“Azure” (1938)

“Azure”

Composed by Duke Ellington: arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on April 21, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky and Ray Conniff, trombones; Mike Doty alto saxophone and bass clarinet; and Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Joe Lippman, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums.

The music: Bunny Berigan and his band finished the five-tune recording session of April 21, 1938 with one of Joe Lippman’s special arrangements. Berigan’s recording of Duke Ellington’s “Azure” is certainly one of the best treatments this sixteen-bar composition ever received. Lippman’s masterful arrangement on “Azure” is somewhat reminiscent of his great chart for the Berigan band on “Caravan.In it are frequent changes of timbre and dramatic, contrasting uses of register and dynamics.

Bunny set a perfect dance tempo for this performance, which opens with three of the four saxists playing B-flat clarinets, with Joe Dixon on lead, and Mike Doty playing his bass clarinet. They play the eight-bar intro over drummer Johnny Blowers’s soft tom-toms, and oo-ah brass. Then Bunny sets out the sixteen-bar melody with an open trumpet displaying his unique low register sound; here it is velvety, indeed sumptuous. Berigan, as was often his wont, shapes the notes he plays. Behind him, the reeds provide color, Doty’s bass clarinet again being noteworthy, with the brass adding subtle emphases.

Berigan with Joe Lippman in the background. More than anyone other than Berigan himself, Lippman was responsible for how the Berigan band sounded.

After this, the open brass play what amounts to a miniature fanfare, and Bunny’s suddenly brilliant high register trumpet projects a commanding and stirring transitional figure that ushers in the four-man Berigan reed section, now playing their saxophones. Their sixteen-bar chorus is a model of unity and singing (and swinging) expressiveness. Behind them are Blowers’s insistent high-hat cymbals, solid bass and guitar rhythm, and a few strategically placed brass oo-ahs. A brief muted brass interlude (led by Berigan’s cup-muted trumpet) is followed by a few more bars of splendid work by the saxophones. Then Lippman’s arrangement sets the reeds against the open brass, after which Georgie Auld plays a few bars of solo tenor saxophone. The climax arrives when the Berigan-led open brass, with warm reed voicings beneath them, reprise the melody again, but in the high register. (Hear them shake on their high notes!) The denouement comes via a bit of Joe Dixon’s clarinet, and a reprise of Bunny’s warm, low register trumpet.

Joe Lippman, at right on piano with the Berigan saxophones – early 1938: L-R: Clyde Rounds, Mike Doty, Joe Dixon and Georgie Auld.  In rear: guitarist Tom Morgan.

This is a remarkable performance of a magnificently constructed arrangement. Few, if any critics have noted what superbly creative use Joe Lippman made of the rather limited instrumental resources available to him in Berigan’s thirteen-piece band with this arrangement. The most salient of those thirteen instruments was one singularly expressive musical voice: Bunny Berigan’s trumpet. This is another one of the “essentials” for Berigan aficionados.

The story: The Brian Rust discography states that the arrangement for Duke Ellington’s recording of “Azure,” recorded by Ellington for Irving Mills’s Master label on May 14, 1937, was written by Joe Lippman.[i] This assertion was denied by  Lippman himself. It is significant however that the record that contained Duke’s “Azure (Master 131), had “Caravan” on the other side. This disk probably provided Lippman with the inspiration for the splendid arrangements he wrote for Berigan on both “Caravan” and “Azure.”

Bunny’s April 21 Victor recording session was his most successful in many months. The band’s engagement at the Paradise Restaurant, which began in March, was extended into May. The recent personnel changes that had occurred had actually improved the band overall. Once again, it seemed that Bunny Berigan had weathered a number of challenges, and emerged unscathed. The Berigan luck, which had helped him on a number of occasions while he was starting his band, held.

The recollections of everyone connected with Berigan’s band during its run at the Paradise Restaurant were extremely positive. The band members were very happy to be off the road and at home in Manhattan. New drummer Johnny Blowers, who joined as the band opened at the Paradise, got to know Bunny during that stand. He recalled his Berigan experiences, including some impressions of Berigan’s drinking, more that fifty years later:

Bunny Berigan and drummer Johnny Blowers on the stage of the Paradise Restaurant – spring, 1938.

“We spent a lot of time together. I believe he liked me as a drummer and also as a person. When we were working at the Paradise, the band would play for two hours and then break for the floor-show, after which we would go back and finish the night. But it was a long intermission, and Bunny would ask me ‘are you going to join me tonight?’ And I usually did. That meant a fast trip to Mama Leone’s, the Italian Restaurant on Forty-ninth Street, for a spaghetti dinner or pizza, and always a large bottle of wine. I would fill my glass halfway, and Bunny would drink the rest. Bunny was an alcoholic, and eventually it killed him, but I don’t think he drank for pleasure. It was a compulsion, and I know he tried to fight it. He took the cure two or three times. I really believe that if AA had come along sooner than it did, he would gladly have joined. I know, too, that he was concerned about his family and wished he could see them more often. But a musician has a hard time trying to spend much time at home.”[ii]

Bunny Berigan – 1938.

I have found as a result of a lot of research and cross-checking, that some of Blowers’s recollections are less than one hundred percent accurate. I do not really know what he meant when he said that Bunny “took the cure two or three times.”[iii] There is certainly evidence that on many occasions, Berigan tried to greatly reduce the amount of alcohol he drank daily. But he was in no position to take time off and go somewhere to dry out and try to modify his behavior. He was far too busy. He had a lot of commitments, and most of them were sources of pressure for him. Invariably, when Bunny would try to drink less, his mood would turn from jovial and fun loving to sullen and standoffish. His trumpet playing would improve. The multitude of irritants he had in his life as a bandleader would bother him more. He would feel more and more stressed. The quick fix that always seemed to make things better was to take a few more drinks. Berigan was by 1938 completely ensnared in the vicious cycle of alcohol addiction. But he was still able to function well enough when drinking to do what was necessary to perform as a virtuoso trumpet soloist and leader of one of the best swing bands of the day.

As happy and musically successful as Bunny and the band were during the Paradise engagement, things were happening behind the scenes that would ultimately affect the business side of the Berigan band negatively. Gene Krupa, now the leader of his own band, was also being managed by Bunny’s personal manager, Arthur Michaud. Michaud had continued representing Tommy Dorsey through the time he was involved in launching Berigan as the leader of his own band. Most of Michaud’s attention during the spring of 1938 was being absorbed in activities involving the fledgling Krupa band. Michaud and attorney John Gluskin, the “money man” referred to by another Berigan arranger, Andy Phillips, as well as MCA, had all been involved first with TD, then Bunny, and now Gene. It was only a matter of time before conflicts of interest would occur.

[i] Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897–1942), by Brian Rust, Malcolm Shaw, Editor, Mainspring Press (2002), 537–538.

[ii] Back Beats and Rim Shots – The Johnny Blowers Story, by Warren W. Vache’, Scarecrow Press (1997) page 39.

[iii] The only time when Berigan may have actually sought professional medical help to deal with his alcoholism was in July of 1940, when he was in and out of Tommy Dorsey’s band.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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