“Gangbusters’ Holiday”(1938-1939) Bunny Berigan/Ray Conniff

“Gangbusters’ Holiday”

Composed and arranged by Ray Conniff.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra probably on October 14, 1938 in New York City. (This recording may be a sound check for radio broadcasts by the Berigan band from Roseland Ballroom. See endnotes (1 and 1A).

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Andy Russo, trombones; Gus Bivona, lead alto saxophone and clarinet; Milton Schatz, alto saxophone; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, baritone saxophone; piano, unknown, possibly Joe Lippman; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

The story – part one – the 1938 Berigan band: At the time this recording was made, the Berigan band was at its zenith as a swing band. Bunny had painstakingly built the band’s personnel over the previous twenty-one months, always being directed by his sense of which musicians had the optimum blend of those qualities everyone in his band or any top-rate swing band had to have. First, they had to be masters of their instrument. Second, they had to be fluent readers of music. These issues were non-negotiable. If someone couldn’t easily read and perform the arrangements in the Berigan library at top-level, they simply were not qualified to play in the band.

In the chairs where jazz solos were to be played, musicians had to also have the ability to improvise on their instrument(s). In the Berigan band, there were jazz solos on essentially five instruments: Berigan of course played the jazz on trumpet. The young tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, whom Bunny had discovered in early 1937, and mentored as a jazz soloist since then, played the jazz on that instrument. After trying out a few trombonists, Bunny finally settled on the man he had wanted for many months before he hired him in mid-1937, Thomas “Sonny” Lee. Lee was a veteran musician who was a few years older than Berigan. He not only had long experience, but he played lead trombone as well as he played jazz. He was lured away from the Berigan band by a big-money offer from Jimmy Dorsey in the spring of 1938. His replacement (on jazz trombone) was a young unknown from the Boston area, Ray Conniff. Conniff was a good jazz performer right off, and like most of the jazz performers in the Berigan band, improved while listening to Berigan play jazz night after night. The jazz clarinet/alto saxophone chair had been ably held by Joe Dixon for many months from mid-1937 into the late summer of 1938. He was replaced by Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, who was equally capable on jazz clarinet and alto saxophone, and also gradually became Bunny’s main lead alto player.

A group of Berigan sidemen outside of the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, August 1938. L-R: Hank Wayland, Clyde Rounds, Ray Conniff, Nat Lobovsky, Joe Dixon and Buddy Rich.

The musicians in the rhythm section were critically important to the ability of any swing band to, well, swing. The pianist had to be able to “comp” or accompany not only the singers in the band, but the jazz soloists as well. For most of 1937 and into early 1938, Bunny’s pianist was Joe Lippman. Lippman was a capable pianist, but he rapidly developed into a very fine arranger during that time. Though able to play solos, Lippman was not an improviser. The pressures of producing more and more arrangements for the Berigan band eventually pushed Lippman off the pianist’s bench. He remained in New York and wrote arrangements full-time for Bunny (and increasingly for others) throughout the second half of 1938 and into 1939. He was replaced by one of the best pianists to emerge from the swing era, Joe Bushkin. Bushkin was not as strong a reader of music as Lippman, but his great ability as a jazz soloist and accompanist more than compensated for that.

Joe Bushkin.

Berigan recognized the need for a swinging drummer in his band. Soon after starting his ensemble, he hired one of the better veteran drummers of the swing era, George Wettling to power his band. After some issues developed surrounding Wettling, he was eventually replaced by Dave Tough, who was one of a handful of the greatest rhythm masters of the swing era. After Tough was lured away with more money by Benny Goodman, Bunny began experimenting with young, talented drummers. The first young drummer Bunny hired was Johnny Blowers, a most colorful and swinging musician. He was replaced in mid-1938 by a 21 year-old phenom from Brooklyn, Buddy Rich.

Buddy Rich in 1938 – posing with a set of drums he later described as “unplayable,” for a drum advertisement.

In 1938, Buddy Rich was already a show business veteran, having been a child vaudeville performer, initially as a member of his parents’ vaudeville act, and then as an independent child vaudeville star. In addition to playing drums, Rich sang, danced and acted an emcee. He turned to drumming full-time in approximately 1937. His work as a drummer between 1937 and when he joined the Berigan band soon after July 4, 1938, basically involved working with small groups.

Most people don’t know that the first big band gig Buddy Rich had was with Bunny Berigan’s band. It is a testament to his great technical ability, and his uncanny ear, that he was able to fit into the Berigan band as well as he did as soon as he did. This having been said, no drummer, even Buddy Rich, could become a good big band drummer without considerable experience working with big bands. Many drummers who were quite effective in small groups never could adapt to playing well with a big band. So what you hear in this 1938 recording of “Gangbusters’ Holiday” is Buddy Rich still learning to drive a big band.

The story – part two – Count Basie,”King Porter Stomp” and Ray Conniff: Bunny Berigan did not know that Ray Conniff could arrange when he hired him in April of 1938. Conniff got the job because he was a fluent reader of music, and played fine jazz trombone. Conniff’s first couple of months in the Berigan band were filled with playing jazz trombone solos, as well as the second parts in the trombone book because that was his job, of course, and the Berigan band was very busy touring, playing ballrooms and theaters, and recording. At some point, however, something happened that changed Conniff’s relationship with the Berigan band.

Here is the essence of that story, as related to me in approximately 1980 by Buddy Rich. I encountered Rich by happenstance as I was about to enter Carnegie Hall to hear him and a number of other jazz greats perform.

The inimitable Buddy Rich.

As a friend and I began to kill a bit of time before the concert, we walked south on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk next to Carne­gie Hall. It was there that we saw Rich walking toward us, smoking something. I knew that Mr. Rich could be nasty, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to at­tempt to speak with the great Buddy Rich. As we met on the sidewalk I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Rich, I want to tell you that I have always enjoyed your play­ing.” He glared at me and exhaled smoke through his nostrils like a bull in a bull ring. “Yeaaaaah,” he said. Sensing that I was getting nowhere fast, I decided to try an abrupt change of direction. Knowing that Rich dearly loved Count Basie, I then asked him: “When did you first hear Count Basie?” The expression on his face suddenly changed to a toothy smile. “How did you know about me and Ba­sie?” he asked. I mumbled something stupid, and he cut me off: “I was with Bunny Berigan. We were in New York for a few days, and Bunny had a rehear­sal and wasn’t too happy with the way we were playing. So he stopped the re­hearsal and said, ‘You guys need to go and hear Count Basie’s band. He’s playing over on Fifty-second Street at the Famous Door. That will do you more good than rehearsing!’ So I went with Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Ray Conniff, and Joey Bushkin. We were all overwhelmed by the way the Basie band played. They swung so hard; it was so light, but powerful. Everyone was blown away by Lester Young. Everyone but Georgie, that is. He dug Herschel Evans.” Rich then took another puff, and said, “Hey, I gotta go in and do the show.” He then turned and walked south on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk to the rear of Carne­gie Hall and disappeared into the stage door.

Bunny Berigan to Ray Conniff – 1938: “You can write kid?”

Almost immediately after the event described by Rich, Ray Conniff and the others who had seen and heard the Basie band began asking Bunny if he would start to work some Basie-styled arrangements into the Berigan band’s “book.” Bunny was amenable to this, but his two main arrangers then, Joe Lippman and Andy Phillips, balked at trying to write arrangements in a style they were not really familiar with. It was then, with the brash confidence of youth, that Conniff told Bunny that he could write in the Basie style. Conniff himself told me what happened next: “Bunny said to me, ‘You can write kid? Why didn’t you tell me this sooner. Well, if you think you can write something like what Basie plays, then go ahead.’ I really wasn’t sure I could write something in the Basie style, but I started. I took a couple of my attempts to Bunny, and we tried them out, but they weren’t right. Then he suggested that I try to write something based on the chords of ‘King Porter Stomp.’ Bunny constantly got requests for that, and he played the Fletcher Henderson arrangement he had recorded with Benny Goodman. He was sick of playing it because he rightly thought that every time he played it, he was giving Benny a boost. ‘Benny doesn’t need any free advertising from me,’ he said. So I started fooling around with the chords of ‘King Porter Stomp,’ and finished up an original called ‘Gangbusters’ Holiday.’ It was in the Basie style, Bunny liked it, the band liked it, and most importantly, audiences liked it. That was the start of my writing for Bunny Berigan.”(2)

The music: “Gangbusters’ Holiday” comes on very much in the Basie style, with a piano introduction, after which the brass and reeds riff against each other. Note the baritone sax in the blend, ably played by Clyde Rounds. Bunny rarely told his arrangers what to write, but he made it known that he liked the sound of a baritone saxophone at the bottom of the sax section, so that sonority appears often in many arrangements in the Berigan book. Who was playing the piano on this occasion is a mystery. It is definitely NOT Joe Bushkin, who was in and out of the Berigan band (mostly in) in the last half of 1938. My informed speculation is that it may be Joe Lippman, who was still very much involved in writing for the Berigan band in October of 1938.

Georgie Auld – 1938.

“Gangbusters’” features Buddy Rich’s solid drumming (3), and a string of stimulating jazz solos. Georgie Auld is up first with a robust tenor solo suffused with jazz ideas, swinging rhythms, and a husky sound that would have been unimaginable for him six months earlier. (As noted above by Buddy Rich, Auld fell under the spell of tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans of the Basie band at around this time. Evans’s influence, and that of Berigan, were finally becoming a part of Auld’s jazz playing.) Gus Bivona’s fine clarinet is heard next. Then Ray Conniff takes a spirited trombone solo before Bunny makes a fiery statement on open trumpet, riding the saxophone riffs behind him like an expert surfer. Note the last phrase Berigan plays: the notes pour out of his trumpet in one cogent and musically cohesive statement.

The mystery pianist returns briefly on piano before a Rich drum burst calls back the brass (with Berigan playing lead), and reeds to wrap it up.

This arrangement was later recorded quite successfully by Bunny for Victor. (See below.)

(1) Where and why this recording was made remains a mystery. Another take, with equally provocative solos, was also made at the same time. They both appear to have been recorded in a studio because of the ambient sound. But another possibility is that they were a sound-check for the remote radio broadcasts of the Berigan band that emanated from the Roseland Ballroom, that was recorded. (Eventually, seventeen selections by the Berigan band (including Rich) from Roseland were recorded in October of 1938. Where are they now???)

(1A) The unique acetate disk on which this recording was captured was discovered by me in the Bunny Berigan Archive located at the Mills Music Library of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Sound engineer par excellence Doug Pomeroy did the digital transfer from that disk, and the initial digital remastering, in 2012. I did additional digital remastering in 2019.

(2) This conversation took place in 1996.

(3) Buddy Rich later in his life told Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker that one of his earliest jazz and big band drumming influences came from Tony Briglia, long-time drummer of the Casa Loma band. The cymbal explosions Rich uses in “Gangbusters’ Holiday,” especially behind Ray Conniff’s trombone solo, are vintage Briglia, and can be heard throughout the Casa Loma band’s swinging performance of “No Name Jive,” which was recorded for Decca on March 18, 1940. This lively performance will soon be presented at the sister blog of bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com, swingandbeyond.com.

“Gangbusters’ Holiday”

Composed and arranged by Ray Conniff.

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

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton, 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, baritone saxophone; Joe Bishkin, piano, Allan Reuss, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Eddie Jenkins, drums.

The story continues: Between the time the “live” or soundcheck recording of “Gangbuster’s Holiday” was recorded in mid-October 1938, and this Victor studio recording, which was made five months later, many things happened to and for Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra. On the musical side, there were numerous personnel changes, which always had an unsettling effect on how a band played, at least temporarily. The personnel changes that shook the Berigan band most deeply were the departures first of Georgie Auld, and then Buddy Rich, both of whom were offered more money by Artie Shaw, whose band was rocketing to national popularity as 1938 ended and 1939 began.

Don Lodice – 1939.

Auld’s replacement was Domenico Francesco LoGuidice, known professionally as Don Lodice. Lodice played very well for Berigan, as one hears in this recording. Rich’s eventual replacement was another young, unknown, but talented drummer, Eddie Jenkins. He also played with considerable verve. The rest of the replacements were forged into well-integrated parts of the Berigan band as a result of two solid months of touring from January into March of 1939, and performing under Bunny’s inspired and inspiring leadership. If this recording proves anything, it is that the Berigan band of early 1939 remained a potent performance unit, and Bunny himself continued to play splendidly.

Spring, 1939: Cap and Bunny Berigan at Kennywood Park outside Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately, on the business side of the Berigan band, things were decidedly worse. The principal reason for this is that Bunny and his personal manager Arthur Michaud had an acrimonious parting of the ways in January of 1939. This rupture happened for many reasons, some of which were the fault of Michaud, and some of which were not. For whatever reason, Bunny came away from that unpleasant divorce believing that Michaud had cost him a lot of money. Bunny decided that in order to correct that, he would have his father, William P. “Cap” Berigan, act as his personal manager. Cap Berigan was well-liked by Bunny’s sidemen, and certainly was honest in his dealings with his son. The problem was that Cap Berigan knew nothing about the band business, and indeed little about business in general. Bunny’s career went adrift, and the business matters of the Berigan band were not handled in the most efficient manner while Cap Berigan served as Bunny’s manager, which was through the balance of 1939. Consequently, despite generally profitable work, the business operation of the Berigan band seemed to be sucking Bunny into a quagmire of debt. Bunny’s drinking, always a concern to those who were associated with him, increased. By the end of 1939, he was financially insolvent and in debt to a number of creditors, and he was struggling to keep his band going. Most disturbing was the fact that Bunny’s robust good health had started to deteriorate alarmingly at the end of 1939 and into 1940. He was hospitalized and away from his band for two weeks during that time.

But he returned to lead his band in early January 1940. Despite his health not being restored, he played well.

The music: Pianist Joe Bushkin plays the band on in this Victor recording of “Gangbusters’ Holiday.” His first few notes seem to allude to “Swanee River,” but then he creates some nice jazz. The riffs that follow are cleanly played by the saxophone section having Gus Bivona’s lead alto on top, and Larry Walsh’s baritone on the bottom. It is notable that by this time, Berigan added a third trumpet in the section, and that most of the lead work was being done by Johnny Napton, an excellent first trumpet player. In order to balance the cost of the third trumpet, Bunny at this time dropped the guitar from his regular band. Guitarist Allan Reuss, well-known from his work with Benny Goodman, who was free-lancing in New York, was hired by Bunny for this recording session only. (4)

This photo is one of several that were taken at Bunny Berigan’s Victor recording session on March 15, 1939. Shown L-R: are back-Johnny Napton,Jake Koven, George Johnston; middle – Don Lodice,Gus Bivona,Hank Saltman,Eddie Jenkins,Larry Walsh. In front are Berigan and Allan Reuss. The woman at left in the foreground is vocalist Kathleen Lane. The right arm in the upper right corner is bassist Hank Wayland’s.

The next soloist is tenor saxophonist Don Lodice. His playing here is fluent, with a touch of chromaticism. He has a nice, full sound and he swings. Gus Bivona follows with an exuberant clarinet solo. Ray Conniff improvises on trombone, followed by Berigan’s authoritative open trumpet. In the shout chorus, Bunny lets Napton play the trumpet lead at first, and adds brilliant trumpet high notes over the riffing ensemble. Berigan then takes the lead at the end.

(4) Bunny would soon reintroduce a guitar in his band. He very much had liked the chording and single string work of his previous guitarist, Dick Wharton. The new guitarist, Tommy Moore, played in the same fashion for Berigan. As always, musical considerations were paramount in Berigan’s mind, even as this “extra” musician was adding to his increasing financial debt.

NOTE: Gang Busters was a very popular crime drama network radio show that began in 1936 and ran for many years.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Links:

For another of Ray Conniff’s early Basie-inspired arrangements for the Berigan band, check this out: https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2017/08/16/buddy-rich-at-100-moten-swing-1938-bunny-berigan/

Here is a link to Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/09/12/king-porter-stomp-1935-benny-goodman/

Here is a link to a Beatles song that is related to both “King Porter Stomp” and “Gangbusters’ Holiday”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/07/21/with-a-little-help-from-my-friends-1969-count-basie/

2 thoughts on ““Gangbusters’ Holiday”(1938-1939) Bunny Berigan/Ray Conniff

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  1. The great “Gangbusters,” one of the Berigan band’s best instrumentals, unmistakably bears the influence of the Basie orchestra’s laid back but relentless groove. Though I’ve always found Conniff’s writing, as both composer and arranger, infinitely more impressive than his jazz trombone, I have to say that I think he was at his best as an improvisor during his stay with Bunny; I’m assuming it was Maestro Berigan who elicited these strong statements, more pungent than anything Ray came up with later with, say, Shaw or Crosby (or on the ’43 Bobby Hackett or ’44 Cozy Cole dates). Both takes have great charm and verve, owing to the highly personal voices of the respective participants — particularly, of course, our fearless leader, whose daring flights were always extemporaneous and unique. I note that your certainty about Lippman’s presence on the ’38 treatment, as expressed in the liner notes for the superb Swingin’ & Jumpin release on the Hep label, has become speculation here. Certain figures I hear throughout his solo work incline me to agree it’s Joe. He was no match, of course, for the deft and nimble other Joe — Bushkin, whose intro does suggest “Swanee River,” specifically, his lead-in to the opening chorus on the stately Dorsey version, from Sy Oliver’s magnificent arrangement. … I was very impressed to read, many years ago, that Buddy was an ardent Tony Briglia admirer; it seems that the Casa Loma orch. has been very unjustly maligned, perhaps largely because the band preceded the official kick-off of the Swing Era. Though Buddy and Georgie’s defection to Shaw represented huge losses to the band, I think the studio “Gangbusters” can be seen as an indication of how well the Berigan crew was able to maintain its overall character and high musical quality with replacements. Don Lodice, for example, hints at the fine work that was just around the corner for him as a member of TD’s band. Besides Bunny, Gus Bivona provides a sense of continuity and creativity in the soloing department from the ’38 rendering to the ’39. I’ve always enjoyed that whole ’39 session, too, for the fact that the great Allan Reuss, my favorite guitarist, was brought in; his presence is always felt, on any date, even without one of his beautiful chordal solos. … If only the rest of those ’38 Roseland Ballroom recordings would turn up!

    1. Many thanks Elizabeth for your thoughtful and informed comments. When it comes to Mr. Trumpet, Bunny Berigan, you truly “get” it.
      I have been looking for some clues as to the whereabouts of those October 1938 Roseland/Berigan broadcast recordings for many years. They would make a great album, though we are now in the age where albums are largely a quaint reminder of another era. Unfortunately, collectors of these important cultural artifacts all too often think that they “own” them, and can therefore hoard them against the possibility of selling them at some future date for a lot of money. Alas! The value in these recordings is their significance as a part of out American musical heritage. No one owns them. They belong to everyone who has an interest in the music of the swing era, and in the artists who made the music.

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