Composed by Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke; arranged by Joe Lippman.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Men for Victor on November 30, 1938 in New York.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Irving Goodman, trumpet; Ray Conniff, trombone; Murray “Jumbo” Williams, alto saxophone and bass clarinet; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, clarinet; Georgie Auld, alto saxophone; Joe Lippman, piano; Hank Wayland, bass; Bernard “Buddy” Rich, drums. (Image at top: Leonard Joy and Bunny Berigan talk in the NYC Victor recording studio.)
It is paradoxical that Victor Records, which for the previous nineteen months had dictated to Bunny Berigan which tunes he should record for them, including such titles as “Mother Goose,” “Rinka Tinka Man,” and “Button, Button,” should suddenly allow him to record a six-side series of compositions either composed by Bix Beiderbecke, or associated with him. I must assume that Bunny and his arranger Joe Lippman pleaded with Leonard Joy, who was now supervising Berigan’s Victor recording sessions, to allow this project to go forward, and somehow persuaded him that it was worth a try. Eli Oberstein, Victor’s self-styled hit maker, who had exerted control over most of Berigan’s previous recording sessions, would undoubtedly have vetoed this concept immediately. It had nothing to do with current pop tunes, banal lyrics, girl or boy singers, song-pluggers, and the other usual commercial considerations that guided his choice of what tunes a band should record.
Indeed, this set of recordings, which have come to be known as Berigan’s Beiderbecke Suite, was unique in that no other swing band up to that time had ever actually recorded, as a group, a number of compositions that shared a common theme. People often attribute the origination of the “concept album” idea to Frank Sinatra, who certainly did some great things along those lines in the 1950s while he was recording for Capitol. But this was happening in 1938, and it was being done by an artist who certainly did not have a lot of clout with the recording company.(1) This strange development is but the first of many difficult to explain (but in this case fortuitous) incidents that would occur between Berigan and Victor over the following twelve months.
What is equally odd is that between the Berigan recording sessions of November 22, November 30, and December 1, 1938, a period of only nine days, Bunny recorded a total of ten sides for Victor, not a one of which was a then-current pop tune. This represented a complete turnabout from the many sessions he had previously made for Victor that had consisted exclusively of current Tin Pan Alley ephemera, often with mawkish lyrics. In light of Bunny’s overall experience with Victor Records, we must be thankful that the Beiderbecke Suite recordings he made on November 30 and December 1, 1938, was ever allowed to be produced.
At 1:30 p.m. on November 30, Bunny gathered eight of his sidemen at Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street recording studio in Manhattan. This small band, billed as Bunny Berigan and His Men, consisted of Berigan and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff, trombone; Murray Williams, Gus Bivona, and Georgie Auld, saxophones and clarinets; Joe Lippman, piano; Hank Wayland, bass; and Buddy Rich, drums. Over the next three and three-quarter hours, they very efficiently recorded four tunes that had been composed by Bix Beiderbecke: “In a Mist,” “Flashes,” “Davenport Blues,” and “Candlelights.” Joe Lippman recalled the project many years later: “It was Bunny’s idea to do these things. He got that book—the suite of piano pieces—and we tried out ‘In a Mist’ on the CBS Saturday Night Swing Club radio show.(2) His idea was to create a little band within the big band, and what better way to do it than with the music of Bix?”(3) The “book” Lippman referred to was the published transcriptions of Beiderbecke’s piano compositions that had been done for Bix by arranger Bill Challis.(4)
“Davenport Blues,”as arranged by Joe Lippman, is a bit of a swinger. Unlike the floating, atmospheric arrangements Bunny recorded that day on “In a Mist,” “Flashes,” and Candlelights,” it returned this slimmed-down Berigan ensemble to the conventions of the swing era: a taut rhythm section supporting harmonized ensemble backgrounds supporting improvised solos. Georgie Auld is heard here in the intro on alto saxophone, an instrument he rarely played while he was with Berigan. Then Ray Conniff steps forward with a robust trombone solo. Bunny’s melodic open trumpet brings Auld back for a tasty eight bars of solo alto sax, followed by eight bars of Bunny’s open trumpet, with Auld then returning for eight more bars. This eight-eight-eight scheme is then repeated, with Gus Bivona’s clarinet solos bookending Ray Conniff’s trombone. Berigan’s passionate open trumpet moves this performance to a very satisfactory conclusion. “Davenport Blues” is an excellent recording.
Auld’s use of his alto saxophone on it created a situation in which he and Bunny had a slight disagreement. (See below.)
Jazz trumpeter and historian Richard M. Sudhalter carefully analyzed the Berigan version of “Davenport Blues.” Here is what he said: “‘Davenport Blues’ is by far the most explicitly rhythmic of (the Beiderbecke Suite pieces), and the only one in which individual solos emerge with any independence from the ensemble fabric. It opens a trifle uncharacteristically with Georgie Auld’s solo on alto saxophone, played over sustained chords created by trombonist Ray Conniff and Gus Bivona on B-flat clarinet and Murray Williams on bass clarinet. Then the reeds break in with an ascending passage that sets up the first theme of ‘Davenport Blues,’ which is delivered in robust style by Conniff. Berigan and the ensemble also take part of it before handing the rest back to Conniff.
Despite its name, ‘Davenport Blues’ is no blues. Berigan’s exposition of its second strain reveals that it is a beautiful, lyrical song in the shape and with the flavor of a Beiderbecke cornet improvisation. Bunny sets out the melody on open trumpet with glowing tone and utter relaxation over a lovely Lippman background involving descending chords struck by clarinets and piano with harplike effect. Auld then returns for a brief and lyrical solo, which is interrupted by a Lippman paraphrase of a feature of Beiderbecke’s 1925 recording: an ascending whole-tone scale, played here by Berigan, Conniff and Bivona. Bunny then plays an eight-bar solo that in no way resemble Beiderbecke’s playing, but that creates the same reflective effect in its emphatic moments. Auld returns to finish the chorus.
Gus Bivona and Ray Conniff play solos in the next chorus over backgrounds created by Joe Lippman that seem both to respond to the shifting moods and colors of those solos, and to determine them. Through it all, drummer Buddy Rich moves things along with controlled intensity.
A Lippman piano interlude brings on Berigan, playing a theme introduced by Jack Teagarden on the 1934 Adrian Rollini recording of ‘Davenport Blues.’ It sends his trumpet soaring with great expressiveness into its high register with a keening and very moving lament. He tumbles off his high B-flat in a figure that sounds for an instant like the verse to ‘Star Dust,’ a song Hoagy Carmichael wrote for his friend Beiderbecke. Berigan’s solo here, though only four bars long, has the same effect as one of Beiderbecke’s cameo appearances with Paul Whiteman–it expresses, in compact but fully realized form, a complete emotional statement.
A crisp, arranged ending concludes this performance.” (5)
The story continues:
At the time Bunny Berigan made the six recordings that comprise his Beiderbecke Suite, he was in the third month of a series of misfortunes that seriously undermined what had been the best band he would ever lead. Among the reverses he suffered were: a costly blown gig when his band was sent to the wrong location by MCA; the great Hurricane of 1938, which blew Bunny and his band out of a prestigious two-week engagement at the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Boston, and caused cancellation of many one-night dance dates in New England; and a broken ankle. In addition, during this period of great stress, Bunny’s wife Donna began suffering from her own drinking problem, which caused a number of disturbing situations with the Berigan children, Patricia, aged six, and Joyce, aged two. While Bunny was struggling to stabilize his band, the problems with his daughters reached a breaking point. In desperation, Bunny asked his parents, who lived in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, to come to New York to take care of Patty and Joyce. They did this, and their intervention temporarily created some equilibrium in the Berigan home.
Meanwhile, several musicians in the Berigan band, sensing trouble, began leaving. The two whose departure was most destabilizing for the band were tenor saxophone soloist and ace section player Georgie Auld, and the fiery young drummer, Buddy Rich, who had provided a rocking rhythmic foundation for what had been a very strongly swinging band. Auld left first. Here is the story behind that, which relates to the two Beiderbecke Suite recording sessions. It is interesting to review how Georgie Auld recalled the events surrounding the two sessions sessions:
“Bunny wanted me to play alto and tenor on this album. I hadn’t touched the alto in a long time. I squeaked a couple of times. Bunny took his trumpet and threw it up against the wall (I think this is hyperbole), cursed me out and said, ‘Blackie’ (Bunny’s nickname for Auld), you sonofabitch, you’re doin’ the squeakin’ so we can go overtime.’ It broke my heart. Those were the first out-of-the-way words we ever had. I go back to the Forrest Hotel, and run into Billie Holiday and Tony Pastor. They say ‘Artie (Shaw) has been looking for you all day. Where have you been?’ They were working at the Lincoln Hotel. So I said, ‘I’ll come by tonight.’ I went by that evening and Artie hired me. The next evening I went back to RCA to finish Bunny’s album. I walked into the men’s room to take a leak, and Bunny’s in there taking one. He looked at me and said: ‘Jeez, Georgie, I was overtrained last night. I never should have done what I did. I hope you’ll forgive me.’ ‘I forgive you Bunny. I hope you’ll forgive me.’ ‘Why? What did you do?’ ‘I joined Artie Shaw last night. I’m going with his band in two weeks.’ He says: ‘You make a move and I’ll knock every one of your f…..n’ teeth out.’ One minute later, he’s hugging me and saying: ‘No matter who’s in your chair with my band, if you’re not happy with Shaw, that chair always belongs to you.’”(6)
Like many jazz musicians, Georgie Auld was a good storyteller; indeed he was a good actor. He appeared on Broadway in The Rat Race in the 1950s, and later appeared in the film New York, New York, as a jaded bandleader. (In that film he stole more than one scene from stars Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli. It was also the sound of his tenor saxophone that was heard on the film’s soundtrack when De Niro was “playing” the saxophone onscreen.) I have ascertained that Auld’s first night with Artie Shaw’s band was December 16, 1938. That means that he probably gave his notice to Berigan two weeks earlier, on December 2. How much of the above-cited story is true is open to discussion. But I think the general outlines probably are true. Bunny undoubtedly was not happy about losing Auld. Nevertheless, their ultimate parting was on good terms, with Bunny being gracious about it.
Almost immediately upon joining the Shaw band, Georgie Auld became aware of a major problem in that ensemble. Their drummer, Cliff Leeman, had left a few days before, to receive treatment for what he characterized as “the world’s worse case of piles.” Veteran drummer George Wettling, who was working with Paul Whiteman, was filling in until Shaw could find a drummer he liked. Almost immediately, Auld began touting Buddy Rich to Shaw. At some point in late December of 1938, Rich sat-in with the Shaw band, Shaw liked what he heard, and Buddy joined Artie Shaw’s band, probably right after January 1, 1939.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) I do not think that it was a coincidence that within the year, chanteuse Lee Wiley began her series of recordings grouped by composer, beginning with George Gershwin. She would do an all Cole Porter session with Bunny in 1940. Obviously one of the things Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley had in common was their passionate love of the best of American popular song.
(2) The Berigan group played “In a Mist”on the Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast of November 19, 1938. Joe Lippman’s arrangement, a highly integrated piece of music, contained composed solos. A comparison of the recording of “In a Mist” made that night with the one made for Victor on November 30 reveals that Bunny had the musicians well prepared to perform this piece on the SNSC, that he strained not to burst out of the brief solos Lippman had written for him, and that he set the tempo slightly slower on the radio performance. Otherwise, the performances are almost identical.
(3) The Complete Bunny Berigan – Bluebird, Vol. III.
(4) Arranger William H. Challis was born on July 8, 1904, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was an early associate of the Dorsey Brothers, Russ Morgan, and other musicians who in the early 1920s were members of the fine territory band called the Scranton Sirens. Through his connection with the Sirens, he later joined the Jean Goldkette band as an arranger. It was in the Goldkette band that he became a close associate of Bix Beiderbecke’s. Shortly after this, they moved on to Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. Challis’s arrangements for both Goldkette and Whiteman were among the most innovative of the 1920s. Whiteman made the deal with music publisher Jack Robbins to publish Beiderbecke’s compositions for piano, and then Challis worked with Bix to write out the music for them. Challis went through the swing era and later years working regularly but almost anonymously as an arranger. Nevertheless, his charts were played by many of the top bands of those years, including Glenn Miller’s, Artie Shaw’s, and Glen Gray’s. Challis returned to his home for a long retirement and died in Wilkes-Barre on October 4, 1994.
The original recording of “Davenport Blues” was made by Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers on Gennett 5654-B on January 26, 1925 in Richmond, Indiana by these musicians: Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; with Don Murray, clarinet, Tommy Dorsey, trombone; Paul Mertz, piano; Tommy Gargano, drums; Howdy Quicksell, banjo. Many people forget that Tommy Dorsey was on this recording. TD had a very good, swinging arrangement on this tune in his band’s repertoire in 1938-1939, written by Deane Kincaide, which he often played.
(5) Giants of Jazz …Bunny Berigan (1982), notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter; 47.
(6) Traps, the Drum Wonder—The Life and Times of Buddy Rich, by Mel Tormé (1991), 39–40.
I, too, have always been mystified, as well as thrilled, by the Victor label’s uncharacteristic magnanimous behavior toward the Berigan orch. that resulted in the Beiderbecke Suite. Though, as noted, these six Bix-written/associated tunes were, in not being current dross intended for vocal renditions, not quite anomalous in the band’s discography, they represent Victor’s most generous gesture, by far, to a great artist, whose worth they measured, in typical practice, only in record sales. It seems, I agree, most likely that we have the discerning Leonard Joy to thank for this happy and historic deviance from business as usual.
After the beautiful “Flashes,” “Davenport Blues” is my favorite side from Bunny’s salute to Bix. The two performances emerge as both Beiderbecke tribute and Berigan triumph, in which each man’s musical spirit is strongly present. Too, though a quality of melancholy can often be found in Bunny’s playing, the thoughtful nature of Bix’s writing offers an opportunity for Bunny to expose a further reflective, introspective facet of his artistic expression.
Young Buddy Rich takes Bix’s ode to his hometown, so representative, in its relaxed way, of the flask-toting Jazz Age, into the current day, the streamlined Swing Era, displaying his confidence and mastery, despite his relative inexperience in the dance band environment. However many costly squeaks may have occurred during rehearsal, I really enjoy Georgie’s alto work on this side — more, in fact, than some (though certainly not all) of his tenor of this period. I find Ray Conniff, whose playing has never particularly sent me in terms of content, to be very impressive in both his statement of the familiar primary theme and bluesy soloing. Gus Bivona, too, who proved so capable a replacement in the jazz clarinet chair for Joe Dixon, is succinctly soulful. Joe Lippman’s spare writing allows the tune to swing while providing just the right amount of framework; I especially like the nod to Bix’s brief figure on the Rhythm Jugglers original. Bunny, though, as always, becomes the focal point by virtue of virtuosity and emotional impact. He appears to toss off the difficult so casually and yet also phrases in a way that brings importance and gravitas to his statements; his playing on the Teagarden phrase from the Rollini record illustrates my observation.
Apart from the obvious differences in technical approach of Bunny, the highly trained, well-rounded master musician, and Bix, the self-taught genius, it’s interesting to compare the expressive styles, and impact, of the two BB brassmen. Eddie Condon famously and concisely described Bix’s sound as “like a girl saying ‘yes’ ” and yet the former Leon Bismark seems, to me anyway, always to be more emotionally withholding than Bunny. We can clearly discern joy in Bix’s playing at times and yet he remains personally remote in a way that Bunny, who wore his heart on his sleeve, never does — on record, anyway. Who knows the precise reasons that either man drank to excess?
It is indeed important to point out the fact that the celebrated ’50s Sinatra “concept albums” had an antecedent in both (not coincidentally) Lee Wiley’s composer 78 albums and, still earlier, Bunny’s Bix tribute. These two discriminating artists displayed an affinity for quality long before Frank’s Capitol albums appeared.
Finally, finding yet another reference in this post to the impact on the Berigan band of the New England Hurricane of 1938, I, a longtime student of that particular natural disaster event, have to say that when I first learned, decades ago from the Dupuis book, of the great storm’s connection to Bunny, all I could think was … it figures. That guy had lousy luck!
Fred Norton is my uncle, I never knew him because he died serving his country in WWII. When both of my parents were deceased, my siblings and I were cleaning out the house when I found a box that contained Uncle Frederick’s whole life. I came across several pictures of The Bunny Berigan Band. Thought you may want to put them in your blog.