Composed (music and lyric) by Irving Berlin: arranged by Joe Lippman.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for the Thesaurus Transcription Service on June 27, 1938 in New York.
Bunny Berigan, lead and solo trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky (lead), and Ray Conniff, trombones; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxopohne and clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Ruth Gaylor, vocal.
Lost in the mists of time is the fact that in the spring and summer of 1938, and indeed into the autumn of that year, Bunny Berigan led one of the best swing bands In the country. Among the many Tin Pan Alley trifles that Bunny was required to record by Victor Records, there were a few great examples of what the Berigan band was capable of. These include: “Azure,” “The Wearin’ of the Green,” from the spring; “Livery Stable Blues” and “High Society,” from the summer; and “Rockin’ Rollers’ Jubilee,” “Sobbin’ Blues,” “I Cried for You,” and “Jelly Roll Blues,” from the autumn. Through 1938, the Berigan band played with an elan and assurance as an ensemble that bordered on swagger. When they chose to, they strutted the music. They had good, exciting soloists, most of their arrangements then were first rate, and arranger Joe Lippman had shown again and again that he was capable of writing special arrangements that highlighted not only his skill and creativity, but the capabilities of the Berigan band, and their exuberant, virtuoso leader. Bunny himself had worked without letup for seventeen months to build every aspect of this band. He had been totally involved in assembling its personnel and arrangements. He had constantly tried to infuse the band’s performances with his fiery jazz spirit. At last, by the middle of 1938, they had arrived at a point where to a large degree they reflected his musical personality. He had to be pleased.
Berigan had endured the vicissitudes of the band business more or less with equanimity. Though he was generally aware of what was going on on the business side of his band, he basically entrusted business matters to others. He paid his business associates well, and expected that they would guide his band’s fortunes in a positive direction. To mid-1938, Bunny’s management team had functioned reasonably well. Not perfectly by any means, but well. Bunny had every reason to be encouraged about the future of his band as the summer of 1938 began.
Immediately after the May 26 Victor recording session that produced “The Wearin’ of the Green,” the Berigan band played for one or two nights at New York’s posh Essex House hotel, on Central Park South. One wonders how well this romping jazz band fit in there!
The next night, Sunday, May 29, they were in a much more congenial jazz atmosphere, Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. There they were to do battle with the “King of the Savoy,” Chick Webb. At this time, Webb’s band was also one of the leading swing bands in the nation, having good arrangements, strong soloists (especially Chick himself on drums, trumpeters Bobby Stark and Taft Jordan, and alto saxophonist Louis Jordan), and the lilting vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. (To hear what the Webb band was up to in May of 1938, listen to their recordings of “Spinnin’ the Webb,” and “Liza” with their great Bobby Stark trumpet solos, Mario Bauza’s fiery lead trumpet. Also, the Webb band had just recorded Ella Fitzgerald’s swinging nursery rhyme “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”) They knew how to please the dancers at the Savoy, and when necessary, to swing – mightily.
Before this gig, Bunny no doubt told his band members to watch themselves lest they be embarrassed by the hard-swinging Webb musicians. The consensus drawn from the throng that attended this event was that Webb won by a whisker on his home turf. Berigan himself had played heroically, and the Berigan band, with the very solid drumming of Johnny Blowers propelling its swing, had acquitted itself very well. But it was said that nobody ever outplayed Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy. Bunny and his sidemen left this contest with the feeling that they could hold their own against any swing band.
After this musically exhilarating experience, the Berigan band played a month of one-night stands throughout the eastern part of the nation. They returned to New York at the end of June for an important radio broadcast on the NBC/RCA Magic Key Show, on June 26 (1), and then to make some recordings.
The day after the radio broadcast, June 27, Bunny and his band visited the RCA Victor studios on East 24th Street, but this time he and his musicians were scheduled to make a batch of recordings for NBC’s Thesaurus transcription service. The sixteen inch 33 1/3 rpm discs on which the music was marketed were leased or sold to radio stations under the generic name “Rhythm Makers” or “The Rhythm Makers.” No identification of the many bands that made Thesaurus transcriptions was ever done. It is extremely fortuitous that this recording opportunity existed for the Berigan band at that particular time, because this Thesaurus recording session, and one which would take place in the not too distant future, like the airchecks of the band from their spring 1938 residency at the Paradise Restaurant in Manhattan, allow us to have a much more complete understanding of the mature Berigan band’s capabilities. The difference between this band and the one Bunny had led on his previous Thesaurus session almost two years earlier is immense. The earlier band sounded very much like what it actually was—a part-time band with no identity. This Berigan band had now reached the place where it was imbued with its leader’s passionate musical persona: it was powerful, exciting, and sometimes a bit unpredictable, even reckless.
They recorded twenty tunes that day, and as always was the case on transcriptions, only one take on each tune was made, so the resulting recordings are not perfect. But they nevertheless contain a lot of great playing, and show how exciting this band could be. There is no indication of when the session started or ended.
Of great interest for Berigan fans are the titles that Bunny recorded for Thesaurus that he did not record for Victor. Among them are some of the best and most representative recordings the Berigan band ever made. Irving Berlin’s “My Walking Stick” is one such recording. It had been recorded for Victor by Tommy Dorsey (April 27, 1938) with a vocal by Edythe Wright, so Bunny was unable to record it for Victor. That is too bad, because this colorful arrangement, written by Joe Lippman, with solos by Bunny, Joe Dixon, Ray Conniff, and Georgie Auld is excellent.
This tune was composed by Irving Berlin for the 1938 Fox film Alexander’s Ragtime Band, which was essentially a revue featuring many of Berlin’s best tunes from the past, plus this new one. The film starred Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche, Ethel Merman and Jack Haley. Ms. Merman, fresh from Broadway and appearing in her first film, introduced “My Walking Stick.”
This Berigan recording is a wonderful example of what Bunny’s band sounded like in a ballroom playing for dancers. This was a spirited band led and inspired by a dynamic leader. They came at their audiences. Joe Lippman’s arrangement contains many bold and contrasting instrumental sequences, and room for a unique sixteen-bar trumpet solo by Mr. Berigan. (Others may disagree (I welcome the comments of visitors to this blog), but I think that Bunny got the “dirty” sound we hear in his playing in this performance by inserting a kazoo into the bell of his trumpet, and … )
Bunny Berigan was a master of mutes. In addition to using the conventional mutes trumpeters used in the swing era, including various straight mutes (including the pixie straight mute, with and without a plunger), the cup mute, and the Harmon mute (which he sometimes reversed), Bunny used a felt beret, a felt derby and also an aluminum derby, a buzz-wow mute, a water glass, and … a kazoo. All of these muting devices altered one of the most beautiful open trumpet sounds in the history of jazz. My informed speculation about this is that Berigan was constantly seeking variety in the musical sounds he was creating. He definitely achieved variety, but on occasion he missed the mark in using muting devices, especially the kazoo, which was never easy to control. But ever the gambler, Berigan happily took the chance that something interesting might happen, and here it does.
After the attention-getting eight bar introduction in which Lippman contrasts the bold open trombones with the clarinets, we hear what Bunny wrought with his kazoo. Adjectives like “dirty,” “raspy,” “savage” all fail to convey an accurate description of the sounds he created. Clarinetist Joe Dixon plays next paraphrasing the song’s secondary melody. Then the ensemble, with the potent two trombone team of Nat Lobovsky on lead, and Ray Conniff, play round-robin with the open trumpets and the surging saxophones.
A robust modulation, played by band (with Bunny now on lead trumpet), flows into Ruth’s Gaylor’s vocal chorus. Petite Ms. Gaylor handles the lyric well against rhythmic but quieter playing by the ensemble. Note the singing saxophones and Joe Bushkin’s tasty comping behind the vocal, set off by the syncopated straight-muted trumpets.
Ray Conniff then plays a rambunctious sixteen bar open trombone solo, followed by an eight-bar tenor saxophone romp by Georgie Auld, who swings atop drummer Johnny Blowers’s rocking back-beats. Blowers is playing a heavy 2/4 in this sequence against a walking 4/4 in Hank Wayland’s bass and Tommy Morgan’s guitar. The result is rollicking swing.
This is a prime example of swing played with inspiration by a fine band galvanized by their dynamic leader.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The important radio broadcast the Berigan band made on June 26, 1938 was the NBC/RCA Magic Key show. This show emanated from the NBC studios in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. Here is a link to some of that show:
Here is something that Berigan fans may find interesting. Recently, a man from Texas contacted me and told me that he had bought a trumpet on eBay that purportedly belonged to Bunny Berigan. We know that Berigan owned and played many trumpets during his career. This instrument may be one of them.
I have agreed to circulate some information relevant to the instrument in question to readers of bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com with the hope that they may be able to provide some more information about this instrument.
Here is a PDF file with known facts about this instrument, a picture of the trumpet and of its mouthpiece, and the contact information for the person who is trying to trace the ownership of the instrument back to Bunny Berigan. Feel free to contact him directly with any relevant information you may have or know about.
Here are a couple of photos of the Conn trumpet discussed above: