“Jazz Me Blues” (1939)

“Jazz Me Blues”

Composed by Tom Delaney; arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on March 15, 1939 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton, first trumpet; Jake Koven and George Johnston, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Bob Jenney, trombones; Gus Bivona, first alto saxophone and clarinet; Hank Saltman, alto saxophone; Don Lodice, tenor saxophone; Larry Walsh, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Eddie Jenkins, drums.

The story:

I spoke with drummer Eddie Jenkins in 2010 about the circumstances surrounding how he joined the Berigan band in January of 1939, when he was twenty-one years old: “I was told to report to a hotel room in the Forrest Hotel on west 49th Street for an audition. When I arrived, I found several saxophone players and drummers there already, along with a set of drums. Bunny was there too, and we met. Bunny had one or the other of the saxophone players play something, and then each of the drummers played with them. I played with a saxophone player briefly, and Bunny asked me for my phone number. I can’t imagine how he got much of an idea of how I played from that audition. I left and thought that was that.”

Drummer Eddie Jenkins.

“Then a few days later, much to my surprise, Bunny’s manager, Jerry Johnson, called me and told me to bring my drums and a suitcase to the Forrest Hotel the next day. I did, and a man I later came to know as Robert “Little Gate” Walker loaded my drums into a truck, and I went into the lobby of the hotel. There I met Jerry Johnson and his wife, Kathleen Lane, Don Lodice and Gus Bivona. I was told that I would be riding in Jerry’s car to the first gig. Then Jerry asked me if I could drive and had a driver’s license. I told him I did. He then took me out to his car, and I put my suitcase in the trunk. He told me to drive the car around the block a few times to get the feel of it, which I did. After about 15 minutes of this, Jerry waved me down in front of the hotel. I stopped and everybody piled in, and I then drove to the gig, which was in Scranton, Pennyslvania.”

By this time, MCA’s one-nighter “dartboard” was being used to book the Berigan band. From Scranton, their caravan of automobiles (1) headed north to Kingston, Ontario for a gig at Queens College on January 20th, then on to the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit for a dance on the 22nd. They were off on the 23rd, which was a Monday, then played a one-nighter at the Coliseum Ballroom in Lorain, Ohio on the 24th. From there, they returned to Pennsylvania, where this wild goose chase had begun only the week before.

The Bradford Theater in Bradford, PA as it appears today.

Jenkins was soon initiated into the hazardous life of a big band sideman traveling on ice and snow-covered roads in the wilds of Pennsylvania in the middle of winter, specifically a trip from Lorain, Ohio to Bradford, Pennsylvania:

“That was a bitterly cold night and after we’d finished the job, we set off for Bradford, Pennsylvania (to play a one night engagement at the Bradford Theater there). During that long journey, we ran into a blizzard and one of the cars ran into another vehicle that had been abandoned in the snow. Bob Jenney and another of the boys were injured and required medical attention. Our car, which carried manager Jerry Johnson, singer Kitty Lane, Don Lodice and me, had skidded and spun round in a circle at one point. The band had no drum ‘book,’ to speak of. I took my cues from (bassist) Hank Wayland’s hand until I became familiar with the arrangements.” (1A)

The collision referred to by Eddie Jenkins, which occurred in Corry, Pennsylvania, was newsworthy enough to be reported in the Uniontown, Pennsylvania Morning Herald on January 27: “Suffering bruises and cuts were Ray Conniff, driver and trombone; Frederick Wayland, bass; Larry Walsh, sax; Joe Bushkin, piano; and Bob Jenney, trombone.” (2)

Jenkins also recalled life on the road with the Berigan band during the weeks that followed:

One of a number of photos taken at Bunny Berigan’s March 15, 1939 Victor recording session. Behind Berigan L-R are: Gus Bivona, Hank Saltman, Eddie Jenkins and Larry Walsh.

“On a night when the band was in rare form, Bunny would give most of the guys a chance to play a chorus, and I think he often got more out of his men than maybe a strict disciplinarian like Glenn Miller might have. But it was in the realm of business organization that he took a beating. The agents exploited him to the full, as I’m sure did many of the ballroom operators. Since most of our dates were one-nighters, we barely had time to get checked into a hotel before we were leaving for the next job. So the only socializing would take place at a diner en route to the next engagement, usually in the small hours of the morning! Don Lodice and I often rode in the same car with Jerry Johnson and Kitty Lane. We’d try to plug the cracks in the rear doors with old newspapers to keep out the cold drafts. We carried a portable phonograph balanced on our knees to lessen the vibration and listened to Count Basie records, especially ‘Blue and Sentimental’ with Herschel Evans’s fabulous tenor solo.” (3)

Virginia Military Institute in winter.

More one-nighters in New England followed until the band was informed that MCA had lined up a series of dates in the south, to commence on February 24, at Virginia Military Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. This news was no doubt greeted by cheers of joy from the bedraggled and exhausted Berigan sidemen because it meant they would soon be leaving the frigid northern states, and heading into much warmer temperatures. From Virginia, the Berigan troupe headed further south, playing at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, on February 27–28; then to the Capitol Theater in Macon, Georgia on March 1 (from which they made one of their now rare radio broadcasts); the County Armory in Jacksonville, Florida on the 2nd; and at the University of Florida at Gainesville on the 3rd and 4th. On Sunday March 5, they arrived at Daytona Beach, and enjoyed a day off. According to Jenkins’s diary, some of the guys played golf and swam during the day, then went to nightclubs that evening.

On Monday, March 6, they played at the Pier Casino in Daytona Beach. Despite the backbreaking traveling and work the Berigan band was doing, there was still a good deal of hilarity in the band, with Bunny contributing more than his share, often convulsing the sidemen with his humorous remarks delivered with an imitation of W. C. Fields. Gus Bivona was another clown, and he later recalled doing some “press agent” work for the band involving a lovely young lady reporter covering the Daytona Beach gig:

“Press agent” and clarinetist Gus Bivona – 1939.

“That date was for the 5th Annual Junior Service League’s Ball and we were being pestered by a local gal reporter called Florence Pepper. Eventually, we got so fed up that we concocted a phony story that was 100% bullshit! We did it to get rid of her. Here is the story: ‘Bunny Berigan thinks jitterbugs are too noisy. The famed trumpet-leader likes sweet music and does some of his own arranging. Also arranging are Ray Conniff and Gus Bivona, members of the orchestra, and Joe Lippman, Andy Phillips and Jake Zarombie, New York arrangers. Berigan also composes numbers. His newest, yet to be published, is ‘Easy to Find and Hard to Lose.’ In collaboration with Bivona, he has written ‘Gus Bivona Blues.’  Bivona, a sax player in the orchestra, is a replica of William Powell (4) and plans to go to Hollywood to play a stand-in for the actor. An expert surfboard rider, he will be filmed in surfing sequences. Berigan’s wife and two infant daughters did not accompany him on this trip. They are vacationing in Canada.’ As Bivona was recounting this tale, he added: I’d never been on a surfboard in my life! I guess we really took that lady reporter for a ride! By the way, ‘Jake Zarombie’ was a name invented by Bunny, which he used as a gag or a brush-off, when somebody recognized him and he didn’t want to be disturbed.” (4)

At about this same time, Bunny’s real public relations department, probably an office boy at MCA’s New York office, produced a story that was designed to counteract the rumors that he would soon be disbanding. Here it is:

Berigan on the road.

“Berigan’s going to join Goodman. That’s what the crowd was saying two months ago when Bunny let several of his men go. Others claimed Bunny was planning to organize a ‘chamber group’ and try something new in the way of swing trumpeting. But Bunny fooled us all. He went out and got new men and a new girl singer in the person of Kathleen Lane and now he’s back on the stand with a new band, which, in a few more weeks, Bunny and his men are convinced will be the best Berigan has ever assembled. The new combo includes 15 pieces: Gus Bivona, Vic Hauprich, Don Lodice and Larry Walsh, saxes; Bob Jenney and Ray Conniff, trombones; Johnny Napton, Jake Koven and George Johnston, trumpets; Hank Wayland, bass; Eddie Jenkins, drums; Andy Phillips, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Miss Lane and Danny Richards, vocals and Joe Lippman and Andy Phillips, arrangers. Bunny, of course, makes it a 4-way trumpet section. Several factors point to the security of the band’s future. One is that it’s the most loyal gang Bunny’s had. Another is the presence of Wayland, Bushkin and Jenkins in the rhythm section. Wayland and Bushkin are proven men, but Jenkins, a youngster, is the man to watch. He’s young, but he is constantly improving and he plays good, solid drums. Don Lodice on tenor is about as good as Georgie Auld, but doesn’t have Georgie’s bite. Bivona’s clarineting is exciting and his alto work is excellent. ‘I’m tired of just making a living,’ Bunny said recently, ‘and I want the best band in the country.’ It looks as if he’s on his way.” (6)

Trombonist Bob Jenney and Berigan – early 1939.

The story was accompanied by a photo of Bunny and Bob Jenney, and is captioned “Berigan Fools All: New Band Despite Talk Is The Best Yet.” This was not just press-agent puffery: this edition of the Berigan band was quickly coming into its own as one of the more powerful and swinging bands on the scene in early 1939. Unfortunately, musical success with a touring band was one thing. Bunny Berigan had achieved that. Financial success with a touring band was something else. Bunny was learning about that, the hard way.

The gig in Daytona Beach received some press coverage: “Bunny Berigan’s torrid tunes proved conclusively his right to the title, ‘Hottest Man in Town.’ Sparkling gaily-colored lights and a high revolving rainbow-hued ball trembled as the blasts from Bunny’s trumpet reached the ceiling and bounced back to tickle the toes of the dancers attired in the smartest and loveliest of evening gowns. True to his word that he had the loudest band extant, Bunny was aided by the pier’s peculiarly amplifying acoustics.” (7)

The Berigan bandsmen were booked to play the following day in Columbus, Georgia, but before they drove there from Daytona Beach, MCA notified them that the gig had been cancelled. Larry Walsh recalled this incident: “Bunny never seemed to worry about anything. We had that date at Daytona Beach and we were supposed to go from there to the Royal Theater in Columbus, Georgia, but for some reason or other that job was canceled. Bunny didn’t seem to care, so we took a vote and decided to have another day at the beach and get some sun.” (8) This small holiday, like all off days, reduced Bunny’s income, while the expense side of the ledger, principally his sidemen’s salaries, kept accruing. Off days were slowly putting Bunny in a deep hole financially.

By early 1939, serious financial challenges faced Bunny Berigan.

The band then moved to their next engagement at the City Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 8, followed by a gig at the Shrine Mosque in Atlanta, Georgia, on the 9th. Hank Wayland remembered that night well: “The place was packed to the doors when we arrived. Soon, nobody was dancing at all! They pulled their chairs across the dance floor and around the bandstand and we proceeded to play them a five-hour concert! The crowd acclaimed Bunny all the way for his outstanding playing that night.” (9)

The Berigan band’s southern tour was now about to end. They played on Friday–Saturday, March 10–11 at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and then traveled back to New York. Hank Wayland recalled what was going on with the band’s personnel and schedule at that time: “Bunny phoned an old friend from Madison, Wisconsin, Doc DeHaven, to be prepared to join the band in New York, because Hank Saltman had tendered his two weeks notice. The band returned to New York that weekend and reassembled at the Jane Grey studios at 1:00 p.m. on the following Tuesday, March 14, to rehearse for a Victor recording date the next day.”  (10)

In retrospect, we know that 1938 was the turning point in Bunny Berigan’s career and life. It was in 1938 that the business side of his career reached a plateau, and then began its decline. The waning of Berigan’s career was not precipitous, but it occurred somewhat ahead of the decline in his band, which happened as 1939 ended and 1940 began. In fact, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra were a potent musical force throughout much of 1939. When Bunny and his musicians entered RCA Victor’s New York recording studio on the Ides of March 1939, they were prepared to demonstrate just how well they were then playing. This session commenced at 1:30 p.m. and ran for five and a half hours, to 7:00 p.m. Six masters were made during that time.

Berigan band in Victor recording studio March 15, 1939. L-R rear: Ray Conniff, Johnny Napton, Jake Koven, George Johnston; middle: Don Lodice, Gus Bivona, Hank Saltman,  Eddie Jenkins, Larry Walsh; front: Kathleen Lane, Berigan, Allan Reuss.

(Another mystery surrounding Bunny’s relationship with RCA Victor is why the company never switched his records at some point from the seventy-five cent Victor label to the thirty-five cent Bluebird label. The vast majority of Berigan’s fans were swing-oriented young people who found it difficult to scrape together the seventy-five cents necessary to purchase one of his Victor disks during the economic Depression of the late 1930s. These were the same kids who in 1939 were making Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller so successful on Bluebird Records. I suspect that such a move by Victor would have enhanced Bunny’s record sales and helped his band’s popularity.) (11)

The music:  “Jazz Me Blues” is another chestnut (composed in 1921 by Tom Delaney and played by the Original Dixieland Jass Band) that Berigan asked Joe Lippman (who was by this time working as a freelance arranger) to write an arrangement on. The intro builds behind Bunny’s growling, plunger-muted trumpet; then the band romps on into the first chorus. Young drummer Eddie Jenkins plays a modified back-beat behind solos by Don Lodice on tenor saxophone and Gus Bivona on alto saxophone, providing cymbal splashes along the way. The two man trombone section, led by Ray Conniff, is more aggressive here, with three trumpets to play against. Bunny’s muscular solo is well supported by Jenkins’s back-beats. Pianist Joe Bushkin gets a brief solo before the Berigan-led finale.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes:

(1) Berigan did not use a bus to transport his band on this tour because he had recently discovered that he owed a bus company and a few other creditors over a thousand dollars (multiply by 15 to get the value of today’s dollars). He wanted to save enough money to pay off those bills before he resumed transporting the band by bus. He and his personal manager Arthur Michaud had also come to an acrimonious parting of the ways in January of 1939. There had been a serious dispute over these unpaid bills, the kind of gigs the band was getting, and money in general. Starting in early 1939, Bunny began operating without a personal manager, also to save money. These strategems, unfortunately, would not be successful. In fact, they made matters worse.

(1A) White materials: January 24, 1939.

(2) Information provided by Carl A. Hallstrom.

(3) White materials: February 17, 1939.

(4) Gus Bivona also (later) very much resembled film actor David Niven.

(5) White materials: March 6, 1939.

(6) Down Beat: April 1939, cited in the White materials.

(7) Daytona News: March 7, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(8) White materials: March 7, 1939.

(9) White materials: March 9, 1939.

(10) White materials: March 11, 1939.

(11) By 1940, RCA Victor had reduced the price of their Victor records from seventy-five cents to fifty cents.

One thought on ““Jazz Me Blues” (1939)

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  1. Today, with the benefit (if we might call it that in this instance) of hindsight, we may sometimes listen to this side with a consciousness of the fact that at the time of this session the Berigan orchestra had fallen from its commercial peak of the previous year. When I first heard the record, though, not yet entirely aware of the point at which the band’s fortunes had begun to turn, I thought only that the aggregation sounded in top shape and the arrangement was a terrific swing revision of a great old jazz warhorse. It’s difficult to imagine, in fact, that any uninitiated listener could sense from this spirited performance that the band responsible was by that time struggling and its leader being treated shamefully by his business associates.

    I really enjoy young Eddie Jenkins’ work on this side, which to my ears plays an important role in the updating of this jazz classic. He is aided by the great Allan Reuss, whose distinctive throb is, as always, easily detected. As we know, Reuss, my favorite guitarist, was at the time doing studio work and teaching; this session was sandwiched, for example, between two dates with the rising Miller band (the second being the one at which “Moonlight Serenade” was recorded); less than a month after this Berigan date, Reuss would participate in the Teagarden band’s first recording session, as a member of the fledgling orch., and again take to the road. I must believe that Allan — who was lucky enough to have worked briefly with Bunny in ’35, in the Goodman band, when the young musician turned pro, as teacher George Van Eps’ hand-picked successor in the aggregation’s guitar chair — felt honored to have gotten the call from Bunny in ’39; it seems to show in his robust support on this March date.

    While I’ll concede that Don Lodice may have lacked some of Georgie Auld’s “bite” (in the description of MCA’s presumed office boy), I do prefer his playing to that of his predecessor. However, excellent though his “Jazz Me Blues” blowing is, it’s overshadowed by Gus Bivona’s exuberant wailing that follows — one of my favorite Berigan band solos from Gus. Joe Bushkin’s brief but groovy appearance recalls his vamp for Bernie Mackey’s vocal on the Thesaurus “Flat Foot Floogie.”

    I have to wonder if Bunny made any suggestions for Joe Lippman’s writing for the “Jazz Me Blues” intro. In any case,the Berigan plunger-muted horn recasts this happy frolic from his beloved trad jazz as something much tougher in character. His open solo begins enigmatically and laconically, incorporating a flat 2nd of the sixth chord — and then he takes off with a graceful vault. His last eight bars remind me that Bunny’s well-constructed, though surely extemporaneous, lines are always very easy to sing.

    As fascinating as I found Eddie Jenkins’ reminiscences, I was struck most by Larry Walsh’s comment, “Bunny never seemed to worry about anything.” Though his alcohol and tobacco habits might suggest otherwise, I sure hope this observation was accurate, that this virtuoso, hard-working bandleader actually did just take in stride the very lousy breaks he got and not become morose. History shows that he did just keep chugging along, despite all the adversity, from both without and within. Bunny deserved any happiness he got. Despite the questionable nature of the MCA publicity story, which prompts one to ask if Bunny actually made the quoted statements therein, we do know that what he wanted most was to lead a big band. He could have pared down to a sextet, gotten an NYC club residency and recorded regularly quite easily, we must imagine, and, as a result, avoided much business and financial stress as well as travel peril, but he wanted to lead an orchestra.

    Happy 114th Birthday, Jake Zarombie!

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