“Am I Blue?” (1937) live

Composed by Harry Askt; possibly arranged by Dick Rose.

Recorded in performance from the Hotel Pennsylvania Roof in Manhattan over the CBS radio network on June 13, 1937.

Bunny Berigan, solo and first trumpet; directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Morey Samel, trombone; Sid Perlmutter, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The story:

By the late spring of 1937, Bunny Berigan was in the last stages of putting together his band. This process had started the previous January. As good bit of coming-and-going was happening then, as recalled below by Joe Dixon and Sonny Lee.

Joe Dixon – autumn 1937.

At about the time the Berigan band moved from the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania to that hotel’s roof garden around June 1, Bunny had finally snagged alto saxophonist/clarinetist Joe Dixon, who recalled: “I joined Bunny at the Pennsylvania Hotel replacing Frank Langone. I first worked with Bunny on a Chick Bullock recording session, which I subbed on. I jammed with him many times on Fifty-second Street, at the Famous Door and other spots. My first records were with Bill Staffon’s band (out of Boston) which included Joe Lippman, Max Smith and Frank Crolene, all of whom worked with Bunny later. In May 1935, I worked at the Tap Room, Adrian Rollini’s spot in NYC, then Tommy Dorsey hired me. TD was not an easy man to work for, and I left him to join Gus Arnheim briefly. (Stan Kenton was on that band.) Bunny then induced me to join his new band. TD wanted me to rejoin him and when I joined Bunny instead, Tommy never spoke to me again.”(1) 

(For what it’s worth, Tommy Dorsey had secured the services of clarinetist Johnny Mince by the time Joe Dixon joined the Berigan band. In light of the fact that Mince quickly became a TD favorite, and remained Tommy’s featured clarinetist for the next four years, I doubt that TD would have been seeking Joe Dixon’s services after Mince was in his band. This is no criticism of Joe’s playing however. He was a fine clarinetist and alto saxophonist whose playing with the Berigan band was always quite good.)

Very soon, Joe Dixon realized, probably after discussing this issue with Berigan, that he needed to make some adjustments in order to fit into the Berigan band: “I had to change mouthpieces on clarinet to play in that band. Bunny’s idea of a clarinet player was to get out there and wail and scream while the brass went doo-wah, doo-wah. You had to pierce through all that like a piccolo in a marching band, otherwise you wouldn’t be heard. I had to use a very open mouthpiece to get that kind of sound—and you can hear it on the solos I recorded with Bunny’s band.”(2)

Sonny Lee

Bunny replaced trombonist Ford Leary with the veteran jazz trombonist Thomas Ball “Sonny” Lee (1904–1975). Four years older than Berigan, he, along with George Wettling, was one of the few veteran musicians in the band. By 1937, he had been a professional for fifteen years. He had worked with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Pee Wee Russell, then moved into the commercial dance bands of Gene Goldkette, Red Nichols, Cass Hagen, Roger Wolf Kahn, and Isham Jones. In 1936, he became a New York freelance working, among other places, at CBS. He was an absolutely first-rate first chair trombonist in addition to being an excellent jazz improviser. Bunny’s concerns over his trombone section leader and jazz soloist were now at an end. Sonny Lee later recalled how he came to join the Berigan band:

“Bunny had first talked to me about playing in his band when we both worked at CBS and it was more or less agreed that I would join when he’d gotten sufficient commercial deals going, with money guaranteed, so he could pay me a decent salary. Eventually, I got a call from his manager, guaranteeing me at least $100 a week. In all the time I was with the band I never drew less than $150 a week. From the minute I came on the band, I played both lead and all the jazz solos as Morey (Samel) had only slight ability as a ‘ride’ man, so the book was written accordingly. Cliff Natalie was on the band very briefly when I joined, but then Irv Goodman came in. Joe Dixon joined at almost the same time. He replaced Frank Langone, who went over to Jan Savitt. Bunny gave definite instructions as to what he wanted on ensembles, but never on solos. On ‘The Lady From Fifth Avenue’ he used a cup mute reversed and did a ‘flutter-tongue’ growl on his solo, which really impressed the other trumpeters in the band. The band worked harder than any other band I was with, and Bunny worked harder than any other leader I ever knew, even when he was ill. Sy Devore made the clothes for the Berigan band as well as Bunny’s own suits. He always favored a light brown, double-breasted style. We each had three sets of uniforms tailored by Devore, who was just getting started in men’s fashions then. He became very big later in Hollywood. I think he may also have made the Jimmy Dorsey band’s uniforms.”(3)  (After leaving Berigan, Lee spent many years in Jimmy Dorsey’s band.)

The photograph Bob Inman had signed by Bunny Berigan and his band on June 29, 1937.

As Sonny Lee remembered, there were a few other changes in the personnel of the Berigan band at the time. Benny Goodman’s trumpet-playing kid brother Irving replaced Cliff Natalie, who had been in the band more or less on an interim basis. The second trombone chair also changed, with journeyman Morey Samel coming in, replacing Frankie D’Annolfo.

It is a rare treat for researchers and historians when they stumble across a first-person account of an event which later acquires historical significance. I have had the good luck of obtaining an in-person description of a typical night of work for Bunny Berigan and his band while they were appearing at the Hotel Pennsylvania Roof in the late spring of 1937. It was written by a young Berigan fan, Bob Inman. Inman, who was not yet 17 years old then, heard the Berigan band perform on Tuesday June 29, 1937, only sixteen days after the performance presented with this blog post. Here is what he recorded in his notebook, probably during the event:

“We then took a subway downtown to the Hotel Pennsylvania at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue, where we took the elevator up to the roof, arriving at 9:20. The cover charge going on at 9:30 was 75 cents, which we paid. Berigan’s band is great. It has improved a great deal since I saw it in May. We had long talks with most of the guys. They were interested in us because we had so many pictures. Bunny autographed two pictures of himself for me, one of which he hadn’t seen yet. Also got the whole band to autograph a picture of Berigan. No pictures of the band have been taken yet. …The personnel of the band is: (same as listed at the top of this post). Was with Irving Goodman for quite awhile. He says Ellington has one of the best bands. His brother Freddy is playing trumpet (in a band on) Long Island. (Vocalist) Peg La Centra has just left his brother (Benny’s) band, but he doesn’t know the name of the new vocalist. He asked me if I was the guy who had a picture of him and Ziggy (Elman). I told him I was and he asked me if I could get him one. Wettling remembered me and asked for the picture we took of him in May, but I haven’t got one as yet. He still drinks plenty. Talked to Sonny Lee about a picture I had of him with Benny Goodman’s recording band taken in ’34 at the Columbia Studios NYC when they made eight records (sides), including ‘Emaline.’

The snapshot of George Wettling taken by Bob Inman. Next to Wettling is Irving Goodman.

Joe Dixon and Clyde Rounds, both of whom used to be with Tommy Dorsey, said that Dorsey was a swell guy, but hard to work for, so they quit (his) band. Vocalist Ruth Bradley, who succeeded Sue Mitchell, told us she used to sing with Ruby Newman at the Rainbow Room, and before that she played sax and clarinet with Ina Ray Hutton’s all-girl orchestra.

Trombonist Les Jenkins, who plays with Tommy Dorsey, came in at about 11:35, and talked with all the boys. He is very popular, and a great trombone player. We were with Joe Dixon’s younger brother (Gus), from Boston, who is about our age and plays trombone. We left at 12:45.” (4)

At this point, Inman listed the tunes the Berigan band played throughout the evening, and also listed the tunes played on a sustaining CBS radio broadcast on which Bert Parks was the announcer. This was a heady, exciting experience for Inman and his teen-aged buddies.

As you will hear, this performance by the Berigan band from the Hotel Pennsylvania Roof, was patched-into the live first anniversary broadcast of CBS’s now legendary radio show The Saturday Night Swing Club. During much of that first year, Bunny Berigan was very often a featured performer on SNSC. In fact, from the show’s first broadcast, which was on June 13, 1936, until his duties as the leader of his own band became full-time in early 1937, Berigan appeared on all but a few of those shows.

Berigan and George Wettling take a stroll near Hotel Pennsylvania – June 1937.

The first anniversary show was a special 90 minute extravaganza of swing which started at midnight in order to accommodate the many performers who, like Berigan, were working in various locations around the United States. In order to include them on the SNSC broadcast, CBS took pains to establish remote radio connections from places as far west as Los Angeles, from where the Casa Loma band was playing at the Palomar Ballroom, and as far east as Paris, France, where the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, featuring guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli were playing at a venue in Montmartre. The broadcast emanated from CBS Playhouse No. 1, which was located just off Broadway on West 48th Street. The CBS announcer was Paul Douglas. Many musical groups were presented live at the CBS Playhouse, while others, as noted above, joined the broadcast remotely.

It should be mentioned that the SNSC was a sustaining, that is, not sponsored, program. That allowed its producers much more freedom to present the kind of music they knew the SNSC listening audience liked, which as it turned out, was very strongly jazz-oriented.

The music:

This arrangement seems rather different from the ones Bunny’s chief arranger, Joe Lippman, was writing in the spring of 1937. That is why I am suggesting it may have been written by Dick Rose, who was also doing quite a bit of arranging for the Berigan band then. It receives an exuberant performance by Bunny and his band members.

Georgie Auld, swinging.

The eight bar introduction has a quasi-Dixieland sound. The first chorus starts with Berigan, who introduces the paraphrased melody, with a straight mute in his trumpet. Listen for the lip-trill Bunny plays at the end of this solo. The ensemble comes in for the tune’s bridge and last eight bars.

Then there is a marvelous three-way transitional passage played by the trumpets, trombones and saxophones, which sets-up Georgie Auld’s entrance on tenor saxophone. Despite the fact that Auld had just recently turned eighteen years old at the time of this performance, he plays his half chorus with great assurance and considerable swing. Bunny constantly encouraged Auld to develop his jazz playing, which Georgie did over the 21 months he was with a member of the Berigan band. Drummer George Wettling is particularly effective in backing Auld with a swinging tom-tom rhythm.

Listen to how Bunny enters with his open trumpet on the bridge playing jazz in his lower register, then bounds ever higher, finishing with another superb lip-trill. Quintessential Berigan here.

The next chorus spots Bunny’s trumpet at the acme of the ensemble, carrying along with him all of his band members. The newly arrived trombone virtuoso Sonny Lee has a brief solo, and then Bunny soars over the band into the high-note finale.

The voice at the end of the performance is Berigan, who sends the broadcast back to Paul Douglas and the Saturday Night Swing Club.

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


Notes:

(1) White materials: June 1, 1937.

(2) Giants of Jazz: 44.

(3) White materials: June 10, 1937.

(4) Swing Era Scrapbook .. The Teenage Diaries and Radio Logs of Bob Inman 1936-1938, compiled by Ken Vail. (2005) 198.

2 thoughts on ““Am I Blue?” (1937) live

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  1. In finding that you believe this arrangement possibly to be the work of Dick Rose, I feel vindicated in my suspicions, as this chart has always reminded me somewhat of that for “Frankie and Johnny,” for which Rose was responsible. I hear similarities in the writing for both reeds and brass in the two arrangements.

    Listening to this spirited and well-executed rendition, we can appreciate the way in which Bunny, a so musically conscientious leader, had whipped this young aggregation into shape. We know that Bunny’s confident and powerful opening statement had to be inspiring to both the less experienced musicians in the band and its veterans, such as the great Sonny Lee, whose complimentary views on Bunny we find herein. Though not a Dixie warhorse like some of the other Berigan band instrumentals, “Am I Blue” was, by ’37, a respected evergreen, and we see, yet again, what sort of material Bunny actually favored and chose to do when not pestered by record labels and song pluggers. It is performances like this one that tell us what the Berigan band was like to behold on the road. Of course, Mr. Inman’s detailed notes add to the picture. Clearly that evening out, in the same period as this SNSC appearance, made a huge impression on that knowledgeable young aficionado!

    At this early point in the band’s history as well as on the occasion of the first anniversary of the SNSC, on which the Berigan horn had been a feature, Bunny must have been so proud of his new orchestra and so happy about the professional future that seemed to lie before this talented and committed crew. In this “Am I Blue,” I can detect only a mood of exultation!

    Finally, I well remember when I acquired the CD release of that anniversary concert. By that time, I had read so much about the program in connection with Bunny. I had yet to come across the band’s studio recording of “Piano Tuner Man” (a perfectly dreadful song) and had never heard Bunny’s speaking voice before, so hearing his sign-off after the performance was a big deal for me.

  2. Once again I am late to the party, but Dennis’s and my comments concerning which type of mute Bunny was using on ‘Livery Stable Blues’ may have been answered by trombonist Sonny Lee in the September 2021 blog.
    Sonny’s comments: “On the Lady From Fifth Avenue’ he used a cup mute reversed and did a flutter tongue growl on his solo, which really impressed the other trumpet players in the band.”
    Not every trumpet player can flutter tongue. It uses the same motion as rolling your “r’s” in speaking certain languages. Flutter tonguing has “kind of” the same effect as a growl on a trumpet, but the growl is much more down and dirty. Very effective when playing the blues.

    Second thing I noticed on the September blog was a photo of Bunny taken from a Martin Band Instrument Company advertisement stating that Bunny played and endorsed the (what was a new product then) Martin Committee trumpet. This ad is somewhat suspect as the first C’s came out in ‘40-‘41. The picture shows Bunny playing a trumpet with forward facing water keys. I believe some of the initial C’s had this type of water key, but sometime in the early 40’s Martin switched to a water key positioned on the SIDES of the tuning slide and third valve slide. This design was not nearly as effective for draining moisture from a trumpet; indeed, Miles Davis can be heard in a number of recordings playing “wet” ( Miles was a stalwart Committee player until his death even when Committees were made by Holton. ) Martin did make some fine trumpets from the 20’s and 30’s under the name of “Handcraft” and “Dansant” which featured the forward water keys; Bunny perhaps played one of these, and Martin, in their eagerness to obtain his endorsement, made a “stretch “ or white lie about Bunny and playing a Committee horn. Bunny’s passing in ‘42 certainly precluded him playing any of the Committee model trumpets played by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and a host of other players from the ‘40’s-‘50’s which have become so pricey and collectible.
    I have discovered very little information about what horn or horns Bunny played and there seems to be very little accurate info on the internet. Anyone seeing this posting is welcome to set me straight on my facts.
    I can send a screenshot of another Martin ad from circa 1940 showing a picture of Bunny along with other players who endorsed the horn, but I don’t know how. Unfortunately the photo cuts off the water key area of Bunny’s horn, and one cannot make out what Bunny is actually playing. Supposedly a “committee” of players and instrument makers got together and designed the horn, but Renold Schilke (a well respected brass and mouthpiece maker) claims to have been the sole member of the “committee” We’ll probably never know the full story, but here are some more facts to flesh out the legend of Bunny Berigan.
    As always, another great blog!

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