Berigan at the Paradise Restaurant (1938) “Royal Garden Blues”

This is the first in a series of exciting Berigan recordings taken off the air from radio broadcasts emanating from the Paradise Restaurant, located in the Brill Building in Manhattan, in the spring of 1938. Many more will follow. All have been digitally remastered by me to ensure the best possible sound.

“Royal Garden Blues”

Composed by Spencer and Clarence Williams; probably arranged by Abe Osser.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live at the Paradise Restaurant, New York City on April 3, 1938.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Thomas B. “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; Tom Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland bass; Johnny Blowers, drums. Solos by Bunny Berigan, Georgie Auld and Sonny Lee.

MANHATTAN’S BRILL BUILDING

A JAZZ SHOWCASE AND MUSICAL SHRINE

The story: I am constantly looking for historic buildings that are a part of the fabric of jazz history whenever I am in Manhattan. One building I have been looking for for years has been hiding in plain sight (not exactly) in the Times Square area. I have walked past it dozens of times. It is the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, at 49th. I say “not exactly” because the façades of buildings fronting on Broadway in that area are so overloaded with signs of all sorts, usually comprised of brilliant, blinking lights, that it is hard to discern what building is supporting the signage. The last time I was in New York City, at Thanksgiving of 2014 (I have been back since, thank goodness), I walked right past this building on 49th and Broadway with my son (with whom I stay when I visit, he lives nearby on 51st), and pointed out intuitively and uncertainly that the Paradise Restaurant occupied one of the buildings at that intersection, probably the one on the northwest corner. Being the loving son he is, he did not ask: “what’s so important about the Paradise Restaurant?”  He assumed that if I was making this point, there must be some significance to it, somewhere.

I did not definitively put together the pieces of information lodged in my brain somewhat haphazardly over many decades about the Paradise Restaurant until I read an article in New York magazine (3-24-14 issue) about the Brill Building being “The Hit Factory” of the rock-and-roll era. (Please note: there is also a building in Manhattan called “The Hit Factory.” It is located at 421 West 54th, and is a recording space.)  Oddly, the picture of the Brill Building used in the article was one from the 1930s, which included a prominent sign on the building for the Paradise Restaurant. A Eureka! moment ensued for yours truly: the Paradise Restaurant was located in the Brill Building, which is still located at 1619 Broadway. Given that basic fact, I began researching the history of the Brill Building. That led naturally to the series of jazz showcases that were housed in the same space on the second floor of that building from the early 1930s into the 1950s.

Please don’t think me too obtuse in putting this together rather slowly. In all of the research I have done over the years about various jazz-related venues that occupied the space initially occupied by the Paradise Restaurant at 49th and Broadway, I have never seen anything that indicated that that space was in the Brill Building.

Here is a little background about the Brill Building. It was built in 1930-31, is 11 stories tall and occupies the northwest corner of 49th and Broadway. It was named for the Brill brothers, Samuel, Max and Maurice, who operated a chain of clothing stores in New York City for many years prior to the 1930s. They were the lessors of the real estate upon which the building was erected by developer Abraham Lefcourt. Lefcourt was wiped-out by the Depression and defaulted on his obligations to the Brill brothers. Consequently, they took over the building. Lefcourt died in 1932, at about the time the building was first being occupied by tenants.

There are two curious niches in the Broadway façade of the Brill Building: one at the top of the ornate main entrance on Broadway (pictured at left), and one on the exterior of the 11th floor penthouse.  Each niche contains the bust of a young man, said to be the son of Abraham Lefcourt, Alan, who died in February 1930 at age 18. The bust above the entrance door is significantly smaller than the one near the top of the building’s façade.

The vast second floor “loft” (Manhattan jargon for a large open space in a building) was initially leased to the Paradise Restaurant, which would become a popular cabaret during the balance of the 1930s. Reached by stairs located directly left of the Broadway entrance, it covered approximately 15,000 square feet and held as many as a thousand people. Planned by the celebrated architect and interior designer Joseph Urban, the cost of its construction was estimated at $500,000 (about $7.5 million today).  Large exterior signs, obscuring the second-floor windows and projecting at an angle over the corner, claimed it was “America’s foremost restaurant” with the “world’s most beautiful girls.” Floorshows, sometimes called “Paradise Parades,” were accompanied by such well-known musical performers as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (ten weeks, starting October 13, 1933), Bunny Berigan (seven weeks, starting March 20, 1938), and Glenn Miller (two weeks starting June 14, 1938, and five weeks starting December 23, 1938), whose bands also played for dancing. Aircheck recordings by Berigan and Miller from their engagements at the Paradise exist, and have been released commercially. The Paradise Restaurant was operated by Jack Adler, president and attorney; Nicky Blair, manager; and Nils T. Grantlund, who staged the floor shows.

The Paradise Restaurant closed in late 1939 or early 1940, but reopened as the Hurricane, on April 14, 1940, with “palm trees, tropical flora and fauna” evoking the Pacific Ocean island of Tahiti. Operated briefly by lawyer David J. Wolper (later a producer of documentary and other TV programs), who reportedly received ownership as part of a 1942 financial settlement with a gangster, the Hurricane had a troubled existence, marred by suspicious fires and stench bombs. Duke Ellington headlined at the Hurricane during 1943 and 1944, and some of Ellington’s performances were aired nationally on the Mutual and Columbia Broadcasting Systems. Many aircheck recordings from these broadcasts have been preserved and issued. (Here is one, by Duke Ellington, from Mr. Trumpet’s sister blog swingandbeyond.com)     https://youtu.be/RLqkr3CuMhg

Berigan band at the Paradise Restaurant – spring 1938.  Personnel is as listed above.
Berigan’s portrait graced the cover of Metronome magazine in December of 1937.

Between the time the Berigan band came into existence in early 1937, and the spring of 1938 when it played a lengthy engagement at the Paradise Restaurant, both it and the swing era had picked up a lot of momentum.  In this interim, Bunny and his band made several successful tours of the eastern U.S., played many major theaters, including a three-week engagement at Manhattan’s Paramount Theater, and made many records for Victor. One of the most fortuitous (for Berigan fans) developments to have occurred while the Berigan band played at the Paradise Restaurant in 1938 was the recording of many of its sustaining broadcasts emanating from that location. Many selections from those recordings will appear here appear here in the near future. They reveal much more clearly the capabilities of the mature Berigan band, and the true breadth of its repertoire, balancing in large measure the distorted and limited picture that one gets by listening only to their Victor recordings from 1937 and the first few months of 1938. The Berigan band on these recordings had an ensemble assurance and élan that bordered on swagger, and Bunny was at the top of his virtuoso skills as one of the leading jazz trumpeters of the 1930s.

The music: This performance of “Royal Garden Blues” is a perfect demonstration of both Bunny Berigan’s capabilities as a jazz soloist, and of how successfully he had, by early 1938, shaped his band into a formidable musical force much in his own image and likeness. Unfortunately, the executives at Victor Records were seemingly oblivious to this. When Bunny entered their studios to make commercial recordings through the early months of 1938, they were mostly of current pop tunes, some quite bad, like “Rinka Tinka Man.”

It is unknown who wrote the arrangement on “Royal Garden Blues” that Berigan and his musicians brought so vividly to life in this performance. It had been in the Berigan book for a year before this recording was made. Using the process of elimination, I suggest that it may have been written by Abe Osser, or possibly by Dave Rose.

Georgie Auld.

Whoever arranged “Royal Garden Blues”  cast it in a straight ahead, uncluttered swinging design that is an ideal vehicle for jazz solos. Berigan’s romping three chorus improvisation is superb.  It is delivered with his usual burnished open trumpet sound, and is constructed with Mozartean logic. It moves in perfect musical sequence from chorus to chorus, having a beginning, middle and end. Auld, with the brashness of youth that Bunny always enjoyed in his playing (Georgie was 19 when he made this recording), follows, bouncing along creating his own kind of excitement for his three choruses, supported by drummer Johnny Blowers’s aggressive backbeats.

Unsung trombone wizard Thomas “Sonny” Lee – 1939.

Trombonist Sonny Lee plays next, fashioning a lucid, indeed cogent two chorus jazz solo. He was one of the veteran musicians in the Berigan band, being all of  34 years old when this performance was recorded. Lee’s professional career started in the early 1920s, and included stints working with such notable musicians as Peck Kelley (as a boy in Texas), Frank Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke, Pee Wee Russell, Isham Jones, Artie Shaw, and Gordon Jenkins before joining Berigan at the Pennsylvania Hotel in the late spring of 1937. Shortly after this recording, Lee was lured away from Berigan by Jimmy Dorsey with a big money offer. He stayed with JD from May of 1938 until the fall of 1946. Sonny Lee was a first-rate lead trombonist, as well as a fine jazz player, as this performance clearly shows. He was well-respected (and well-paid) as one of the most accomplished trombonists of the swing era.

The Berigan band then moves into the foreground with swinging assurance, indeed abandon, spurred on by Bunny’s high note interjections and Blowers’s exciting drumming.  As this recording demonstrates, in 1938, Bunny led one of the best bands on the swing scene.

I discovered this recording (and many others) in 2010 while I was doing research in the Berigan Archive at the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Eventually, in 2013, it and several others from that same cache were issued commercially on Hep CD 96, Bunny Berigan…Swingin’ and Jumpin’ …broadcasts from 1937-1939. Later posts here will present many of the recordings that are a part of the Hep CD, as well as many others from the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere that did not make it onto the CD, all in brilliant sound.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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