Composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; arranged by E.W. “Red” Bone and Carmen Mastren.(*)
Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra for Victor on January 29, 1937 in New York.
Tommy Dorsey, trombone, directing: Bob Cusumano, first trumpet; Jimmy Welch and Joe Bauer, trumpets; Les Jenkins and E.W. “Red” Bone, trombones; Freddie Stulce, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Clyde Rounds and Bud Freeman, tenor saxophones; Dick Jones, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Gene Traxler, bass; Dave Tough, drums; Bunny Berigan, solo trumpet only. (*) Creation of this arrangement was really a group effort. See below.)
The story: The story of what was going on in Bunny Berigan’s life when he recorded “Song of India” with Tommy Dorsey’s band at the end of January of 1937 is told in the blog post for “Marie,” which was recorded at the same Victor recording session, and for which I have provided a link at the bottom of this post. The nub of it is that at the time this recording was made, Bunny was very much involved in starting his own band. Nevertheless, he still found time to work with Tommy Dorsey’s band whenever he could, but most certainly on the radio show on which Tommy TD’s band was featured, and on their commercial recordings.
From the standpoint of Tommy Dorsey, he was, after about a year and a half of leading his own band, now being presented on a network radio show. That show, sponsored by Raleigh and Kool cigarettes, started using Tommy and his band as a featured attraction on Monday November 9, 1936. The show was broadcast live over 43 NBC affiliated radio stations, and was presented via transcriptions over another 18 affiliates. The headliner on that show initially was comedian Jack Pearl. He lasted through two thirteen week cycles. After that, starting in the summer of 1937, TD had the show to himself until the end of 1939.(1) It is via this network radio show that Tommy Dorsey established his name as the leader of one of the top bands of the swing era.
The music: “In 1867, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote Sadko, a symphonic poem which he later expanded into an opera. The opera was rarely performed, but one of its melodies, originally called Chanson Indoue, or Hindu Song, became a favorite with vocal recitalists and hotel palm-court trios.”(2) This melody came to be known as “A Song of India.”
People often forget that both Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan had a musical connection with Paul Whiteman. TD was a member of the Whiteman orchestra in the late 1920s, and Berigan worked with Whiteman from late 1932 to late 1933. Whiteman recorded his version of “Song of India” in 1927. Both Tommy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan played that arrangement many times in the Whiteman orchestra.
The idea for this arrangement, which soon became a swing era classic, came from Tommy Dorsey. “Tommy couldn’t write at all…” recalled one of his former saxophonists, Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt. “But he had ideas. This turned out to be one of his biggest.”(3) Another TD sideman, guitarist/arranger Carmen Mastren, picked up the story: “Tommy had a way of taking an arrangement apart, cutting and adding, and it always came out better than the original. Look what he did with ‘Song of India.’ It was my assignment, but I forgot about it completely. Every time he would ask me about it, I’d say ‘it’s almost finished,’ but I’d never written a note. Then one night at the Meadowbrook, Tommy asked me if it was ready, because he wanted to record it the next morning. I had to confess that it wasn’t ready, but I told him I would work on it between sets–and that is what we did. The intro was Tommy’s idea, which I put down immediately. I had written the first part, when Bud Freeman came back to where we were working. That little sax bridge that comes in after the trombone solo is more or less Bud’s idea. I just scored it for saxes. I sketched the rest, and Red Bone took it home and worked on it all night, and brought it in the next morning. I had forgotten all about the second part, which I guess you could call the chorus. I told Red to make it a trumpet solo (because Bunny Berigan was going to be on the record date). The only thing Bunny did on that record date was to play the trumpet solos on ‘Song of India’ and ‘Marie.’” (An unintended understatement.) (4)
Tommy Dorsey’s classic arrangement of “Song of India” opens with drummer Dave Tough establishing the tempo and mood by playing a rhythmic tatoo on his tom-tom.(5) The saxophones (with Joe Dixon on clarinet) play an introductory melody with utmost simplicity, against bright brass punctuations. Then Tommy plays the first of Rimsky’s melodies using a solotone mute. This solo had a lot to do with Tommy creating a sonic identification of his trombone playing as by “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing.”
The playing in the next sequence by Tommy’s saxophone quartet of Freddie Stulce on lead alto saxophone, Joe Dixon on alto saxophone, and Clyde Rounds and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophones, reveals a homogenous blend they have seldom gotten praise for. They are really singing (and swinging) throughout this passage.
The late Richard M. “Dick” Sudhalter was one of the most perceptive auditors of Berigan’s work, undoubtedly because as a jazz trumpeter himself, he really understood what he was hearing. Here are his comments about Bunny’s trumpet solo on “Song of India”: “He kicks off with a simple, attractive figure–an eighth note triplet and three forceful quarter notes–as drummer Dave Tough whacks his paper-thing splash cymbal and then takes up the pulse on the big, old Chinese ride cymbal that was one of his trademarks, and on which he could generate the irresistible swing called for by Berigan’s power and drive. Having opened-up with four bars of the melody in his middle register, Bunny bounds up a tenth to a concert A above the staff to deliver a phrase full of passion and drama, yet with no thinning out of tone, no sign of strain or inaccuracy. He then follows the slope of that first dramatic phrase downward to end his first chorus of the twelve-bar strain, then vaults aloft again for further exploration.
In both of his choruses he stabs at the harmonic underpinning of the melody, making the most of its few variations, and even, in the eighth bar, outlining a chord that is implied by the melody but not played by the rhythm section. His solo flight rings to an end with another annunciatory high-register phrase, and the ensemble caps it with a little triplet figure.”(6)
The finale has TD back briefly with his solotone mute, the reeds with their introductory figure, a bit of Dave Tough’s tom-tom, and a concluding upward sequence by the band.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The Miracle Man of Swing …A Biodiscography of Jazz Trumpeter Bunny Berigan, by Bozy White (2012), 777.
(2) The Swing Era – 1936-1937 (1970), notes on the music by Joseph Castner (uncredited), 67.
(4) Tommy and Jimmy …The Dorsey Years (1972), by Herb Sanford, 62-63.
(5) Tough played this exact introduction on Tommy Dorsey’s version of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement of “Big John Special.”
(6) Giants of Jazz …Bunny Berigan (1982), notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter, 41.