“Jelly Roll Blues” (1938)

“Jelly Roll Blues”

Composed by Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton; arranged by Abe Osser.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra on November 22, 1938 for Victor in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Bob Jenney, trombones; Murray Williams, alto saxophone; Gus Bivona, B-flat clarinet and alto saxophone; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.

The story: I was fortunate to catch Joe Bushkin for a few minutes on one of his rare appearances in Manhattan in the 1980s. Joe was a funny man, a great storyteller, and an unabashed worshipper of Bunny Berigan. He was also an excellent pianist. He was in New York, his home town, in 1985 to celebrate his fiftieth year in show business with a series of concerts at the St. Regis Hotel.

Joe Bushkin at the piano – early 1950s.

One of the stories he told me was about a time in the fall of 1938 when Bunny was besieged by various misfortunes including being blown out of a two-week gig at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Boston by the Great Hurricane of 1938, a broken ankle, and a couple of blown gigs, the result of MCA (Music Corporation of America, his booking agency), not keeping his band’s itinerary straight. The blown gigs really aggravated Bunny, who was obsessive about appearing with his band at gigs on time, and cost him a lot of money.

Bushkin and Berigan were in a hotel room talking on an afternoon in the fall of 1938 before a gig when Bunny’s road manager came rushing into the room with some sort of letter to Bunny from MCA. “The manager handed it to Bunny, and he read it. He then folded the document into the shape of a paper airplane and tossed it like a dart, back at the manager. It hit him in the chest and fell to the floor. Bunny was always amused by the ostentatious MCA letterhead that stated that MCA had offices in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong… ‘These mothers have offices all around the world that I’m paying for,’ Bunny said, ‘yet they can’t figure out where my band is supposed to play each night.’ Bunny had been a very conscientious bandleader, doing what MCA ordered him to do without question before those screw-ups. But after them, his attitude toward MCA turned sour.”

As if these professional challenges were not enough, Berigan also confronted some serious problems in his personal life at the same time. In the fall of 1938, a series of disturbing incidents relating to the two Berigan daughters, Pat, who was six, and Joyce, who was two, occurred. They set in motion a number of reactions by Bunny which were directed to  improving the ongoing care of his daughters.

A small feature photo used by MCA’s public relations department for placement in newspapers. This photo was taken in Fox Lake in the summer of 1939. Donna was not happy living there with Bunny’s parents.

In the wake of the initial separation of Donna, Bunny’s wife, from him, which started in the spring of 1938 after Donna confronted him about his liaison with singer and femme fatale Lee Wiley, Donna took the girls to live with her in Syracuse, New York, her hometown. This arrangement evidently lasted for only a couple of months because Donna was bored living in Syracuse with the girls. By the summer, she was spending a considerable amount of time with Bunny and the band on the road. During these times, she put the girls in places recalled much later by Patricia Berigan as “foster homes,” probably in the Queens section of New York City. Donna asked her (and Bunny’s) friend Kay Altpeter, the wife of trombonist Larry Altpeter, who lived nearby, to look in on the girls periodically and let her know how they were doing. On one such visit, Kay discovered what Patricia later described as “child abuse” of little Jo. Kay notified Bunny and Donna of this, and an irate Bunny, with Donna in tow, immediately returned to New York from wherever he was with his band, removed the girls from this home, and began searching for another place for them to stay while he and Donna were together on tour with the band. He was not satisfied with any of the places he visited, and told Donna that she would have to remain at home with the girls until he had time to find a place for them to stay whenever Donna chose to join him on the road. He then returned to his band, and Donna remained with the girls at the Berigan house in Rego Park, Queens.

Donna McArthur – 1930, when she was a part of a dance team with her brother Darrell. She and Bunny married in 1931.

This development caused Donna to become very resentful. By the time Bunny came home for the holidays at the end of 1938, she was drinking too much, and was strung out emotionally. The atmosphere in the Berigan home, which had never been nurturing for the girls, or well organized, was now nearing crisis. Pat later stated that Donna was not a loving mother, and did not in any way enjoy staying at home to care for her and Jo. Indeed, when Donna drank too much, which she was now doing more often, she would berate the girls to such an extent that they hid from her to get away from her rages.

When the girls told Bunny about this, he confronted Donna and there was a major blowup between them. With the Pat and Jo cowering in a hiding place watching and crying, a hysterical Donna grabbed a butcher knife and came at Bunny with it. He was somehow able to deflect the assault, but she refused to put down the knife. He then told her to go ahead and stab him. As she came at him a second time, little Patty appeared and said, “Don’t hurt Daddy!” A dim light-bulb of reason then switched on in Donna’s addled mind. Instead if stabbing Bunny, she hurled the knife to the floor, and began screaming imprecations at him.

In the wake of this emotional upheaval, Bunny recognized that the 1938 holiday season was not filled with joy at the Berigan home. So in his own modest way, he tried to bring a little Christmas cheer to his daughters. He obtained Christmas cards, and with Pat and Joyce, signed each one himself, and then helped the girls to also “sign” them. Almost fifty years later, Patricia Berigan fondly recalled this. Bunny’s girls were his “princesses” and he was never without a photo of them in his wallet, which he would proudly display to whoever asked him about his daughters. They both knew that he loved them.(1)

Bunny Berigan and his daughters, Joyce aged 3 and Patty, aged 6 – summer 1939 in a suite in Hotel Sherman in Chicago.(*)

Seeing firsthand what was going on between Donna and their daughters, Bunny discussed this disturbing situation on the phone with his parents, who were still living in Fox Lake, Wisconsin. Having observed Donna at close range and for extended periods of time (Bunny had her stay with them in Wisconsin on a number of occasions), they weren’t surprised about her inability to be an effective mother. But they were, of course, shocked by the incident of child abuse. Bunny and his parents then devised the plan whereby Cap and Mayme would come to New York from Fox Lake to live in the Berigan house in Rego Park with Donna and the girls. Then, whenever Donna chose to join Bunny on tour, at least Pat and Jo would be well cared for by their grandparents.

Another photo of Berigan with his daughters in Chicago in the summer of 1939. (*)

This modus vivendi could not have been very pleasing for Donna, but then she always had had some difficulty functioning as a mother for her daughters, and now was expressing her resentment openly, and creating an emotionally harmful situation for the girls. I strongly suspect that this living arrangement is what hardened Donna’s dislike for Cap Berigan who, unlike Mayme, was very blunt in his criticisms of Donna. This uneasy arrangement continued until early May, when Cap joined Bunny and the band on tour, acting as road manager or assistant road manager, and the distaff side of the family, led by Bunny’s mother, went to Fox Lake for the summer.

Victor’s Leonard Joy talks with Berigan as saxophonist Hymie Shertzer looks on. This photo was taken in the Victor recording studio on January 12, 1939. (*)

The music: In mid-November of 1938, the Berigan band returned to the road again, playing a couple of one-night dance jobs near New York City. In spite of the recent turnover of some of its musicians, which was a result of the loss of the two-week Ritz-Carleton stand and subsequent haphazard bookings by MCA, the Berigan band that entered the RCA Victor recording studio on November 22 sounded very good. In addition, they finally had four excellent arrangements on four tunes that seemed to fit the style of the band, to record. Bunny’s old friend, Victor a and r man Leonard Joy, was back in the control room that day to supervise the session, and as a result, there was very good karma in the studio. It seems that Bunny’s luck, if only temporarily, was back in a positive phase. The recordings he made on this date are among his finest.

The tune “Jelly Roll Blues,” like many things about its composer Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, is somewhat mysterious.  He claimed to have written it in 1905, which would have been three years after he said that he invented jazz.  I suspect that Bunny was familiar with Morton’s recording of it, which was made for Victor in 1926. He commissioned this arrangement from Abe Osser, who had done such a good job on the chart he had written for Bunny’s band on “Trees.”  Here, Osser outdoes himself – the arrangement is superb, and Bunny and the band do it full justice.

Gus Bivona (left) and Georgie Auld. Photo courtesy Gary Bivona.

Berigan starts this performance using a Harmon mute, adding a slight rasp for effect.  The reeds deployed at the beginning of the first chorus, are led by Gus Bivona’s clarinet, then the melody is stated by Georgie Auld’s tenor saxophone and Bivona’s clarinet playing the lead in unison an octave apart, with the open brass humming along behind them providing a soft harmonic cushion. “An eight-bar reed section unison opens out onto the next part of the piece, heralded by three trilled clarinet notes from Bivona. The sensitive scoring uses the substance of Morton’s composition, only slightly rearranging its parts in order to harvest their melodic richness.  Bivona’s clarinet and Auld’s tenor, playing in unison octaves, are an especially attractive feature here, with Dick Wharton’s guitar providing good underpinning. Berigan can be heard leading the brass, and the band achieves a clean, handsome sorority.  The musicians use dynamics and different orchestral textures in a way that belies all of the undoubtedly accurate stories of haphazard rehearsals and wayward leadership.” (2) (I must at this point interject that there are many references both in the White materials and elsewhere that make it very clear that whatever other quirks Bunny Berigan had, and we know that he had a few, he was not haphazard in rehearsal with his band.  Whenever the Berigan band sounded good, and that was quite often, Bunny’s leadership in rehearsal can and should be credited with facilitating those good performances.)

Joe Bushkin offers four thoughtful, delicate bars of piano to bring Berigan on for one of his most eloquent solos on record. His phrases seem to grieve with an intense and vivid humanity.  The chords of this blues, differing from the norm in their construction, allow Berigan to tap two sources of emotional strength – the basic force of the blues and the lyric intensity of song – and he makes the most of both. His solo abounds in points of exquisite musical detail: His use of eighth-note triplets in bars five and six is typical of the way that he accents some and leaves others out altogether to shape a coiled spring of a phrase. His playing is right across the warmest range of his rich middle register, going for no spectacular climaxes or effects, devoting everything to melody and feeling. Even his break at the conclusion of his first chorus, with its half-valve rip up to high C and four annunciatory quarter notes, is in keeping with the moment. With the band playing quiet three-beat stop-time behind him (marking the first three beats of each bar and leaving the fourth open), Berigan follows his melodic trajectory up, then plunges to the depths of his horn, soaring back up to a glorious high D before gather in this thrilling solo an a bouncing, half-valve figure that seems to cajole before quietly taking its leave.  The full ensemble, with the reeds on clarinets and Rich riding his backbeats hard, delivers an equally moving chorus, one of the most intense and beautifully played Berigan orchestral passages on record.  It had the power of a Berigan solo and a single-minded unanimity of interpretation.  It ends on an engaging little unison clarinet figure that brings Berigan back, muted again, for a parting comment in the spirit of his introduction but this time played more deliberately, a fitting recognition of the compelling statement that has just been made. The band takes it out with a reiteration of Morton’s famous triplet phrase and a concluding thump.” (3)

This is a recording for the ages.  It goes far beyond its initial purpose as a commercial recording by a swing era dance band.  What Berigan achieved that day on his recording of “Jelly Roll Blues” was a completely integrated, deeply profound musical statement.  There is an ineffable perfection and completeness to this performance. It is not technically perfect, but it is musically perfect. One cannot imagine it being rendered any differently.  Yet listening to it is much more than a musical experience; it is an emotional experience, rooted in the inexhaustible wellspring of jazz, the blues. For anyone who wonders what the artistry of Bunny Berigan was all about, this recording offers a complete explanation.  “Jelly Roll Blues” is absolutely one of the Berigan essentials.

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


(1) The information about the events leading up to Cap and Mayme Berigan coming to New York to care for their granddaughters was provided by Patricia Berigan to Berigan biographer Robert Dupuis. It is contained in the Dupuis/Berigan Archive at the Mills Music Library at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

(2) Giants of Jazz, Bunny Berigan (1983), page 46. (Notes by Richard M. Sudhalter.)

(3) Ibid.

(*) Photos with asterisk (*) at the end of their captions are from the Otto F. Hess collection, copyright Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Used with permission.

3 thoughts on ““Jelly Roll Blues” (1938)

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  1. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this recording. “Jelly Roll Blues” fulsomely displays Bunny’s narrative genius and keen architectural sense, as well as the staggering technique and tone which enabled him to go anyplace his imagination took him; the slight technical imperfections only add to the emotional power. For me, this side easily belongs in a Berigan Must-Hear Top Three list for both Bunny’s playing and the band’s performance as a whole. The Berigan orchestra, particularly of ’38, included some very talented musicians, but I have to attribute not just the swing, but also the precision and that nuanced attention to dynamics that is so apparent in JRB to Bunny’s high standards and leadership. As for that eloquent and deeply moving solo, I always have to wonder if he was playing merely what his stunning musical talent and instinct dictated or if the process was a catharsis in response to the tremendous stress he was under.

    … He certainly had enough of that! Given Bunny’s susceptibilities, even in his early adulthood, I think Donna was about the last woman in the world with whom he should have become involved, but I’m sure he had no inkling in the early days of what a horrible wife and mother to his children she would be. Those photos of the proud father and his beautiful little girls are extremely touching. Despite the albatross that Donna became, I’m glad Bunny, a man with strong family ties, had the joy that fatherhood clearly gave him.

    Finally, it’s always wonderful to read Joe Bushkin’s perceptive
    observations. I’ve always felt that of all the Berigan orch. sidemen, he has provided the greatest clarity to our understanding of Bunny, the bandleader and the man, during the period of their professional association and friendship. The amusing paper airplane story gives great insight into Bunny’s way of coping with and shrugging off his bad breaks and unfortunate entanglements. … Right up there with Joe’s account of Donna’s lousy hamburger and canned peas dinner for Bunny, home from the road, and his guest.

  2. The thing is at the time Joe Bushkin had the poor supper at Bunnys apartment. He did not realize Donna only had a very small amount of funds to buy groceries at that time. Bunny was in big debt and they were taking his money. I dont think Donna was uncaring for Bunnys meals. It was what it was . I talked to Donna in 1985 when she was staying with my Mom. She really loved Bunny. She talked about him like he was god. She was a alcoholic. And we all know the problems that caused. She was very young. And not mature at all for role as a mother. She was very nice to talk to. I only meant her one time in my life. I knew her brother Darryl who brought up my Mom when Bunny past away. They were top notch professional dancers. Donna I think would have been a much better wife and mother if she was not a Alcoholic. Donna was very talented dancer. She said no one could play trumpet as good as Bunny. So I said maybe louis Armstrong was even greater and she said no Bunny was better then Louis. And she got mad at me too lol. I agree now Bunny was the greatest to ever play.

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