Composed by Edgar Sampson; arranged by Horace and Fletcher Henderson. (*)
Recorded by the Metronome All-Star Band on January 12, 1939 in New York.
Metronome All-Star Band: Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Charlie Spivak, Sonny Dunham, trumpets; Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, lead alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Eddie Miller, tenor saxophones; Benny Goodman, alto saxophone and clarinet; Bob Zurke, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Bob Haggart, bass; Ray Bauduc, drums.
(*) The arrangement was also further revised in rehearsal (see below).
On January 12, 1939, at 1:18 a.m., Bunny Berigan walked into RCA Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street recording studio in Manhattan. In the studio already were Arthur Rollini, Jack Teagarden, Charlie Spivak, Carmen Mastren, Mr. and Mrs. Hymie Shertzer, Benny Goodman, and Harry James. Shortly after, Tommy Dorsey, his manager Bobby Burns, lawyer John Gluskin (who was also a business partner of Berigan’s soon to be fired personal manager Arthur Michaud), and recording supervisor Eli Oberstein arrived.
Also in the studio was George T. Simon, the editor of Metronome magazine (which sponsored the date), who in the previous two years had never missed an opportunity to report anything negative about Berigan and/or his orchestra, often without having obtained all of the facts. One can reasonably conclude that Bunny would have had some ill will toward Simon. But despite the almost nonstop lambastings Simon had given Berigan in the pages of Metronome, enough of that publication’s readers thought enough of Bunny Berigan’s playing to vote him into the 1939 Metronome All-Star band. Even though Bunny probably would have liked to have told Simon that he thought he was an unfair little so-and-so, he did no such thing. He simply came in and performed as the quintessential professional he was.
The rest of the musicians selected for the date, including trumpeter Sonny Dunham and four men from the Bob Crosby band (Simon’s favorite in the 1930s), arrived late. The four Crosby musicians were nevertheless fine players: bassist Bob Haggart, tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller, pianist Bob Zurke (who had problems with alcoholism not unlike Berigan’s), and drummer Ray Bauduc. The Crosby musicians, sans Zurke, entered the studio at 2:08 a.m. Zurke finally appeared at 2:21. At that point, Bunny Berigan had been in the studio for over an hour.[i]
Bunny had every reason to be apprehensive about this date. He had no idea what Simon had in mind, and had to feel a bit of a twinge knowing that the other three trumpeters on the session, Charlie Spivak, Sonny Dunham, and especially Harry James, were each masters of their instrument, who undoubtedly would play well. Spivak was a lead trumpeter, so it was assumed that he would play lead. Dunham was a soloist specializing in forays into the high register of the trumpet that were not necessarily done with the utmost of musical taste. He was not an especially convincing jazz player. Harry James at that time was a superb lead trumpeter, and also a spectacular and often compelling jazz soloist. In terms of sheer technique, there was no trumpet player in 1939 who could surpass Harry James. (*)
Although Simon did not reveal how it was decided who would solo at which point on each of the two tunes recorded that night, I will speculate that since the arrangement on “Blue Lou,” used by both Tommy Dorsey’s and Benny Goodman’s bands (the first tune recorded), was used as the basic road map for the performance of that tune, and Tommy led the band through the recording of it [ii], TD had some input as to who would solo and where.
The musicians started to rehearse “Blue Lou” at approximately 2:22 a.m. Choruses were assigned at 2:40, and a test was made at 2:45. After the band listened to the playback, it was decided to make another test. This was done at 2:55, but it was still not acceptable. Dorsey was leading the musicians through all of this, and making minor revisions to the arrangement as they went on. A third test was made at 3:08, and it was much better. The first master was attempted at 3:18; a second at 3:25; and a third at 3:29, which was marred by clinkers. The final master was made at 3:30, and this is the recording of “Blue Lou” that has been released and rereleased dozens of times since 1939. [iii]
This recording of Edgar Sampson’s tune is certainly among the best. The solos, in order, are by Berigan, Teagarden, Miller, Dunham, Goodman (who also played third alto in the sax section on a borrowed horn), Zurke, Bauduc, and then some parting thoughts by Berigan. These solos reveal that all of the featured musicians were excellent soloists, and when compared with the solos on the alternate takes, show that they were very comfortable improvising. On the issued take, the most fascinating comparison to be made however is in the jazz solos of the trumpeters Berigan and Dunham. Berigan’s sixteen swaggering bars are quintessential: he covers much of the range of his instrument, his sound is fat and round, even in the highest register; his jazz ideas are cogent; and his solo is suffused, bar by bar, with the feeling that anything might happen. There is nevertheless a very keen musical intelligence informing this solo.
Here are trumpeter/writer Richard Sudhalter’s thoughts about Berigan’s and Dunham’s playing: “Berigan charges in with a typically long-lined, shapely four-bar phrase. An aggressive edge adds intensity to his tone, and when he shouts out his high D to open the second extended phrase, the sheer size of the sound seems about to overload the microphone. He rounds out his half-chorus solo with another pair of phrases. The first one dwells for a while on some almost growled blue minor thirds, accentuating the rather tough-minded mood of the solo. Then, in another leap to his high register, he concludes with a descending phrase of considerable eloquence. Dunham, taking it from the bridge, tries to equal Berigan, opening with a long middle-register exposition before leaping to his high register for a climax. His spectacular high-note playing on trumpet and trombone with the Casa Loma orchestra had made him something of a celebrity, but here he cannot compete: he lacks the full, compelling Berigan tone and overriding sense of purpose and form.” [iv]
The progress of the development of the solos shown by the alternate takes reveals that Bunny was listening carefully to the way Dunham was organizing his solo, and then, when it came time to make the master, used all of that information to completely upstage Dunham. He in no way copied what Dunham had played. He simply distilled Dunham’s approach, which was to challenge Berigan, and turned it around and used it to cut Sonny. As Richard Sudhalter correctly observed, Bunny was definitely in the mood for combat that night: “It’s an affirmation, like a prizefighter who’s been on the ropes a time or two bringing his gloves together over his head to proclaim, ‘See, I’m still the champ.’” [v] I have often wondered what Sonny Dunham was thinking immediately after he heard Berigan play the solo that is on the issued record. Most likely, it was, what am I going to play after that?
Forty-two years later, George T. Simon made this comment about Bunny Berigan’s participation at the recording date that produced this version of “Blue Lou”: “All the musicians worshipped this guy. And that night he was in fine shape. No problems at all. He just pitched in—and played great.”[vi] It is too bad that Simon could not have said this while Bunny was struggling to keep his band together in early 1939, or indeed while Bunny was still living. He certainly could have used some good press.
(*) Although because of some contractual reason Harry James’s name does not appear on the listing of musicians on the Victor disk containing “Blue Lou,” I think that he did play trumpet in the ensemble passages on this recording.
[i] Simon Says—The Sights and Sounds of the Swing Era, 1935–1955, by George T. Simon, Galahad Books (1971), 453–454, hereafter Simon Says. The liner notes for RCA Bluebird LP 7636-1-RB (1988), entitled The Metronome All-Star Bands, indicates that Leonard Joy supervised this session. Perhaps Eli Oberstein was “just visiting.”
[ii] Ibid.: 455.
[iii] Ibid.: 454. The White materials state that the arrangement on “Blue Lou” was the one Benny Goodman used, which had been written by Horace Henderson, and modified by his brother Fletcher. That does not mean, of course, that Tommy Dorsey’s band was not playing the same arrangement.
[iv] Giants of Jazz: 48.
[v] Lost Chords: 514.
[vi] Ibid.: 513. The second tune recorded that night was a blues on which Berigan did not solo.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.