“Washin’ the Blues From My Soul”
Composed by David Oppenheim and Willard Robison; arranged by Billy O’Brian.
Recorded by Hal Kemp and His Orchestra for Brunswick on May 14, 1930 in New York City.
James Harold “Hal” Kemp, alto saxophone and clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first trumpet; Milton “Mickey” Bloom, trumpet; Wendell “Gus” Mayhew, trombone; “Jimmy” James, lead alto sax and clarinet; Ben Williams, Saxie Dowell (composer of the immortal swing era opus “Three Little Fishies”), Reggie Merrill, saxes and clarinets; John Scott Trotter, piano; J. Paul Weston (not the arranger Paul Wetstein, later known as Paul Weston), bass/tuba; Pinky Kintzel, banjo/guitar; and Skinnay Ennis, drums and vocal.
The music: “Washin’ the Blues From My Soul” had been a hit for Sophie Tucker in 1926, so this recording by Hal Kemp is an early example of a cover. It is a 1930 period recording by a very good band, but that is not why most people remember it. Rather, this recording is significant because it marks the debut on record of Bunny Berigan. Bunny had joined the Kemp band only a few weeks before this recording was made. His main job was to play lead trumpet, which he does here, and does very well. But again, that is not what is most important to Berigan aficionados. Instead, Bunny people are curious about his solo playing here, which is confined to a melodic paraphrase of the tune’s main melody in the first chorus. (The second brief solo after the vocal on open trumpet is almost certainly not Berigan.) The nub of that issue is that this early glimpse proves clearly that he is already, at age 21, stylistically the Bunny Berigan who would have a meteoric career as a trumpet virtuoso throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s.
The story: Bunny Berigan was a seasoned professional musician by the fall of 1929. He had spent the previous four years working with a variety of bands in Wisconsin and the Midwest. (Bunny’s home town was Fox Lake Wisconsin, which lies about 60 miles north of Madison, and 70 miles west of Milwaukee.) He left the Midwest and went to New York in the spring of 1928 to join a band that performed for several months in Philadelphia. When the Philadelphia gig ended, he returned to New York in search of work, but he was severely limited in the work he could do because he did not hold a membership card in New York musicians’ local 802. A musician seeking membership in the union in New York had to spend six consecutive months living in New York City before he could satisfy the residency requirement. Without the union card, a musician could only work casual jobs, and not work in radio or recording studios or theaters. Despite this large handicap, Bunny’s already strong musicianship enabled him to work in a band in Brooklyn for several months in the fall of 1928. He returned to Wisconsin at the end of 1928 without fulfilling his residency requirement, probably to spend time with his family, and reassess how he was going to build his career in music.
Upon his return home (his 20th birthday was on November 2, 1928), he led and played in various bands in the Midwest until the fall of 1929, when he was summoned to New York by bandleader Frank Cornewll. (Bunny had met and greatly impressed Cornwell’s brother Ardon in 1928 in the band he played in in Philadelphia.) Bunny’s first “big time” gig was with Cornwell’s band billed as Frank Cornwell and His Crusaders. It was a band that was headquartered in New York, that had worked lengthy residencies in Manhattan. Berigan opened with the Cornewll band at a place called Janssen’s Hofbrau, on 53rd and Broadway in Manhattan, on October 10, 1929.
The period from the fall of 1929 until he joined the CBS radio network as a staff musician in early 1931, is the time during which Berigan made the transition from being a very talented young musician to being one of the top musicians in the country. How he made this transition is very much explained by understanding the time he lived in, and the place.
The New York City Bunny Berigan arrived at late in 1929 was in the middle of an explosion of architecture, in addition to the rapid maturation of Broadway musical theater, and the new mass medium of network radio. The face of modern New York began to appear with the art deco building boom that started in the late 1920s and continued well into the ‘30s. Among the magnificent structures that leapt skyward downtown then were the Cities Service Building, 40 Wall Street, the City Bank Farmers Trust Building, and One Wall Street, all of which dwarfed the earlier Singer and Woolworth Towers; in midtown were the Empire State Building, for many years the world’s tallest, and the Chrysler Building, with its unique stainless steel spire. Overlooking Central Park were the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Hotel Pierre, from the east, and the San Remo Apartments, the Beresford, and the El Dorado from the west. Just a little south of the park, stood the mammoth Radio City complex. American popular song was in the process of being invented and perfected by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Vincent Youmans, and many others. The Harlem Renaissance was under way. The excitement, the creative ferment, the sense that anything was possible—all of this was a part of the intoxicating atmosphere of New York as the 1930s began.
By the time things got rolling at the Hofbrau with Cornwell, Bunny had set himself up with a room on the twenty-third floor of the Chesterfield Hotel, 130 West Forty-ninth Street. On November 2, 1929, he celebrated his twenty-first birthday. He undoubtedly felt exhilarated to be where he was, doing what he loved and did so very well. He had been a professional musician for four years, perfecting not only his trumpet skills, but also his all-around musicianship. Berigan already possessed the ability to read music extremely well, transpose at sight, and play the trumpet at virtuoso levels. But the most exciting aspect of Berigan’s trumpeting, even in 1930, was his ability to produce stimulating jazz solos. Although Louis Armstrong had been Berigan’s jazz idol, and would continue to be an inspiration, the recordings Bunny was soon to begin making show that even at this early date he was no Armstrong clone; he had his own ideas and sound. Also, something else was there: the ineffable “Berigan Magic.” That is best understood by listening to the recordings Berigan made in the early 1930s. (See Richard M. Sudhalter’s description of Berigan’s debut on records, the pop tune “Washin’ the Blues from My Soul,” below.)
Since the Hofbrau was so close to Jimmy Plunkett’s speak-easy (see below), it was only a matter of time until some of Plunkett’s regulars, who would on occasion stop by the Hofbrau for dinner and a show, encountered the trumpet playing of Bunny Berigan. Frank Cornwell recalled: “The Hofbrau featured a Saturday lunch session, and Bunny was gradually being featured more and more. (I) would bring him ‘down front’ for his solos. He had no drinking problem then. Bunny played a little violin in addition to some singing, and I was very enthused over his hot choruses on a tin flute. I’m not sure, but I think we worked seven days a week. We certainly kept busy. Bunny had no reputation at all when he first came to New York to join my band. But he sure got one fast! Bunny was truly a musician’s musician!”[i] Musicians, including Jimmy Dorsey, were immediately impressed by the young trumpeter in Cornwell’s band.
Soon Jimmy Dorsey invited Berigan to Plunkett’s, the legendary musicians-only speakeasy, located at 205 1/2 West Fifty-Third Street, in the short block between Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Plunkett’s had its own special ambience both outside and in. In 1930, the Sixth Avenue El (elevated train), turned west at 53rd, and ran over to Ninth Avenue. (*) Consequently, Plunkett’s front door was always in the shade of the El, and was shaken periodically when the overhead trains sped by. The dingy interior was the place where musicians met, drank together, socilaized and made connections for work. It was there that Bunny got to know Tommy Dorsey. Plunkett’s was listed in the Manhattan telephone directory as The Trombone Club, because, according to Jimmy Dorsey, his trombone-playing brother Tommy had achieved a certain renown there: he had built-up the all-time record bar tab owed to Jimmy Plunkett, $850.00.
Tommy Dorsey,[i] then twenty-four years old and in the first flush of his success as a highly paid Manhattan free-lance studio musician, was the king of Plunkett’s. He was a big, bluff, boisterous, boozing, talented dynamo of a man, and a superb trombonist. He was also the very image of the Irish New York politician and fixer of the day. He was always working some angle, setting something up, negotiating some deal. Tommy wasn’t satisfied to be merely one of the best on his instrument; he had to have other irons in the fire too. He led his own bands and he put together ad hoc bands for recording dates and casual jobs, in addition to doing all the radio work he could handle. Tommy was then, and would remain for the rest of his life, a force of nature. One either liked him a great deal, or loathed him; there was no middle ground. From the moment they met, Bunny Berigan liked Tommy Dorsey a great deal, and the feeling was mutual. TD called Bunny “Shanty,” presumably a joking reference to Bunny’s Irish ancestry. Bunny called Dorsey “Tommy” or “Tom,” the latter name being used only by those who knew Tommy very well. Berigan and Jimmy Dorsey also established a mutual admiration society and friendship. In addition, JD and Bunny had remarkably similar personalities. In many ways, Bunny Berigan was the third Dorsey brother, though for a number of reasons, he would have many more interactions over the years with Tommy than Jimmy.
The Cornwell engagement at the Hofbrau ended probably in mid-February 1930, after which the Cornwall band broke up. (Berigan, likely with the help of Frank Cornwell, either obtained his Local 802 card at some point during the Hofbrau gig, or somehow got special dispensation from the Union to play the Hofbrau location job without actually having the card until he satisfied the residency requirement.) Soon thereafter, Bunny began to work with the Dorsey Brothers on casual jobs in New York, booked through both the Mike Markel booking office, and through Howard Lanin.[ii]
Berigan was becoming known to people in the music business in New York. His prospects for establishing a career in music in Manhattan were looking up.
There had been both good and bad points about Bunny Berigan’s association with Frank Cornwell. Although Bunny respected Cornwell, and undoubtedly enjoyed his time with the Crusaders, the hours at the Hofbrau were long, and his work with this essentially commercial band, where he mostly played as a member of the brass section, quickly settled into a numbing, confining routine, especially for someone like Bunny who loved to play improvised solos as frequently as possible. Yes, Bunny was given the opportunity to play solos and sing, but the Cornwell band was really nothing more than a temporary musical unit put together for the specific and limited purpose of “playing the show” at Janssen’s Hofbrau. In short, there was not much happening musically in the Cornwell band, and after its reason to exist, the Hofbrau gig, ended, so did the band. Nevertheless, Bunny’s membership in this band had allowed him meet and impress a number of important musicians, get his New York union card, and to establish a small beachhead on the ever-shifting sands of Manhattan’s highly competitive music scene.
Soon after (or possibly even before) Bunny found himself at liberty from the Cornewll/Hofbrau job, the Manhattan musical grapevine, always a powerful if indirect method of communication, linked him with bandleader Hal Kemp.[i] Today, if Kemp is remembered at all, it is by aficionados of the music of the big band era, who know his music only as the stylized, somewhat pallid, commercially acceptable fare he served up from the mid-1930s, as one of the powerful band booking agency Music Corporation of America’s most successful road bands, until his untimely death in late 1940, at the age of thirty-five from injuries he received in an automobile collision while traveling to an engagement. Consequently, one does not think of jazz and Hal Kemp together. Recordings of the Kemp band from the time Bunny was a member, roughly from mid-April of 1930 (after which he definitely had his 802 union card), to early 1931, including Berigan’s first known recordings, suggest a slightly different reality, however.
Shortly after Berigan joined the Kemp band, they opened a three-week stand at the Nixon Café, 425 Sixth Avenue, beneath the Nixon Theater, in Pittsburgh, on Monday, April 21, 1930. Kemp was then under contract to record for Brunswick Records. Bunny replaced Holly Humphries, Kemp’s first trumpeter. However, it is apparent from recordings made by the Kemp band on May 14, that in addition to playing the first trumpet book, Berigan was also given solos to play.
T.D. Kemp, (brother of Hal and manager of the Kemp band in its early period) said: “Yes I recall Bunny in the band. He was a quiet, unassuming fellow; real clean cut looking boy in those days. Hal was very careful who he selected for band. First and foremost, all the men were gentlemen; we had no drunks, weed heads, etc. Bunny always seemed to be a ‘loner.’ I paid the men then and I think Bunny got one hundred dollars a week.”[ii]
A few weeks later, the Nixon’s management, which also operated the Willows Ballroom, about fifteen miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, installed the Kemp band there to play on Friday and Saturday nights, until the full summer season began in late May.[iii] After the Pittsburgh jobs ended on May 11, the Kemp band returned to New York. There they prepared for a recording session, which took place on May 14.
No one has written about the trumpet artistry of Bunny Berigan more discerningly than Richard M. Sudhalter, who was a jazz trumpeter himself. Here is his appraisal of Berigan’s debut on records:
“‘Washin’ the Blues from My Soul’ is Bunny Berigan’s first solo on record, and by any standard, it’s an impressive debut. On both issued takes he uses a straight mute for his opening statement of this minor theme (similar to the better-known Victor Young–Ned Washington ‘Got the South in My Soul’ of the following year). Even at this early point he’s unmistakably Bunny Berigan: the figure-shapes,
rhythmic address, attack, and execution—even the sense of swagger in the entrances—are fully formed, recognizable. In a total of twenty-eight solo bars, the young trumpeter has covered two octaves and a fourth, from his instrument’s next-to-lowest note, a written G below middle C to its firmly struck high C. Among jazz trumpeters in 1930, only Armstrong and a very few others were working with such a span, and fewer still with such ease.[iv]
Berigan also has a muted solo on “If I Had a Girl like You,” from the same session.
As a bonus, here is the Kemp band’s recording of “Them There Eyes” made on November 18, 1930, after the Kemp band returned to New York from Europe.
“Them There Eyes”
Composed by Maceo Pinkard, William Tracey and Doris Tauber; possibly arranged by John Scott Trotter.
Recorded by Hal Kemp and His Orchestra for Brunswick on November 18, 1930 in New York City.
James Harold “Hal” Kemp, alto saxophone and clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first trumpet; Harry Preble, trumpet; Wendell “Gus” Mayhew, trombone; “Jimmy” James, lead alto sax and clarinet; Ben Williams, Saxie Dowell, Reggie Merrill, saxes and clarinets; John Scott Trotter, piano; J. Paul Weston (not the arranger Paul Wetstein, later known as Paul Weston), bass/tuba; Pinky Kintzel, banjo/guitar; and Skinnay Ennis, drums and vocal.
The music: What jumps out when listening to this recording immediately after listening to “Washin’ the Blues From My Soul” is that the Kemp band is being impelled toward swing in “Them There Eyes” by Bunny Berigan. His playing as the band’s lead trumpeter, and his exuberant, swinging jazz solo are hallmarks of what would make him such a strong musical personality in the years after this recording was made. In other words, his playing has not changed one whit since the earlier recording, but theirs is beginning to reflect Berigan’s rhythmic approach.
(*) The Sixth Avenue El was dismantled in 1939 after the completion of the first phase of the mammoth Rockefeller Center/Radio City complex. The Sixth Avenue subway was constructed in its place, and opened in phases from 1936-1940. A large, modern subway station was opened then beneath the RCA Building on Sixth Avenue (now called the GE Building or 30 Rockefeller Center), to serve the tens of thousands of people who work in and near Rockefeller Center.
[i] The Miracle Man of Swing…Bunny Berigan, by Cedric K. “Bozy” White, Shoestring Records Press (2012), hereafter the White materials: November 2, 1929.
[ii] White materials: April 28, 1930.
[ii] White materials: May 2, 1930.
[iv] Lost Chords; White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz—1915–1945, by Richard M. Sudhalter, Oxford University Press (1999), 490-491. Hereafter referred to as Lost Chords.