“Panama” (1939)

Composed by William Henry Tyers; arranger unknown – possibly Andy Phillips.

Recorded live in performance by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra from the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago between July 1 and August 11, 1939.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton, first trumpet; Jake Koven and Joe Bauer, trumpets; Jimmy Emert and Ralph Copsey, trombones; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, first alto saxophone and clarinet; Charlie DiMaggio, alto saxophone; Don Lodice and Larry Walsh, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Tommy Moore; guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums.

The story:

Luncheon menu for the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago – it what was then termed a “swank spot.”

If one were to have entered the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago on the evening of Saturday, July 1, 1939, the impression received would have been that of a gala opening night for Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra.(1) The room where they were appearing was packed with people eager to hear Berigan’s music. The band members, clad in their matching dark suits, looked good. They were happy. This was the first “prestige” residency the Berigan band played in over a year, the last having been at the Paradise Restaurant in New York in the spring of 1938. The band, in spite of several major shake-ups in personnel and months of grueling one-night stands, was still in fine shape musically.

Hotel Sherman in 1939 was a bustling place, one of the busiest hotels in Chicago. It had 1,700 rooms and was located at Randolph and Clark Streets in The Loop, whereas many of the other large hotels in Chicago were located on Michigan Avenue. The Panther Room was a large, well-appointed spot that catered to diners and dancers. Large is the operative word. The Panther Room could seat 1,000 patrons.

For reasons that are now unclear (possibly to give the nearby Blackhawk Restaurant some competition), the Panther Room had a policy of presenting top name bands, many of which were decidedly on the swingy side. This policy allowed Bunny Berigan and his band to settle down for a stretch in one place, and recuperate from the rigors of having spent the previous six months basically playing one-night stands across the eastern one-third of the United States. That was the good news. The bad news was that the Panther Room gig did not pay enough for Berigan (or indeed any bandleader), to balance his ongoing overhead expenses with income. This caused Bunny’s somewhat shaky finances to become even more out of balance. Berigan would encounter further financial complications during the six weeks he and his band were ensconced at the Panther Room.

The stubbornly idealistic Berigan had decided to run his band without a personal manager after his rancorous and costly parting with Arthur Michaud the prior January. He simply took whatever work MCA, his booking agent, threw his way. His idea continued to be that a musical profit would eventually put him ahead of his financial losses. He would learn that this was not a formula for ongoing success in operating a big band.

Bunny himself was looking great on the outside, but on the inside, both physically and emotionally, he was exhausted. It seemed that no matter how hard he tried to do a good job wherever he and the band appeared, and no matter how well he or they played, and no matter how huge or enthusiastic the audiences, it made no difference. He could not get ahead of the constantly accruing costs of keeping his band on the road. Indeed, he could not even keep up. He was now mired in debt, and his musicians had been only partially paid for several weeks. After only a short time at the Sherman, they may not have been paid at all. He was also still paying Arthur Michaud but now was completely at odds with him. He owed a long list of creditors including the Greyhound Bus Line, a hotel in Detroit, and Wanamaker’s department store in New York. How he was able to keep his band together under these dire circumstances can only be explained in terms of the admiration his musicians had for him as a musician, and as a person.

Bunny posing with his father William P. “Cap” Berigan in the spring of 1939. After an acrimonious parting from his personal manager Arthur Michaud in early 1939, Bunny had his father act as his personal manager. This move was one of several that led to Bunny filing a bankruptcy petition in the summer of 1939.

Here is the personnel of the Berigan band that opened at Hotel Sherman that night: Johnny Napton (lead), Joe Bauer, Jake Koven, trumpets; Jimmy Emmert (lead), Bob Jenney, trombones; Gus Bivona (lead alto and jazz alto and clarinet), Charlie DiMaggio (alto), Don Lodice (jazz tenor), Larry Walsh (tenor and baritone), saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Tommy Moore, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums; Danny Richards and Ellen Kaye, vocalists. For a while, all seemed well. The band, by this time a well-integrated performing unit seasoned by six months of nonstop touring and playing, performed with enthusiasm and verve. The Panther Room was full and everybody was happy. The band was off on Mondays, so right after the gig on Sunday night, Bunny would drive north to Fox Lake, about 120 miles, to be with his family and play golf on Monday. He would then return to Chicago to play on Tuesday evenings, and remain there for the balance of the week. On at least one occasion, Bunny brought Donna and his small daughters down from Fox Lake to Chicago with him for a week. It was during this visit that Bunny took the girls to the Sherman’s swimming pool and began to teach them how to swim.(2)

As a part of Berigan’s compensation while he and his band were at Hotel Sherman, he received the use of a suite of rooms in the hotel. Periodically, he would have his wife Donna and his daughters Patty (behind) and Joyce (in front) join him there. They were summering in nearby Fox Lake, Wisconsin with Bunny’s parents.

The Berigan band broadcast nightly radio remotes from the Sherman during their entire run there. On many evenings there were two separate broadcasts. Their broadcasts were presented over the following radio outlets: WENR–Chicago (Chicago region) or WMAQ–Chicago and the NBC Blue Network (nationwide). MCA was finally after over a year putting a major radio push behind the Berigan band. The titles they were playing then (many of which were recorded on acetate disks) reveal that Bunny continued to feature a well-balanced mix of Berigan standbys (“Azure,” “Shanghai Shuffle, “‘Tain’t So, Honey,” “‘Deed I Do,” “Jelly Roll Blues,” and “Sobbin’ Blues”) with current pop tunes (“Our Love,” “And the Angels Sing,” “Blue Evening,” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me.”)

A typical review of the Berigan band at the Panther Room appeared in Billboard:

“Headline: Panther Room, Sherman Hotel, Chicago: This Fox Lake, Wisconsin, lad, who has been trumpeting with some of the biggest names in the field, has been doing mighty well since he decided to swing out for himself some two and a half years ago. He fronts 13 good and true musicians (5 brass, 4 rhythm and 4 saxes), who compose a lively and balanced swing outfit. The best highlight here, however, is Bunny himself. The boys emphasize swing and make no bones about it. The arrangements by Andy Phillips are ‘way above stock’ caliber, although occasionally he trips up in a minor way, playing up the rhythm section too heavily. Single honors go to Joe Bushkin, a young pianist, who works fast and furiously on the keyboard. Whether or not he follows the music sheet to the minutest degree is of little concern in this case. Vocals are handled ably by Danny Richards, personable tenor (sic) and Ellen Kaye, a new Berigan member, who swings out juicily with both voice and personality.”(3)

But as rosy as things appeared on the surface, Bunny was well aware that he was way behind in paying his musicians, and that what he was earning at the Sherman was not going to be enough for him to catch up. He also knew better than to expect that things would always go smoothly with regard to the personnel of his band, especially in light of the fact that he could not afford to pay his musicians fully each week. He undoubtedly realized that his inability to fully pay them would eventually lead to the dissolution of his band. But in the meantime, he used all of his considerable charm to hold onto his musicians. His band was strong musically, and he wanted to keep it that way. His sidemen generally liked working with Bunny. The band was very good, capable of swinging strongly. Still, there were periodic departures from the ranks. Shortly after the Sherman gig began, trombonist Bob Jenney left. Finding good replacements was difficult outside of major cities, but in Chicago, it was rather easy. Both Paul Collins and Larry Walsh recalled Jenney’s replacement: Collins said: “A few days after we opened at the Sherman Hotel, a local musician, Ralph Copsy, took over Bob Jenney’s trombone chair. He played pretty good in a Teagardenish manner and was given a few solos by Bunny.” Walsh recalled: “Yes I remember Copsy on the band at the Sherman. He was a terrific trombonist in the Teagarden style and had played with Ben Pollack and the Chicago NBC staff. I think he played all of the solo trombone at the Sherman. I don’t think he stayed with the band after (the) Milwaukee (gig), which was right after the Sherman. We had only one ‘bone on the trip back East.” (4)

Berigan band rehearsal – Panther Room of Hotel Sherman – July-August 1939. L-R – back row: Paul Collins, Jake Koven, Johnny Napton, Joe Bauer; middle: Tommy Moore, Jimmy Emmert, Ralph Copsey; front: Morty Stulmaker, Larry Walsh, Gus Bivona, Charlie DiMaggio, Don Lodice.

In addition to Berigan’s debt to his musicians, there were other sums due and owing. (It is not clear from the available evidence whether Bunny was aware of these problems. Based on the statements of Andy Phillips [see below] he [Phillips] was clearly surprised when these matters came to light.)

As a result of the constant pressure he was under, Bunny’s usual imperturbable cool was now subject to sudden bursts of heat. Ray Groose, one of a number of old friends from Wisconsin to visit him while he was at the Sherman, reflected: “I went to Chicago to see and hear Bunny and I was surprised at how short-tempered he seemed. He snapped at the manager that he wanted some money right away. Then later, he said, ‘I wish I could be like you, Ray. Run a bar or a restaurant and get off the road for good.’ He seemed very disillusioned somehow.”(5)

He was also visited by Wisconsin trumpeter Clif Gomon, another musical associate of Bunny’s from his early days:

“The last time I saw Bunny was in Chicago. I was working there at the Atlantic Club with Hal Monroe, and I’d heard a couple of Bunny’s broadcasts. His playing didn’t sound too good and on my first night off I went down to the Sherman and worked my way to the front of the room while Bunny was on the stand. It was the first set of the evening and Bunny’s playing was very ordinary. At the intermission, Bunny saw me and came over greeting me like a long-lost brother. He sat down and joked and reminisced about the old days. On the next set, he stood up and blew his ass off! I’d never heard such fantastic playing. His smears, his highs, his lows, everything was executed with spectacular imagination. The next day, the guys from Monroe’s band told me they’d heard Bunny on the air the night before, playing stuff that was unbelievable. ‘You should have heard him, Cliff,’ they said. ‘Yeah, I know’ I replied. ‘He was just great and I was there!’ There was an MCA executive called Will Roland in the audience who was equally impressed. Whenever Bunny would punch out an especially stunning high note, he’d grab me and asked ‘What note was that?’(6)  After the show, I went to Bunny’s room for more jokes and chat, but although it was a really memorable visit, I got the impression that he was generally down in the dumps. He never complained though, nor said anything was bothering him.”(7)

The Panther Room was an upscale dining/dancing spot, as shown by this photo.

Despite the generally dismal financial situation surrounding the Berigan band then, there were lighter moments. Trumpeter Johnny Napton recalled a couple of visits by a legendary actor who had many of the same problems Bunny had: “John Barrymore would come into the Panther Room after he’d finished work at a nearby theater. Bunny looked a bit like him and of course they hit it off, alcoholically speaking! Barrymore would sit at a ringside table and between numbers he’d say, just loud enough to be heard by the band, ‘What the f*** goes on here?’  That used to break us up!”(8)

Bunny would occasionally be asked by Barrymore to join the group gathered around him for a taste, and for some of Barrymore’s stories. One such, which was recalled later by both Joe Bushkin and Gus Bivona, two of the more manic members of the band, had Barrymore recounting some of his onstage triumphs. Barrymore, in his inimitable fashion, was discussing how he interpreted the role of Hamlet. One of the young people listening to this earnestly inquired of the great thespian as to whether Hamlet had had an affair with Ophelia. Barrymore paused, struck a pose, and then said with an absolutely straight face, “…only in the Philadelphia company.” (Bud Freeman, the great tenor saxist, who idolized Barrymore, would have been in heaven!)  

Napton also recalled that singer Ellen Kay didn’t last long with the Berigan band: “Ellen Kaye left after about a week and Bunny didn’t bother getting anyone to replace her at first. I guess he couldn’t afford to!”(9)  (Note: Ellen Kaye does not appear on any Berigan band broadcast recordings from the Panther Room after July 11.)

At some point during the band’s run at Hotel Sherman, the financial storm clouds that had been gathering for a long time suddenly let loose. Andy Phillips recalled:

Arranger and road manager Andy Phillips. This photo was taken at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh in May of 1939.

“We got hit by a large bill from the Greyhound bus line, which I understood had been paid by Jerry Johnson. However, they insisted that Bunny owed them $875, so he agreed to pay $475 cash down and $100 a month. He (Bunny) was also served notice of an action of garnishment on behalf of a Detroit hotel corporation to appropriate the week’s paycheck to cover another debt. We appealed to the Chicago local of AFM, who intervened with a ruling that the Sherman must turn the money over to the union, who would ensure that we all got paid. This was supposed to leave Bunny about $150 each week to pay off his creditors!”(10) (Multiply 1939 dollar amounts by 15 to get current values.)

Other band members also had vivid memories of what happened. Piecing them together gives us a clearer picture of what was going on.  

Morty Stulmaker: “We were all flat broke by the time we got to Chicago and Bunny owed each of us at least $200. We did not mind this too much while we were playing poor dates, but we expected a better deal from the Sherman engagement.”

Paul Collins: “A couple of times, Bunny collected the band’s wages after we finished on the Sunday night and then went up to Fox Lake. When we came back to Chicago on the Tuesday, there was no cash left! So we drew straws to see who would get to call the union and Johnny Napton drew the short straw. A guy came down from the union and got things under control so they (the union) would always get the cash and, hopefully, we would get paid!”

Musicians Union boss James Caesar Petrillo – 1940. He acted like Caesar.

Andy Phillips: “Jimmy Petrillo, the Chicago union president, summoned Bunny to union headquarters. The offices were in an old building like a warehouse with bodyguards on the front door, real tough-looking hombres. Petrillo’s command of the English language left a lot to be desired, but the gist of it was that Bunny was fined $1,000 for conduct unbecoming a member of the American Federation of Musicians!”(11)

Joe Bushkin: “Business matters were beyond Bunny. MCA booked the band and they were supposed to take 15% of what he made, but they seemed to be taking everything, because he owed them so much money. We didn’t get paid for five weeks. I was sending home for money and a lot of the guys were borrowing from a saloonkeeper across the street. We finally met in Bunny’s room one night. You never saw him without a cigarette burning in the right side of his mouth and you never saw him without his whisky and his cool. He was lying on his bed smoking, his glass of whisky on the bedside table. He said, ‘Go see Petrillo at the union and tell him you haven’t been paid in five weeks. It’s the only way you’re going to get any money.’ Nobody wanted to go, so we all marched over next morning like an army. We were taken into a big room with a long table and there was Petrillo—James C. himself, seated like Napoleon at the head of it. ‘All right, what’s the problem, fellas?’ he said. Then he said, ‘Boy, Bunny Berigan, he’s some trumpet player, that guy.’ Petrillo played a little trumpet himself. Each of us had to tell what we were paid, which was embarrassing because the salaries were so mixed up. The third trombone (sic) was getting maybe 85 bucks a week, while the first was only getting 60. Petrillo called MCA and told them he’d shut down (all of the) music in Chicago if our money wasn’t there by two o’clock that afternoon. It was, and when we went back to the hotel, we each gave Bunny some money, because he was broke too, and we loved him.” (12)

The net result of this latest tragicomedy was that Bunny’s musicians were now being paid, but he was left utterly without money himself, deeply in debt, and staggered by Petrillo’s $1,000. fine. Nevertheless, despite the chaotic circumstances surrounding the Berigan band, they continued to play well and please their audiences. The Sherman gig was extended by two weeks, with continuing good business, until Friday, August 11. Bunny continued to follow the weekly routine he had established, going home to Fox Lake on Sunday after work at the Panther Room. He seemed to greatly enjoy the company of his old Wisconsin friends and family members during this trying time: Bunny’s cousin Charles Casey recalled:

“The band had Mondays off, so Bunny and a few of the guys would come up to Fox Lake on Sunday night and stay until Tuesday afternoon. Bunny’s hair was faded (actually, it was beginning to gray) by that time and he was beginning to show his age, I thought.(13)  The engagement (at the Sherman) was extended so we had a fine summer. I remember the banner on the side of the hotel, which faced Lake Michigan and the Outer Drive. It said, ‘Bunny Berigan—The Miracle Man of Swing,’ and was quite the longest banner I’d ever seen! On one Monday, Bunny said he was expecting a reporter from Down Beat and would I mind if they held a little jam session in the tavern. (i.e., Casey’s Tavern). Of course, the union mustn’t know anything about it! It was about 7 p.m. then, much too late to advertise, so we figured we’d just have to see how many locals were around on a Monday. Anyway, this Down Beat fellow called Madison and Milwaukee and someone else called Fond du Lac and Oshkosh. Somehow, people in Beaver Dam also got wind of it, and by 11 p.m. that bar was bouncing! All we had were Bunny, Gus Bivona on clarinet, Tom Moore on guitar, and Bunny’s brother Don on drums, no piano. We decided that anytime someone bought either of us a drink, we’d take out for it, but not drink it. Bunny trusted me to keep tabs. Scotch was 25 cents up there then! Besides the cash we split, we had a fifth of scotch and a fifth of bourbon to take home when we had to close at 1 a.m., because of state laws. I remember I caught hell for a year after from many people, who all thought they ought to have been invited to that session! (14)

Hub Keefer: “I had played with Bunny in the Merrill Owen band in 1924–25. I knew Bunny’s cousin well—Charlie Casey. When Bunny was ‘home’ for a brief period—either prior to going into the Panther Room or after he closed there, we had a whole day to talk and have fun and had a jam session at night at Casey’s Tavern. We put about 4 card tables together and Bunny got his trumpet, a man from Madison played guitar and was very good, Bunny’s brother Don on drums and they found a clarinet for me and we just played and had a good time and the place was, of course, packed. That afternoon prior, Bunny and I played pool at the local hall and he beat me as he always had before.” (15)

 Although the ongoing lack of money was a definite problem, it did not completely dampen the spirits of either Bunny or his band members. Various sidemen would invariably accompany Bunny to Fox Lake each week to enjoy a round of golf, and the fun at Casey’s Tavern. There were always many laughs along the way. Still, according to both Gus Bivona and Jake Koven, whenever they went to Fox Lake with Bunny, they had to sleep in his car.(16)

Despite the rather harrowing financial issues the Berigan band members faced during their gig at the Panther Room, the overall spirit of the band remained high. Here Paul Collins mimes hitting golf ball with Joe Bushkin as his human tee. Others joining in the hilarity: L-R: arranger/road manager Andy Phillips, vocalist Danny Richards,; standing Morty Stulmaker, Larry Walsh, Robert “Little Gate” Walker, Don Lodice, unknown, not a band member, possibly an agent from MCA; bending: Johnny Napton and Charlie DiMaggio; sitting: Jake Koven; squatting: Gus Bivona, Tommy Moore and Joe Bauer.

The band was in Chicago for six full weeks to play at Hotel Sherman. As the aircheck recordings from the Sherman clearly show, they were in fine form. Indeed, this band was as good as any Bunny had ever led, and he was playing splendidly. Victor had recording studios in Chicago. This snippet of information appeared in one of the trade papers while Bunny was in Chicago: “Bob Chester added Kitty Lane, ex-Bunny Berigan singer; Bunny, incidentally, is set for a comeback at the wax works—this time cutting ‘em for the Bluebird label.”(17)  One wonders what is meant by the word comeback. Although someone at Victor had apparently finally realized that Bunny might sell more records on the thirty-five cent Bluebird label than on the seventy-five cent Victor label, they evidently did not realize that he was ready, willing, and able to make some new records for them while he was in Chicago. (Or was his failure to record then because he no longer had a contract to record with either Victor or its Bluebird subsidiary, and for whatever reason, a new one had not been signed then?) Without a real personal manager to pursue and secure a renewal of Bunny’s recording contract, this Berigan band, which Bunny had worked so hard to mold into a first-class swing band, was not recorded at a time when it could have made some really worthwhile records. This omission also exacerbated the band’s financial condition.

Consequently, a golden opportunity to capture this band on commercial records was lost, and an opportunity for Bunny to earn some much needed cash was not extended to him. Yet again, whoever was managing the business side of the Berigan band (18) was asleep at the switch, and Bunny absorbed the economic consequences. The relationship between Bunny Berigan and Victor Records was now effectively over. He would make only one more session with Victor, on November 28, 1939, seemingly an afterthought. The recordings that were produced at that session marked the definitive ending to what should and could have been a much more fruitful partnership.

Before Berigan left Chicago, he did the only thing he could have done to try to extricate himself from the tangled web of debt, garnishments, and other legal actions that had ensnared him so completely while he was playing at Hotel Sherman—he filed some sort of action in U.S. District Bankruptcy Court. Here is what was reported in Down Beat:

Headline: “Says He’s Broke: Unable to pay the $40 fee required to file a bankruptcy petition, Bernard R. (Bunny) Berigan, through his attorney, Paul R. Goldman, was allowed to file a special affidavit through Hoyt King, clerk of the district court here (Chicago) on August 11. The affidavit, which allowed him several days to pay the $40, did not contain a list of Berigan’s creditors, but it was learned from Goldman that Berigan’s heaviest obligations were to MCA, Berigan’s personal manager, Arthur Michaud, John Wanamaker’s of New York, and the Greyhound bus line. The affidavit was filed on the last day of Berigan’s six week stand at the Panther Room of the Hotel Sherman.” (19) Not included in this list was the crushing “fine” James Petrillo levied on Berigan.

I am not an expert on bankruptcy law, and I am certainly not aware of how the bankruptcy laws of the United States read in 1939. But I know that the essence of bankruptcy law for the last several decades (back to 1973, at least) is that when a debtor files for bankruptcy relief, the primary objective of that legal action is to obtain a discharge of the debtor from his debts. There are basically two types of personal bankruptcy actions. The first is an action where the debtor has substantially more debt than he can pay, but also has assets that he wishes to retain. The second is where the debtor has more debt than he can pay, but has no assets. That appears to be the type of bankruptcy Bunny Berigan initiated. In a “no asset” bankruptcy, the conclusion of the legal proceeding comes with the issuance by the bankruptcy court of a discharge which has the legal effect of eliminating all of the debtor’s debts. In light of the fact that Bunny was a resident of New York City, I do not know how he could have properly initiated any bankruptcy action in Chicago. (That would not have been the proper venue.) Therefore, whatever Bunny’s attorney filed in Chicago seems to have been some sort of a preliminary or interlocutory action. We know that when he returned to New York, he did in fact file a petition for bankruptcy there, which seems more in keeping with normal legal procedures.

While all of the legal wrangling was going on, Bunny remained busy leading his band. They played at the Savoy Ballroom, located at 4733 South Parkway in Chicago on August 12. Bunny’s music was well regarded in the various black communities of America’s large cities. While he was at the Chicago Savoy, he helped the ballroom owner out by assisting with a contest or promotion of some sort. Here is what was reported in a local newspaper: “Bunny had his photo taken shaking hands with an older colored female with four other, younger ones, looking on. This photo appeared in the black weekly, the Chicago Defender, and the caption makes reference to some type of contest which had taken place previously. Probably the photo was on the occasion of the winner being announced, at the Savoy Ballroom.” (20) Subsequently, Down Beat felt it appropriate to print this item: “Letter to the Editor: ‘We Fluff Berigan Off,’ Louisville, Mississippi. Find enclosed a newspaper clipping and picture of Bunny Berigan and his colored friends. We just thought we would drop you all Yankee Cats a line telling you all that we thereby fluff Berigan off for having such a picture taken. Carl Johnstone and his University of Miss Ork.”(21) I am sure that Bunny worried little about what Mr. Johnstone thought about his interaction with other human beings who happened to be black. This little episode however is a reminder of how virulent racism was accepted as the norm in 1939 in the United States, and was routinely facilitated by mainstream publications.

The music:

This bracing live performance of the vintage (1911) jazz tune “Panama” (not to be confused with later, unrelated songs having the same title), from the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago in the summer of 1939, demonstrates that no matter how dire the Berigan band’s financial condition was, its musical condition was great, and that is exactly what Bunny himself was always focused on.

Paul Collins and Berigan at the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago – summer 1939.
Don Lodice and Ralph Copsey – Hotel Sherman – summer 1939.

Pianist Joe Bushkin plays the band on as drummer Paul Collins rattles around on his snare drum rims, cow bell and cymbals. The band enters with the main strain of the tune in a traditional 2/4 meter jazz vein, with maestro Berigan’s brawny trumpet leading the ensemble with trombonist Ralph Copsey playing the tailgate part. The following sequence has the band shifting to a swing interpretation of the melody. The jazz soloists in order are: Gus Bivona on clarinet; Bunny on trumpet; Don Lodice on tenor saxophone, and Ralph Copsey, on trombone. Copsey was a Chicago musician who filled-in in the Berigan band for most of its engagement at Hotel Sherman which ran from early July until mid-August of 1939.

Gus Bivona and Berigan – 1939.

The buildup to the rocking finale begins with the band again playing the main melody for sixteen bars, and then with clarinetist Bivona moving into his upper register to lead the riffing ensemble. Bunny joins Bivona for some spine-tingling unisons as this performance swings to a close.

As a bonus, we hear Bunny play part of his closing theme. Notice how tastefully Joe Bushkin comps him on piano. Also, listen for the brief lull after the first 16 bars: Bunny was looking at the remote radio announcer and engineer, who signaled him to continue to play a few bars into the tune’s bridge to fill up the remaining seconds of the radio broadcast. Live radio at its best!

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


(1) Also on the bill were Muggsy Spanier and His Ragtime Band.

(2) This information was provided by Patricia Berigan to Robert Dupuis, University of Wisconsin–Madison Dupuis archive.

(3) Billboard: July 22, 1939, cited in the White materials. Danny Richards, Bunny’s male vocalist, had a voice that best can be described as a “tenor-baritone.”

(4) White materials: July 6, 1939.

(5) Ibid.

(6) I have heard a number of the airchecks from the Berigan band’s Panther Room engagement, and there is much good music on them. Bunny’s playing on “Savoy Jump,” “Beale Street Blues,” “Panama,” and especially “Livery Stable Blues” reveals that he was at the very peak of his powers as an inspired jazz trumpet virtuoso during his band’s Sherman Hotel residency.

(7) White materials: July 6, 1939.

(8) Ibid.

(9) White materials: July 14, 1939.

(10) White materials: July 30, 1939.

(11) Ibid.

(12) The New Yorker: February 21, 1983, cited in the White materials: July 30, 1939.

(13) It was at this time that Berigan began having his hair dyed. He took meticulous care of his hair, seeking out the best hair stylists in the major cities where he appeared. As time passed, his hair color, which originally was reddish-blond, became darker, and he began dying his moustache as well. At the end of his life, his hair was a rather brown. By then he also was wearing a trumpeter’s notch below his lower lip. At one point in the early 1940s, he appeared in a print ad promoting the hair care services of a salon in Boston.

(14) White materials: August 4, 1939.

(15) Hub Kiefer’s quote is taken from a letter he wrote to Opie Austin, a White collaborator, dated 1974, and is cited in the White materials: Ibid.

(16) Dupuis interview with Gus Bivona; UW–Madison Dupuis archive.

(17) Billboard: July 29, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(18) The evidence indicates that after Berigan and his personal manager Arthur Michaud parted company in early 1939, Berigan operated without a personal manager as such. Bunny tapped his father, William P. “Cap” Berigan, to travel with the band and act as a sort of personal manager. However, Cap knew nothing about the band business, and as a result it appears that he was unable to monitor the Berigan band’s receipts. As a result, the income side of Bunny’s band business started to shrink inexplicably, and various bills started not to be paid. This caused the dire financial situation Bunny encountered in Chicago during the summer of 1939, which was greatly exacerbated by the “fine” levied on him by Chicago musicians’ union president James C. Petrillo. In addition, the absence of an aggressive and qualified personal manager was likely a reason why Berigan made no commercial records from March 15 to November 29, 1939.

(19) Down Beat: September 1939, cited in the White materials. The listing of Arthur Michaud as a creditor of Berigan’s is a clue that Bunny was still paying accrued commissions and/or a buy-out of Berigan’s management contract to Michaud long after their early 1939 breakup, even though Michaud was rendering no services to Bunny. The reason for this can only be that Bunny improvidently did not retain the services of an attorney to negotiate a workable full and final release from whatever contract existed between himself and Michaud.

(20) Chicago Defender: August 19, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(21) Down Beat: October 1, 1939, cited in the White materials.

One thought on ““Panama” (1939)

Add yours

  1. I’m quite sure that no Panther Room patron from the time of the Berigan orchestra’s engagement in the summer of ’39 would have imagined that the youthful, powerhouse band that romped and roared its way through this venerable number and a mix of other warhorses and hits of the day was in dire distress. Certainly, Bunny’s insouciant phrasing of the main theme of “Panama” and the happy, confident air of his solo and rideout riffing betray none of the oppressive adversity, financial and otherwise, by which he was beset.

    Trombonist Ralph Copsey fills in admirably, supplying muscle for a number that calls for some industry from the sliphorn. Among the sidemen, it’s Joe Bushkin and Gus Bivona, though — stalwarts from the days in which Bunny’s band seemed destined for spectacular success in all terms, now playing their hearts out for their beleaguered leader, whom they loved — whose contributions are most affecting to this listener.

    How entertaining I’m sure it would have been to be present while John Barrymore was holding court at the Panther Room! Long before the exhaustive “Mr. Trumpet […]” was published, I encountered a concisely vivid portrait of Bunny in the liner notes for the first volume of the Rhythm Makers transcriptions on the Jass label: “He was 27 years old, as handsome as the actor John Barrymore, whom he greatly admired, with a penchant for light brown, double-breasted suits and Calvert’s special whisky.” Bunny, was indeed movie star handsome, like “The Great Profile,” but he’s always reminded me more of the dashing, daring and well-built Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

    Finally, I find the fact that Down Beat provided a megaphone for the horrible, racist ranting of one of its readers as offensive as the letter itself. For me, Bunny has always represented and exemplified the goodwill between and admiration among blacks and whites that is one of jazz’s most inspiring features.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: