“Flashes” (1938) Bunny Berigan and His Men

“Flashes”

Composed by Bix Beiderbecke; arranged by Abe Osser.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Men for Victor on November 30, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Irving Goodman, trumpet: Ray Conniff, trombone; Murray Williams, alto saxophone; Gus Bivona, clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Joe Lippman, piano; Hank Wayland, bass: Buddy Rich, drums.

The story: 

It is very paradoxical that the RCA Victor Recording Company, which for the previous nineteen months had dictated to Bunny Berigan which tunes he should record for them, including such titles as “Mother Goose,” “Rinka Tinka Man,” and “Button, Button,” should suddenly allow him to record a six-side series of compositions either composed by Bix Beiderbecke, or associated with him. I must assume that Bunny and Joe Lippman pleaded with Leonard Joy, who was now supervising Berigan’s Victor recording sessions, to allow this project to go forward, and somehow persuaded him that it was worth a try. Eli Oberstein, Victor’s self-styled hit maker, would undoubtedly have vetoed this concept immediately. It had nothing to do with current pop tunes, banal lyrics, girl or boy singers, song-pluggers, and the other usual commercial considerations that guided his choice of what tunes a band should record. Indeed, this set of recordings was unique in that no other swing band up to that time had ever actually recorded, as a group, a number of compositions that shared a common theme.

People often attribute the origination of the “concept album” idea to Frank Sinatra, who certainly did some great things along those lines in the 1950s while recording for Capitol. But Berigan was doing this in 1938, and he certainly did not have a lot of clout at Victor. [i] This extremely strange development is but the first of many difficult to explain (but in this case fortuitous) incidents that would occur between Berigan and Victor over the next twelve months. What is equally odd is that between the recording sessions of November 22, November 30, and December 1, 1938, a period of only nine days, Bunny Berigan recorded a total of ten sides for Victor, not a one of which was a current pop tune. This represented a complete turnabout from the many sessions he had previously made for Victor that had consisted exclusively of current Tin Pan Alley ephemera, often with mawkish lyrics. In light of Bunny’s overall experience with Victor Records, we must be very thankful that the series of recordings he made on November 30 and December 1, 1938, was ever allowed to be produced.

At 1:30 p.m. on November 30, Bunny gathered eight of his sidemen at RCA Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street Manhattan recording studio. This small band, billed as Bunny Berigan and His Men, consisted of  Berigan and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff, trombone; Murray Williams, Gus Bivona, and Georgie Auld, saxophones and clarinets; Joe Lippman, piano; Hank Wayland, bass; and Buddy Rich, drums. Over the next three and three-quarter hours, they very efficiently recorded four tunes that had been composed by Bix Beiderbecke: “In a Mist,” “Flashes,” “Davenport Blues,” and “Candlelights.” “It was Bunny’s idea to do these things,” Joe Lippman said. “He got that book—the suite of piano pieces—and we tried out ‘In a Mist’ on the Saturday Night Swing Club radio show.[ii]  His idea was to create a little band within the big band, and what better way to do it than with the music of Bix?”[iii] (Pianist/arranger Joe Lippman is shown above left.)The “book” Lippman referred to was the published transcriptions of Beiderbecke’s piano compositions that had been done for Bix by arranger Bill Challis.[iv]

[i] I do not think that it was a coincidence that within the year, singer Lee Wiley began her series of recordings grouped by composer, beginning with George Gershwin. She would do an all Cole Porter session with Bunny in 1940. Obviously one of the things Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley had in common was their passionate love of the best of American popular song.

[ii] The Berigan group played “In a Mist” on the Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast of  November 19, 1938. Joe Lippman’s arrangement, a highly integrated piece of music, contained composed solos. A comparison of the recording of “In a Mist” made that night with the one made for Victor on November 30 reveals that Bunny had the musicians well prepared to perform this piece on the SNSC, that he strained not to burst out of the brief solos Lippman had written for him, and that he set the tempo slightly slower on the radio performance. Otherwise, the performances are almost identical.

[iii] Bluebird, Vol. III.

Arranger William H. Challis was born on July 8, 1904, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was an early associate of the Dorsey Brothers, Russ Morgan, and other musicians who in the early 1920s were members of the fine territory band called the Scranton Sirens. Through his connection with the Sirens, he later joined the Jean Goldkette band as an arranger. It was in the Goldkette band that he became a close associate of Bix Beiderbecke’s. Shortly after this, they moved on to Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Challis’s arrangements for both Goldkette and Whiteman were among the most innovative of the 1920s. Whiteman made the deal with music publisher Jack Robbins to publish Beiderbecke’s compositions for piano, and then Challis worked with Bix to write out the music for them. Challis went through the swing era and later years working regularly but almost anonymously as an arranger. Nevertheless, his charts were played by many of the top bands of those years, including Glenn Miller’s, Artie Shaw’s, and Glen Gray’s. Challis returned to his home for a long retirement and died in Wilkes-Barre on October 4, 1994.

The music:

“Flashes”[i] begins with an absolutely lovely four-bar piano intro played by Joe Lippman that contains harmonies that would soon become a more prominent part of the swing-band–jazz-band lexicon, via arrangements by Billy Strayhorn, Paul Jordan, Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans, and Bill Finegan.[ii] Georgie Auld leads the reeds on tenor saxophone in his typically robust fashion, playing much of the time in unison with Gus Bivona’s B-flat clarinet. Murray Williams handles the bass clarinet part, which is often voiced with the brass, beautifully. The combinations of instrumental sonorities make an attractive musical blend. Bunny plays brief solo passages as he emerges, from time to time, from the ensembles, where his burnished broad trumpet tone provides both warmth and strength. Later, Conniff’s trombone and Bivona’s clarinet pop out of the delightful swirls of orchestrated sound in similar fashion. In this performance, Rich uses his brushes with delicacy and taste. Joe Lippman plays the piano parts splendidly.

This arrangement is attributed to Abe Osser ( *) (pictured at right). It demonstrates his complete command of the art of arranging, using the nine musicians very deftly—the instruments disappear into a charming orchestral kaleidoscope. Bunny must receive the credit for having his sidemen totally prepared to deliver a marvelously cohesive and sensitive musical performance. This recording is a jewel, and has been vastly underappreciated.

[i] Some Victor labels identified this recording as “Flashers” rather than “Flashes.” This misspelling is indicative of how little concern Victor had with the records of Bunny Berigan by early 1939.

[ii] We must remember that Bix Beiderbecke was enthralled by the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and actually met Ravel in March of 1928, when Ravel heard the Paul Whiteman orchestra, including Beiderbecke, play. Ravel was unimpressed by the music the orchestra performed, but was much impressed by the musicianship of the players, and especially by the solos of Bix Beiderbecke. As the swing era progressed, arrangers began to utilize the harmonies that had been employed by Debussy, Ravel, and Beiderbecke.

(*) Abraham “Glenn” Osser (1914-2014) had a very successful career in music over the period from the 1930s into the 1980s.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

2 thoughts on ““Flashes” (1938) Bunny Berigan and His Men

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  1. I’m just thrilled to find this excellent piece, as “Flashes” has always been my favorite of Bunny’s Bix sides — I was enraptured the moment I first heard that elegant and arresting Joe Lippman intro. I, too, have always wondered how the Bix program — and indeed all those you reference, which were recorded between 11/22/38 and 12/1/38 and fell decidedly beyond the pop ephemera realm — came about. I recall reading that both BG and TD’s seniority at Victor “entitled” them to the choicest pop material, which, we see, left Bunny with the abysmal “Mother Goose,” “Rinka Tinka Man,” etc.– all of which put his theory that any song could be played in a manner so as to make it seem like worthwhile material. It would thus seem that Bunny’s perceived inferior status would have nixed any opportunities such as the Bix set or the waxing of such venerable jazz warhorses as “Sobbin’ Blues” and “Jelly Roll Blues.” I must agree that the discerning Leonard Joy championed these projects, an act of support and faith for which we must be eternally grateful!

    1. edit: “all of which put his theory that any song could be played in a manner so as to make it seem like worthwhile material” … to the test.

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