poem and (Rasbach’s) melody. Especially poignant is a drop to his F sharp (concert E) in bar six, followed by a low F (concert E flat), a note not actually on the horn, but which Bunny ‘lips’ into being. A magnificent upward sweep to his high B flat and he sings out a legato passage in his horn’s highest register, culminating a clarion high F—all with no diminution of power or tonal breadth. He lets Lipkins carry things for four bars, then returns to play his own strong, sure lead, bearing the performance into immortality.”[i]

I have played this recording for many trumpeters, and have discerned a consensus in their reactions to it. That consensus can be summarized in the statement I heard more than once: “Man, there’s a lot going on when he plays.” It has taken me a long time to begin to understand what that means. Berigan did not just play notes on his trumpet, he shaped them, he sculpted them. He used a wide assortment of musical devices including: glissandi, slurs, scoops, rips, growls, half-valve effects, and lip vibrato. These techniques most often resulted in deeply expressive playing by Berigan. The downside of using them was that each of them held pitfalls that could result in missed or cracked notes. Berigan did the cost/benefit analysis, and usually opted to keep using theses expressive techniques. As singer and pocket comb (covered with tissue paper) virtuoso Red McKenzie, who worked with Bunny often in the mid-1930s said: “If that man wasn’t such a gambler, everybody would say he was the greatest that ever blew. But he’s got such nerve, and likes his horn so much that he’ll go ahead and try stuff that nobody else would ever think of trying.”

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, NYC. Few white bands were invited to play there because of their lack of swing. Berigan played there a number of times, always to great acclaim.

Usually, the best judges of any human endeavor are those who do the same thing professionally. Fellow trumpeters made no secret of their opinions about Bunny’s trumpeting. Louis Armstrong’s admiration for Berigan’s playing is well-known. Harry James, one of the greatest trumpet virtuosos who ever lived, was also deeply affected by Bunny’s playing. When James first arrived in New York in 1936, he couldn’t wait to go the the Famous Door, a small jazz club on West 52nd Street, to hear Bunny. After he heard Berigan play, he confided to a companion: “this is the greatest living trumpet player.” A little later, after James had become the star of Benny Goodman’s 1937-1938 band, he raced up to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem after the Goodman band had finished work for the night to catch the battle of music between Berigan’s band and that of Erskine Hawkins, another fine trumpeter who specialized in high-note playing.  Berigan’s guitarist then, Dick Wharton recalled: “(Harry stood) only a few feet in front of the bandstand to hear Bunny. He stood there set after set.”  Trumpet virtuoso Mannie Klein, perhaps the most recorded trumpeter in history, met Berigan in the radio and recording studios of Manhattan in the early 1930s, and performed with him many times. Indeed, Klein substituted for the workaholic Berigan often because Bunny’s services were in such high demand. His opinion: “You didn’t know sometimes if he was going to show up for a session. But when he did show up–well, nobody played with the balls and the beat he did.” (*)

This performance is obviously a tour de force in the technical sense, but more than that, it is a magnificent, passionately made musical statement. The emotional and musical content of Berigan’s playing here is so powerful that the technical wizardry is all but completely subsumed by it. All in a day’s work, I guess—if you are Bunny Berigan.

[i] Liner notes—The Complete Bunny Berigan, Vol. 2 (1986); RCA/BMG Bluebird 5657-1-RB, by Richard M. Sudhalter.

(*) Lost Chords…White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz 1915-1945, by Richard M. Sudhalter, Oxford University Press (1999), page 496.

The Bunny Berigan band that made the recording of “Trees” is shown here in a photo from the fall of 1937. L-R: Joe Lippman, piano; back: Sonny Lee and Al George, trombones; George Wettling, drums; Steve Lipkins, trumpet; Hank Wayland, bass; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Tommy Morgan, guitar; front: Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty, Clyde Rounds, reeds; Berigan stands at right.

NOTE: Bunny Berigan died on June 2, 1942, 75 years ago, at age thirty-three.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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