“Keep Smiling at Trouble” (1935) with Bud Freeman

“Keep Smiling at Trouble”

Composed by Lewis E. Gensler; head arrangement.

Recorded By Bud Freeman and His Windy City Five for Decca on December 4, 1935 in New York.

Lawrence “Bud” Freeman, tenor saxophone, directing: Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Claude Thornhill, piano; Eddie Condon, guitar; Grachan Moncur, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.

The story:

Once back in Manhattan from his summer of 1935 tour with Benny Goodman, Bunny Berigan immediately resumed his duties at CBS, including his broadcasts with Bunny’s Blue Boys and as a member of “the Instrumentalists” with Raymond Scott. “Bunny’s Blue Boys on Tuesdays, 12:15 a.m. over Columbia, put on a few of the old jam numbers with the genuine swing. This outfit is led by Bunny Berigan, lately of Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and play right up to time.”(sic)”The singer on Mark Warnow’s Blue Velvet orchestra, Alice Blue (really Helen Forrest),(1) has changed her name to ‘Bonnie Blue.“(2)

Jazz gadfly John Hammond.

Bunny also returned to his work as a freelance recording musician. Even though there was a preponderance of commercial music made on most recording sessions where he participated, now there was also an increasing number of sessions that were either all jazz, or strongly jazz influenced. On December 4, 6, and 13, Bunny participated in three of the most memorable recording sessions of the middle 1930s, all produced by John Hammond. They are memorable not only because of his great contributions at each session, but also because these were strictly jazz sessions. There was no commercial singer or other gimmicks used to “sell the song.” The sole purpose of these sessions was to record some of the finest jazz musicians then playing. I will refer to these three sessions as “the Berigan-Hammond triptych,” and I will be presenting several of the recordings that were made at those sessions here at bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com in the coming months. All contain terrific playing by Berigan.

John Henry Hammond Jr. was born on December 15, 1910, in New York City into a family of great wealth and prominence. His mother was a Vanderbilt. Hammond’s activities, beginning in the early 1930s as talent scout, record producer, and writer/critic, had a major positive impact on many careers in jazz, including those of Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Teddy Wilson. Later, he was instrumental in launching the careers of Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. One of Hammond’s sisters, Alice, married Benny Goodman in 1942. Hammond’s relationship with Goodman both before and after they were brothers-in-law was often fraught because Benny was capable of being as arrogant and pushy as Hammond. But Benny had to first be provoked. Hammond was that way most of the time.

Hammond’s activities as critic were always somewhat dubious because he was a man of immoderate opinions, which he had the wealth and power to indulge. His criticisms, which were delivered as sermons from on high, often were extreme: “he’s maaahvelous,” or “he stinks.” (Fortunately for Bunny Berigan, he was in Hammond’s “he’s maaavelous” category.) Moreover, he was known to write criticism about artists whose music he recorded as a producer for many record labels, a blatant conflict of interest. Hammond was of the belief that since he did not make money directly from his various relationships with the musicians he wrote about, he was exempted from the general rules of conflict of interest. This was an absurd rationalization, but Hammond, due to his place of privilege in New York society and the world of jazz, was nevertheless able to able to continue writing criticism of jazz and jazz musicians, under conditions of conflict of interest, for many years.

His critical salvos in the direction of Duke Ellington and Ray Noble, which were published in Down Beat 1935, caused much controversy. Ellington, being who he was, waited several years before he replied in print to Hammond’s criticisms. And when he did, he did so obliquely. Hammond’s excoriation of Ray Noble’s American band, which appeared on the front page of Down Beat‘s June 1935 edition, was quite sensational. After first exempting Noble band members Bud Freeman, George Van Eps, Johnny Muenzenberger (Mince), and Claude Thornhill from his blast, he let go: “There is no ensemble in any of the sections, let alone that band as a whole. The tone of the violins, particularly the first, is ugly in the extreme, and the intonation frequently false. There is not even good rhythm, to say nothing of swing, in the orchestra, and the blame for this can be equally divided between arrangers, leader and rhythm section.” Down Beat published a rebuttal of sorts on the front page of its next (July) issue, written by K.K. Hansen, that referred to Hammond not by name, but as “the Bogey Man.” And so it went.

Bandleader Andy Kirk, tries to get a word in edgewise; clarinetist Edmond Hall listens; and Hammond talks – at Cafe’ Society in 1940.

Hammond was an early and passionate crusader for racial equality, but again his arrogance often undercut what he was trying to do, which was to bring about racial parity. Black jazz musicians, whose work he generally preferred, often tolerated his meddling patiently to his face, knowing that he was a wealthy and powerful patron. But among themselves, they referred to him ironically as “the great white father.”

Notwithstanding the controversy he frequently caused, Hammond overall was a large positive force and advocate for jazz and jazz musicians, and for racial equality.

John Hammond died on July 10, 1987, in Manhattan.

At the December 4, 1935 session, Bunny Berigan was a part of the group gathered by Hammond to make some records for the English Parlophone label, which had some affiliation with either English Decca and/or American Decca.(2A) The musicians that Hammond chose were: Berigan on trumpet; Bud Freeman, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Grachan Moncur, bass; and Cozy Cole, drums. Bud Freeman, whom Hammond designated the leader for that session, chose the pianist Claude Thornhill, with whom he was working in Ray Noble’s band, and guitarist Eddie Condon. Freeman later remembered: 

Bud Freeman.

“One night after finishing (with Noble’s band) at the Rainbow Room, I went down to the Famous Door on Fifty-second Street. The place was packed. Humphrey Bogart and Bea Lillie were there. They were jazz fans. One of the first people I saw was John Hammond, who called me right over. He apparently had a deal with the English Parlophone label to record some American jazz and wanted me to lead a group, which would include Bunny, Benny Carter’s drummer, Cozy Cole, and a young bass player called Grachan Moncur, who Hammond had heard on a Newark, New Jersey, radio station. I got hold of Eddie Condon, but when I asked Claude Thornhill, who was playing piano with Ray Noble, he turned me down, saying, ‘C’mon, Bud, I’m not a jazz player, I can’t play with those guys.’ I told him I wanted a good pianist and he was the one. So he finally agreed to do it. He played wonderfully too.” (3)

The musicians assembled in a tiny, stuffy studio at 799 Seventh Avenue, near Fifty-fourth that would soon be abandoned by Decca. “‘It was awful,’ said Hammond. ‘Like a broom closet. In fact, I think that’s what it became. But Parlophone had a tie-up with American Decca, so we were stuck with it.’” After knocking off a pop tune, the band tackled a Freeman original, ‘The Buzzard,’ an up-tempo exercise on the chord sequence of ‘Basin Street Blues.’”(4) The musicians then joyously recorded ‘What Is There to Say?’ (one take); ‘The Buzzard’ (three takes); ‘Tillie’s Downtown Now’ (three takes); and ‘Keep Smiling at Trouble’ (one take).(5) This post will focus on “Keep Smiling at Trouble.”

The music:

I will cite to the liner notes written in 1982 for the three-disk set of LPs of Berigan’s music called Bunny Berigan …Giants of Jazz, written by Richard M. Sudhalter: “This 1925 Tin Pan Alley number is a good, straightforward tune for jazz improvisation. Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone, and Bunny Berigan on trumpet, kick it off in no-nonsense fashion. They hit the introduction full of energy, with Freeman getting off a couple of typically curlicued breaks before charging into the the first ensemble chorus. Trumpet and tenor dive and wheel, playing gaily off each other for a chorus.

This photo was taken a couple of months after the recording session that produced “Keep Smiling at Trouble.” Over Bunny’s right shoulder is Eddie Condon.

Freeman plunges into his solo with a rhythmic paraphrase of the melody, and unravels a succession of elastic, triplet-laden constructions full of unusual intervals (fourths where the ear expects thirds). Sudden bursts of activity alternate with repeated clipped-off single notes to generate punch. Cozy Cole and Eddie Condon are especially effective as a rhythm team here.

Berigan opens his solo with a low-register almost clarinet-like flow. He begins the bridge with a simple phrase, a singing concert D and three short punctuations, and then repeats it, altering the notes to fit the changing chord. Finally he builds on this fragment a longer statement that wraps-up the episode and propels him into his warmly and personally delivered last eight bars.

Thornhill solos, …holding his own in fast company, with Freeman and Berigan coming back in at the bridge. They keep things tight this time, playing out the chorus very close to the melody. But not for long. A glorious Berigan high C arching across two and a half bars sends the band hurtling into a final chorus of delirium, with Berigan flashing across his high register, and Freeman spinning out a fervid accompaniment. There is a momentary return to the melody, and then the Windy City Five head for home.”(6)

“This session was an utter joy,” John Hammond said. “I’d always thought Bud was sort of an unsung hero and I was delighted to hear him prove me right. But Bunny—my God, he just stood apart from everybody!” (7)

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


(1) Helen Forrest, born as Helen Fogel, on April 12, 1917, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was one of the best and most popular singers of the swing era. After working on CBS radio, she was hired by Artie Shaw in the autumn of 1938, at the time his band was rising to national prominence. Consequently the many records she made with Shaw brought her wide recognition. After Shaw left his band at the end of 1939, Forrest went to work for Benny Goodman, and then Harry James. She left James in late 1943 and began a long career as a soloist. She had success on radio in the 1940s, most notably on a radio program she shared with vocalist Dick Haymes, appeared in a few films, and then settled into a career where she would sometimes record, sometimes sing with big bands, and sometimes be featured as a soloist in various venues. Helen Forrrest died on July 11, 1999, in Woodland Hills, California.

(2) Variety: November 20, 1935, cited in the White materials.

(2A) The records that were produced at this recording session were released on both the English Parlophone label and on the American Decca label.

(3) White materials: December 4, 1935.

(4) Bunny Berigan …Giants of Jazz (1982), Notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter. 33–35. Hereafter Giants of Jazz.

(5) White materials: December 4, 1935.

(6) Giants of Jazz: 34.

(7) Giants of Jazz: 35.

2 thoughts on ““Keep Smiling at Trouble” (1935) with Bud Freeman

Add yours

  1. Many thanks to Mr. Zirpolo for his remastering of this joyous piece and all the great background information on it.
    I was surprised to see Hammond’s birthday and year only 14 days after my own father’s. Indeed, my mother and father married in June, 1937 and were active during Bunny’s career. They traveled down to Chicago to dance at some of the leading ballrooms; they mentioned the Trianon that I can recall.
    Hammond sure got a great group here for this date. It’s also remarkable that this piece was cut in one take. I purchased this recording in a church thrift shop languishing among all the other 78’s no one of my generation wanted. The cost was negligible as I recall and there were a number of Berigan gems there that day.
    All the players were at the top of their game here, with Freeman blowing an active counterpoint to Bunny’s spare treatment of the melody.
    Bunny simply excels here in his soloing. Within a short while we hear a lot of licks that we recognize as definite “ Beriganisms.” The drop off “cries”, the expert ways in which he spins out a charming miniature “story” in a single phrase, and a chromatic back and forth between two pitches which pops up later in “The Prisoner Song” are masterful touches of an artist playing with his own original ideas like a child plays with his blocks.
    As Mr. Zirpolo has made us aware in his wonderful book, Bunny was a genius in any musical situation he found himself in. But here we hear a very happy Bunny, getting to send happiness down through the years to us in this date which found him in a terrific small group session with players of similar style and talent.

  2. Even with an awareness of Bunny’s heavy workload and the professional pressures of his radio commitments in 1935, as well as, most importantly, the fact that by this time he was falling into the abyss of alcoholism, I always hear through the music a very happy year in that all-too-brief life. There was the wonderful all-star Norvo date in January, the Gifford session in May, the brief tenure with the fledgling Goodman orchestra that kicked the aggregation into high gear and the aptly-labled “Berigan-Hammond triptych” to close the year; records such as the Norvo “Bughouse,” the Goodman “King Porter” and this spotlighted side display a master musician, who appears to have all the confidence in the world and not a care, while the Gifford “Squareface” the Bailey “Willow Tree” and Blue Boys “Blues” reveal a mature and thoughtful artist who pours his soul into every note.

    From all I’ve read through the years, I can’t imagine that I would have personally liked Hammond, but I do give him tremendous credit for providing recording work for the greatest jazz players, especially the black musicians, whose opportunities were seldom commensurate with their talent, as well as for being very vocally on the right side of the racial equality fight. The three landmark Hammond sessions in which Bunny participated are top-tier jazz, free of pop dross, all featuring simpatico personnel.

    I recall that the first number I heard, decades ago, from this session was the sublime “Tillie’s Downtown Now.” I was knocked out by the rapport among all the participants, especially Bunny and Bud. Their approaches were very different, but they meshed marvelously. Bud somehow manages to be simultaneously urbane and hot, while in Bunny’s playing we can always hear, perhaps despite his very sophisticated harmonic sense, a visceral quality, which gives all his work its immediacy. In the bouncing and swinging “Keep Smiling At Trouble,” we get not a pep talk à la Jolson but just unfettered fun from a group of guys who, we must imagine, were thrilled to be free to record to the kind of music they loved in their own way. Though Bunny, in particular, could bring beauty to even the dreariest material, it sure helps to start with a good, improvisation-friendly tune, as here. I suspect that the intro (later reprised as the coda) was sketched by Bud, as it brings to mind some of those, such as on “China Boy,” for his later Summa Cum Laude records. In this eight-bar spot, there’s repeated use of a famous Freemanism that always sounds to me to have been the progenitor of “fffffddddda yacky sacky” from “Hold Tight (Want Some Seafood, Mama)”. Though Bud, characteristically loquacious and witty, is impassioned in his own chorus, I enjoy most his bobbings and weavings around and occasional harmonic interactions with Bunny. He surely was aware that though Bunny had his own pet phrases, he was always able on the spot to produce lines of startling originality in a way that Bud, for all his singular instrumental language, could not. Thornhill, though no Jess Stacy, manages his half chorus in a manner entirely consonant with his surroundings, but for me the stars of the rhythm are Condon’s lissome and light-toned tenor guitar and Cozy’s deft brushes.

    Though we probably focus most on Bunny’s imagination, daring and compositional sense as an improvisor, we know too that he was a master of the straight (well, pretty much) melody statement. Both talents are gloriously present on “Keep Smiling …” In the opening chorus he displays that amazing, unerring sense of what kind of phrasing best suits the melody line and tempo. Throughout the side he brilliantly contrasts economy with expansiveness, while providing the story with a beginning, middle and end. This side, from mid-way through the Great Depression, guarantees a smile.

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