“A Study in Brown” (1937)

Composed by Larry Clinton: arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and Hos Orchestra for Victor on August 18, 1937 in New York.

Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Robert “Mike” Doty first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon (Giuseppe Ischia) alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Georgie Auld (John Altwerger) and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan (Morganelli), guitar; Frederick “Hank” Wayland, bass; George Godfrey Wettling, drums.

The story:

A feature piece that appeared in newspapers around the country in September of 1939. By the time this blurb ran, Berigan was in serious financial trouble, and his marriage was on the rocks.

Every human life has some degree of schizophrenia in it. In the case of Bunny Berigan, the duality of what he wanted to do, and what he was actually doing, especially in the middle 1930s in Manhattan, was often extreme.

On the personal level, he had married a young, immature, unsophisticated girl with the intent that they could have a home and family, like the one he had grown up with in rural Wisconsin. He showered Donna, his wife, and the two daughters they had, with all of the material goodies his princely income as one of the most successful musicians in New York would allow.

Yet, as time passed and his career as a bandleader accelerated, Bunny was with them less and less, and his increasingly wayward ways began to affect Donna’s own behavior. She gradually went from being the co-dependent alcoholic’s (and workaholic’s) wife, to being someone who had her own drinking (and other) problems. As a result, the Berigan home through the 1930s was a place that was always more or less in a state of disarray. No matter how much money Bunny made, it was never enough for Donna to run the household. Bills did not get paid. In at least one instance, the heat in the Berigan home was shut off because Donna didn’t pay the gas bill. This apparently didn’t upset Bunny. When two of his colleagues from CBS (Nat Natoli and Dave Wade) came to visit him at his home in Rego Park, Queens in midwinter, they found four year-old Patricia Berigan in her winter coat, playing on the floor. Natoli, who had worked with Bunny in the Paul Whiteman orchestra, and was a few years older than him, was upset by this, and he chastised Bunny, who remained oblivious.(1)

The relationship between Bunny and Donna slowly eroded until Donna was essentially at home with Patricia, and Joyce who was born in 1936, and Bunny was away from home almost constantly, working as many as a hundred hours a week in Manhattan on staff at CBS, making dozens of records as a free-lance, and working at the Famous Door, a jazz club on 52nd Street. Bunny made sure that Donna had help at home with the girls, nevertheless Donna felt isolated and became resentful that she couldn’t get out and have fun in Manhattan with her friends. This certainly understandable, to a point: Donna was only 24 years old in 1936. But it was unrealistic for her to expect Bunny to accompany her on any social occasions because he was simply too busy working.

Meanwhile, there was someone living in Manhattan who had other ideas about how to relate to Bunny Berigan: the sultry chanteuse Lee Wiley. Berigan and Wiley had met working in radio in 1933, but nothing happened between them then because she was in a relationship with the conductor and composer Victor Young, and Bunny was still in the early years of his marriage to Donna. In the summer of 1935, Berigan and Wiley were both in Los Angeles, he with Benny Goodman’s band, she in pursuit of Young, who much to her dismay married someone else rather abruptly. This turn of events left Wiley, who was a very emotional person, in a depressed state. To ease that pain, she began going to the Palomar Ballroom to hear the Goodman band. It is likely that she and Berigan began their relationship at that time. By the time they both were back in Manhattan in early 1936, they were definitely involved with each other, though it seems that their relationship, as time passed, became spasmodic. They continued in this on-again-off-again manner until mid-1940, when their relationship finally ended.

What is curious about the relationship between Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley is that she was seemingly the pursuer, he the pursued. Many of Bunny’s musical associates recalled Wiley pursuing Bunny relentlessly, including at gigs and in recording studios.

L-R: June 1937 at the Pennsylvania Roof: Bunny Berigan, Jack Whelan, a Berigan friend, Lee Wiley and Pearl Wiley, Lee’s younger sister.

By 1937, Bunny was appearing publicly with Wiley; indeed they were photographed together on at least one occasion. Lee Wiley was with Bunny very much throughout most of the months of 1937 when he was building his band and his name in New York by appearing on radio, and in lengthy engagements at the Hotel Pennsylvania and the Pavilion Royal. The White materials are replete with recollections of musicians and other professional associates of Bunny who saw her with him very frequently during this period. By the time Bunny’s band left New York on its first road trip in October of 1937, many of these people were relieved that at last Wiley would not be around Bunny anymore, at least while they were away from New York.(2) They had the distinct feeling that, moral issues aside, Lee Wiley, like booze, was not good for Bunny Berigan. Unfortunately, Bunny did not feel this way. In fact, indications are that he had fallen in love with Lee Wiley.(3)

Lee Wiley – late 1930s.

Professionally, Bunny Berigan had grown up as a jazz musician. Unlike most jazz musicians of his time, he also possessed the skills to be a superb studio musician. As a result, Bunny had been forced to sublimate his jazz nature, and perform for the better part of six years (1931-1936) basically as a studio musician, which allowed him to earn a handsome income in the depths of the Great Depression. But the ongoing confinement, regimentation, and frustration of doing this, and his sense that his career was going nowhere, among other factors, had caused him to become an alcoholic. By the time he had become very dependent on alcohol (1934), circumstances had combined that would eventually allow him, and many other very talented musicians, to start jazz-oriented dance bands that the public supported sufficiently to allow their ongoing existence and, in a few  instances, commercial success.

After Bunny Berigan formed his own band in early 1937, he was allowed to be himself musically more than at any other time in his professional life. Indeed, most of Bunny’s happiness for the remainder of his life was derived from leading and playing with his own bands. He became obsessive about maintaining his various bands, and stubbornly continued to lead and tour with them during tough times, when a more prudent (or less idealistic) person would have laid off for a while, then regrouped when circumstances were more favorable.

Berigan in June 1937 as his first band’s success was building.

By 1937 Berigan’s alcoholism was an unremitting counterweight: the harder he tried to do what was necessary to be a successful bandleader in the musical/commercial world in which he lived, the more bedeviled he was by his alcoholism. He would periodically cut down his drinking, would play marvelously, would thrill audiences and inspire his musicians. At the same time, he became sullen and alienated from those around him. He would begin to suffer from delirium tremens (i.e.,“the shakes”). Then, he would take a few drinks, his playing would suffer a bit, but the happy-go-lucky Berigan would return. This was the day-to-day physiological reality that Bunny Berigan confronted in the summer of 1937, in addition to the other myriad musical and business challenges inherent in leading a big band. If the anxiety caused by his disintegrating marriage and his relationship with the very high-maintenance femme fatale Lee Wiley are factored in, it becomes clear that Bunny Berigan was under an immense amount of stress at the very time his professional career was moving into high gear.

Berigan with his personal manager Arthur Michaud. Through 1937, Michaud’s management of Bunny was very successful. Through 1938 it became less effective, resulting on occasion in mistakes that were very costly for Berigan.

One of the constant conflicts a person faces when he or she makes music a professional career, is the unending tension between the business of music and the making of music. Bunny Berigan was fully engaged in the making of music, as we have seen. He devoted almost all of his attention, time, energy, and experience to making his band the best performing unit possible. He was passionate about leading his band and investing as much as he had to offer at any given time into his trumpet playing. By the summer of 1937, he had accomplished a great deal musically in building and directing his band, and by shaping that band in his own musical image and likeness.

On the business side, he certainly understood that his band had to exist and survive in a business/economic environment that he neither understood completely nor liked. He accepted the business/economic realities that surrounded him, as most musicians did, with mild resentment. His way of dealing with business issues was to hire competent people, pay them well, and rely on them to take care of whatever business matters had to be taken care of. He wanted as little to do with the business side of his band as was possible. But he didn’t ignore business matters. He trusted his business associates to do what needed to be done competently and honestly to deal with them. Unfortunately, this would prove to be a major mistake on his part.

The music:

The riffy “A Study in Brown” was composed by Larry Clinton, but arranged for the Berigan band by Joe Lippman. The first chorus includes tight antiphonal ensemble playing by the brass and reeds, and Hank Wayland’s snapping, rhythmic bass.

Berigan is the first soloist, playing open trumpet for sixteen eventful bars. Notice how he builds his solo rhythmically by lobbing out the first few notes leaving plenty of space around them, then gradually filling in those spaces as he moves up in his trumpet’s register while at the same time decreasing the note values from half notes to quarter notes to eight notes. This solo also has a number of Berigan’s stylistic hallmarks: a half-valved note and several of upward rips, among others, all delivered with his characteristic massive, ringing trumpet sound, and strong swing.

Georgie Auld solos on tenor saxophone with the Berigan band. This photo was taken in early 1938. L-R front: Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty and Clyde Rounds; middle: Sonny Lee, Al George, Irving Goodman and Steve Lipkins; back: Dave Tough.

The eighteen year-old tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld follows, bouncing along in his solo with just enough syncopation to get some swing going. Although Auld always had good chops, nimble fingers and was a crack reader of music, he was definitely learning his craft as a jazz player in 1937 and well into 1938. What has always amazed me about Auld’s jazz playing in this period is how impervious he seemed to be to Berigan’s playing, which was the quintessence of inspired jazz and solid swing. Georgie’s first leap forward as a jazz soloist occurred in the summer of 1938, when he discovered the playing of one of Count Basie’s first tenor saxophone soloists, Herschel Evans.

Thomas Ball “Sonny” Lee, a greatly underappreciated swing era jazz soloist.

Joe Dixon, only a couple of years older than Auld was nevertheless a much more finished jazz soloist while they were both in the Berigan band. He follows Auld on clarinet with a good half chorus of jazz. He is followed by the veteran (32 years old) jazz trombonist Sonny Lee, who delivers a superb trombone solo which has him playing with a cup mute, great ideas and flowing swing. This was one of Lee’s finest recorded solos as a member of the Berigan band.

Noice Dixon’s bright clarinet lead of the reeds in the finale: this device was by the summer of 1937 becoming a hallmark of Lippman’s writing for the Berigan ensemble. The riffing reeds are balanced in this out-chorus by blasts of brass, led by Berigan’s fiery open trumpet.

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

Notes and link:

(1) The full details of this incident are in Mr. Trumpet …The Trials, Tribulations ad Triumph of Bunny Berigan at page 92.

(2) On at least one occasion, Lee Wiley pursued Bunny while he was away from New York, touring with his band.

(3) A number of Bunny’s musical associates from the mid to late 1930s expressed the opinion that Bunny did indeed love Lee Wiley.

For more information about Lee Wiley, check out these links:

2 thoughts on ““A Study in Brown” (1937)

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  1. It is an unfortunate fact for artists in the musical field especially, that there are so many pitfalls and dangers to be encountered on the way to making good music and good “artistic” music. If you can avoid the temptations of alcohol and drugs, you still have to wade through the jungles of unscrupulous business practices and crooks aiming to take your money. The annals of popular music are filled with the wreckage of talented musicians who deserved to be heard and recorded, but ran afoul of any or all of these unsavory elements of the music world. And I haven’t even mentioned the problems associated with the opposite sex. Look at Genesis drummer Phil Collins’ problems in the recent news. However, jazz reed/trumpet player Ira Sullivan recently passed after a successful, if not spectacular career in jazz, but even he had to eschew the road and fame and fortune. He left this world with his reputation and health intact at a ripe old age of 89, I think. It is fortunate for all of us that Bunny was able to wax so many wonderful sides before his untimely passing. (And that Mike has been able to remaster so many of them, thank you)

  2. There is a comment from the very talented Larry Clinton, in which he explains that when he wrote the moody, but with swinging potential, “A Study in Brown,” one of his first originals for the Casa Loma orch., he intended to call it “A Brown Study.” but Jack Kapp at Decca “didn’t dig the meaning at all” (Clinton suspected that Kapp was not familiar with the term) and released the record as “A Study in Brown.” Larry admitted that at the time he was annoyed by Kapp’s change, but also acknowledged that the new title did provide a template for future Clinton instrumentals. For the Berigan version, one of my favorite sides from the fledgling band, Bunny clearly drew inspiration from Clinton’s original title and meaning. I have always considered his solo to be a shining example of how to play over a riff as well as to build excitement. Bunny manages both to sound ruminative and to swing, with those first searching, speculative notes launching, with flawless pacing, a beautifully coherent and concise statement. Such was Bunny’s supernal sense of rhythm and note placement in relation to the beat that I believe it would have been impossible for him not to swing! After the first chorus exposes the song’s atmosphere of undercurrent, with Hank Wayland’s ominous thumping underpinning the pull between the loping saxes and insistent trumpets, Bunny’s agitated spot conveys a state of heavy cogitation, the aforementioned “brown study.” Fortunately for the listener, Bunny could think and swing at the same time!

    I couldn’t agree more on the assessment of the young Georgie Auld; I too have always been astonished that he, obviously a precious talent in technical terms, was able to spend a significant amount of time in Bunny’s sphere and not have even a little of the Berigan magic rub off on his playing. As Joe Dixon observed, “Georgie didn’t really start to play good jazz until he joined Benny Goodman.” That astringent quality in Joe’s tone, so different from the warmth of Bunny’s horn, always provides good contrast, as we can appreciate in this side. My all-time favorite Berigan sideman, Sonny Lee — who, like Dixon, seems sometimes to be underappreciated among Big Band enthusiasts of today — tosses off a solo of great cogency and swing in the transitional passage before the return to the song’s main theme, making the difficult sound easy. Against George Wettling’s effective bashing, Bunny and Joe, leading their respective sections, take this side out in style.

    It is very sad indeed to ponder the fact that at the time when Bunny was finally realizing his dream of leading a band and giving full expression to his musical ideas, he was already a beleaguered man, beset with problems and plagued by forces that threatened the very thing for which he had worked so hard just as it came to fruition. Though I’m happy that poor workaholic Bunny had whatever happiness his relationship with Ms Wiley gave him, I think she and Donna were the worst possible influences he could have had in his life — apart, of course, from Lee’s role as muse. The unrelenting swing of the highly atmospheric “A Study in Brown” seem to attest to Bunny’s ability to tune out the ever-growing practical and emotional pressures in his life through music.

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