“Downstream” (1938) …Demythologized

“Downstream”

Composed by H. Lawrence, B. Neison and Jay Milton; arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on March 15, 1938.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Sonny Lee and Al George, trombones; Mike Doty, Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, saxophones; Graham Forbes, piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Dave Tough, drums. Gail Reese, vocal.

The story: Every band during the swing era had to play and record pop tunes. Pop tunes then were generally written by composers who were either contracted to music publishing houses, or who wrote a tune on speculation, and then sold or placed it with a music publisher. Pop tunes were distinguishable from tunes written especially for Broadway plays or Hollywood films. They were also of course distinguishable from “originals” written by musicians who were either arrangers and/or sidemen with bands. But no matter where or how a tune originated, in order for it to be promoted, publicized and played, it first had to be published. Music publishers were therefore in a commanding position in the music business, and were extremely competitive with one another.  They devised all kinds of ways to get tunes they were plugging (pushing, promoting) to be played in public before audiences. The best promotion for a tune would be for it to be played repeatedly on radio or in a feature film. Commercial records, at least in the late 1930s, were a good way to promote a new tune, but certainly not the best because the Depression had hit the recording industry particularly hard, and many people did not have a lot of spare money to buy records, even the budget-priced labels like Decca and RCA Bluebird, whose disks sold for 35 cents. (We must remember that money had a different value in the late 1930s: a 35 cent record then would cost about $5.00 in today’s money.) Victor disks sold for an incredible 75 cents each in the 1930s, almost ensuring small sales. Their price was reduced to 50 cents a disk in 1940 in an attempt to make them more competitive.

In terms of musical quality, some pop tunes were quite good, but the vast majority of them were bad. The song presented here, “Downstream,” falls somewhere in the middle. Without the Berigan/Victor recording of this tune, it likely would have disappeared. But for whatever reasons this tune came to be recorded by Bunny Berigan, consequently we are able to hear it. Preservation of the tune itself is of small importance however. The more important reason for listening to this recording is to understand how important an artist’s interpretation of a song is to securing an enduring place for it in the tradition of American music. And Berigan’s interpretation of “Downstream” provides an excellent demonstration of how good his band was when they recorded it, and how fine an arranger Joe Lippman was. Of course, Berigan’s trumpet playing was so individual that we know after only a few notes who is playing. And how he played!

Berigan in the Victor recording studio on East 24th Street in Manhattan.

All of this has been submerged however in a number of myths that began at the Victor recording session when “Downstream” was recorded on the Ides of March, 1938. These myths were unfortunately given false credibility because they became linked with of a number of other true but rather unfortunate happenings in Berigan’s career as a bandleader later in 1938.  These usually humorous “Bunny Berigan stories,” true and false, were told with relish by people who knew Bunny, and they gradually became a part of the Berigan legend, and remained in circulation, usually being exaggerated by each teller, for decades.  In my biography of Berigan, I tried to set the historical record straight, which is not easy seven decades after the events in question were alleged to have happened.

The jazz critic Leonard Feather, in 1938 only recently arrived in the United States from England, was a guest at a part of the Berigan band’s March 15 recording session which ran from 1:30 to 6:00 p.m. Soon after this, he wrote the following:

“When you hear a band in person, it is customary, indeed instinctive, to pardon a slip here and there and if the ensemble work is less than perfect, a few faults may not prove offensive. But it was not until I heard Bunny and his boys down at the Victor studios that I realized the difference between a band that sounds fine and one that records well.

As I entered, Bunny was growling his way into one of those very low register choruses which have become his forte. The tune was a popular number, ‘Downstream,’ and the arrangement by the talented pianist, Joe Lippman. Bunny had already made several masters, but all had been spoilt, generally through some slip in his solo. As the buzzer called for silence and the next master went into action, Bunny got going nicely, then came just one sour note and he knew the master was wasted.

Next time, the band didn’t even get past the introduction as (trumpeter) Irving Goodman took a bow for the fluff that held up proceedings. Rose-cheeked and petite, Gail Reese sat in her chair, waiting for them to make a master in which they’d get as far as her vocal in the second chorus. ‘Now, just take it easy, this is going to be the one,’ said Bunny, quite calmly, for the seventh time. Because he has been a rank-and-file musician and feels the way the men do, Bunny is unlike many bandleaders. The master-and-pupil disciplinary method is entirely absent. Possibly he has erred on the side of leniency for it was difficult for him to maintain law and order between takes and it was clear that no amount of rehearsal would pave the way for a perfect master of ‘Downstream.’ It was just a matter of playing on until luck gave them three minutes of flufflessness!

After the next take, Bunny called out, ‘Wrap it up!’ By now, he was feeling the strain and to let off steam he started on a glorious impression of a street musician. This was funny enough to take everybody’s minds off ‘Downstream’ and there was a fresher approach to the next waxing. The time had come for me to leave Bunny floating ‘downstream,’ so I slipped out as the much-too-familiar strains of the introduction were striking up yet again.[i]

Snapshot of Berigan and Gail Reese – on tour, fall 1937. Photo courtesy of Al Apfelberg.

“Downstream” was the first tune recorded on March 15. To my ears, whatever strain there was in producing this recording is totally absent from the issued take. Bunny’s playing is exemplary, indeed exciting, throughout. He lobs out huge, fat low notes in his first exposition of the melody.  Listen for the slight rasp he uses here. When he returns, it’s in the middle register, and he’s moving up, heightening drama. After the vocal, tenor sax star Georgie Auld plays effectively on the bridge; then Berigan returns low at first, then high and fiery. He growls over the humming reeds to finish this recording. All things considered, Bunny’s treatment of “Downstream” was exceedingly musical, and thoughtful. His trumpet playing is masterful and expressive. This is a quintessential Berigan recording. No other trumpeter could ever play this music as Bunny did.

Berigan in the Victor recording studio in Manhattan. Coincidentally, this photo is from another recording session, exactly one year after the “Downstream” session.

Anyone who knows even a small amount about trumpet technique knows that the bottommost register of the trumpet is treacherously difficult to play in for a number of reasons. In fact, many trumpeters are unable to play way down low at all.  Berigan could and did play in that very low register. But even he had to work extremely hard to make  music down there. When listening to Bunny’s playing  in the first chorus of “Downstream,” I think that perhaps a few of the abortive takes Leonard Feather referred to may have been a result of Bunny trying tenaciously to achieve the expressive effects we now can hear on the issued take. It would have been nice if Mr. Feather had mentioned that in his article about what went on at the Berigan recording session of March 15, 1938.

It should also be noted that the Berigan band recorded four usable masters at that recording date, which was industry standard. To do that, they had to be doing something right!

Vocalist Gail Reese.

Leonard Feather was right about Berigan’s style of leadership: he was extremely patient with his musicians, and led by example. We must remember that the musicians in Bunny’s band were mostly young men in their early twenties, some of whom were hyperactive. While it would be accurate to say that Berigan’s recording sessions were not grim, tense affairs (as those of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller could be), he nevertheless got the job done, often with excellent, indeed inspired results, by taking a generally lighthearted, relaxed approach to recording. But to say that Berigan was careless and not focused on the music would be inaccurate. In fact, one of Berigan’s sidemen, clarinetist/alto saxophonist Joe Dixon, later happened into a recording studio where Duke Ellington was recording, and was immediately struck by the similarities between Duke’s methods of recording and Bunny’s.

Reality made no difference. Feather’s story was later embellished, and became a typically apocryphal Bunny Berigan tale: that Bunny required approximately forty!!! takes to make an acceptable master. There is no evidence in the RCA Victor files indicating that Berigan made an amount of takes or tries even remotely near to forty for “Downstream.” Given the totality of the circumstances, the eight or ten tries Bunny took to get that low, growly melody statement that he was so intent to achieve, are understandable.

This myth and others circulated widely during the summer of 1938, and they began to undermine Berigan’s reputation at a time when his career as a bandleader had finally gotten into high gear. In fact, 1938 was the year when Bunny’s music reached an apogee. Yet because of this story, and other incidents, some of which were true but were not in any way Bunny’s fault (and a few that were), his career began to ebb slowly.

In addition, and far more dire eventually, though no one including Berigan knew it in 1938, the disease that would eventually kill him at age 33 had already begun its inexorable progress.

[i] Melody Maker: June 11, 1938, cited in the White materials: March 16, 1938.

As good as the Victor recording of “Downstream” is, the one Berigan made a few days later on March 27 while performing at and broadcasting from the Paradise Restaurant in Manhattan on is even more inspired and exciting. The band personnel is the same as above except that Joe Lippman was present on piano, and Johnny Blowers had replaced Dave Tough on drums. Here it is:

These recordings were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

 

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