“Song of India”(1937) with Tommy Dorsey

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 playing with his solotone mute.

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.”

Freddie Stulce.

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.

Dave Tough – 1936.

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 SwingA 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.

(3) Ibid.

(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.

6 thoughts on ““Song of India”(1937) with Tommy Dorsey

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  1. Though this group-effort arrangement has many things to recommend it, not least of which being TD’s clever intro figure, and the performance itself shines through Davy’s spectacular drumming, Tommy’s masterful use of his signature Solotone mute and the ensemble work, it is of course Bunny’s exciting contribution that elevates this recording to the level of historic — as is so often the case with this extraordinary musician. As we hear so clearly in “Song of India,” Bunny’s playing has retained its sense of immediacy and ability to rouse the emotions of the listener. There’s something about that horn that always makes you stop dead in your tracks!

    I seem to recall reading that TD or possibly BG (or both!) was not entirely pleased with Bud’s section work. He blends beautifully here though, and the figures and phrasing from the reed ensemble have a patently Freemanesque sound — and for good reason! Perhaps the basis of the criticism was that his tone was believed not to blend well with the rest of the section, but I can point to both this side and the wonderful reed ensemble bridge on “A High Hat, A Piccolo and a Cane” as proof of Bud’s finesse in playing smoothly with the rest of the reeds.

    Later, because “Song of India” was always in in the books, the piece became a feature for Ziggy and Buddy, during which they would display what appeared to be their telepathic abilities. Though such live performances are good on their own terms, I feel that in the case of this song and, frankly, any on which Bunny was the original soloist, the studio version was never equaled. Davy deserves credit, too: Buddy may be technically the greatest ever, but Dave Tough was able to do many things that other drummers couldn’t replicate, as the swing in “Song of India” attests.

  2. This recording means so much to me, as it was the very first time I encountered the playing of Mr Berigan, and like one of those historic “where were you when…?” moments, the memory remains.
    Picture a kid in his teens, helping out in a shop belonging to the parents of a school mate during the summer break. It was one of those emporiums placed somewhere in between antiques and bric-a-brac, located in Pevensey Bay, a small village on the south coast of England.
    I was a new convert to “the music”, and the nature of the business meant that a lot of 78s came our way through house clearances. I had no knowledge, but I’d like to think I had a good ear, even then.
    This day, a fresh stack of shellac had come in, and I picked out one at random. Tommy Dorsey was a name I knew, though the title sounded a bit unprepossessing. However, the tag line on the HMV label “Swing series 1937” sounded encouraging, and so it went on the shop’s resident radiogram.
    Through the crackles, the sound of Davy Tough’s tom toms, then the reeds, their mysterious singing punctuated by sharp interjection from the brass- I was in, and wanted to follow the path, through Tommy’s trombone, smooth as liquid chocolate, back into the reeds, now more insistent and urging, a sense of tension building all the time. This was going somewhere I’d never been before, through the growing crescendo of brass and saxes, and then came Bunny. By the fifth bar, when he vaults up to that first top A, I think I’d forgotten to breathe- it was the most amazing piece of trumpet playing I’d ever heard. A huge adrenalin rush from a 40year- old record, and Bunny’s trumpet coruscating and leaping, full volume across the quiet afternoon hush of the village street!
    And so I was hooked. I played that record over and over, marvelling at its brilliance. I still have it. It was the beginning of a long and wonderful journey which has taken me to so many places in spirit, that i would never have imagined otherwise, and listening to it again now, clearer and cleaner than my old HMV copy, it still works its magic as much as ever.
    I can do no better than quote Elizabeth, above- “As we hear so clearly in “Song of India,” Bunny’s playing has retained its sense of immediacy and ability to rouse the emotions of the listener. There’s something about that horn that always makes you stop dead in your tracks!”
    It certainly did, that day way back!

    1. Lovely story, Mark. I think all of us modern day Berigan admirers can relate to your sense of a “revelation moment” in first hearing Bunny.

  3. Bunny decides to use the other ‘Song of India’ melody to start his solo and it inspires his creation of the rest of his solo. I’m guessing he was very familiar with that melody from the Paul Whiteman arrangement which used the melody in the beginning and it seemed like a prelude to set the table for the familiar melody that we all know of as ‘Song of India’. As Sudhalter says “Having opened-up with four bars of the (other) melody in his middle register;… 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.” I like to muse about ‘how did Bunny come up with a solo like that?’ And I’m guessing he is thinking ‘how am I gonna play this, let’s see, how about that other melody… hmm, I’ll start with that and see where it takes me. I always liked that melody’.
    Very fanciful musings, I admit.
    By using another melody from the same piece, Bunny’s solo is solidly integral with the whole arrangement so that the entire performance flows together perfectly.

  4. I was just rereading a 1989 interview with Paul Weston and Jo Stafford from Fred Hall’s DIALOGUES IN SWING, in which Paul asserts that he “did part of ‘Song of India.'” He does not go into greater specificity, but I speculate that there might have been areas in which Carmen and/or Red got stuck, and Paul, with his great experience, helped out. Weston seems to have been a very modest and sane guy, whose memory, too, is unlikely to have been clouded by any overindulgences. Anyway, I’d read this interview years ago but in rereading it now was reminded of the “Song of India” comment.

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