“Night Song”

Composed by Juan Tizol and Jimmy Mundy; arranged by Jimmy Mundy.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live at Manhattan Center, New York City, September 26, 1939.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Jake Koven, Truman Quigley, Carl “Bama” Warwick, trumpets; Mark Pasco, Al Jennings, trombones; Charlie DiMaggio (as/cl) Joe DiMaggio (as/cl); Larry Walsh (ts/bs); Stuart Anderson (ts/cl), reeds; Edwin “Buddy” Koss, piano; Tommy Moore, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums.

The story:

In the wake of the maneuvering, legal and managerial, that occurred after Bunny Berigan completed a very successful week at the Loew’s-State Theater in Manhattan, three facts became apparent: (1) He continued to front a big band; (2) MCA continued to book the Berigan band; and (3) despite the bankruptcy action Bunny had recently filed, he remained deeply in debt.

Bunny Berigan on the stage of Loew’s-State Theater in Manhattan – August 24 -30, 1939. That engagement was a success; nevertheless after it Bunny almost lost his band.

What we can assume from these facts is that the debts listed in Berigan’s petition for bankruptcy eventually went away in some fashion, and that his musicians were finally paid in full for their unpaid wages. (Those debts had accrued in the spring and summer of 1939.) The payment of Bunny’s sidemen was an essential piece of his plan, whatever it ended up being, because if the musicians had not been paid, Berigan could never have led a band of union musicians again.

However, evidence that I have unearthed seems to lead to the conclusion that the debts Bunny listed on his bankruptcy petition were not discharged as the result of the bankruptcy action. Instead, it seems that he paid off all of these debts himself, probably during the period from March through August of 1940, while he was working as a sideman in Tommy Dorsey’s band. If this did in fact happen, and events from that time suggest that it did, then it appears that he simply dismissed his bankruptcy petition, and that the bankruptcy action he had initiated around September 1, 1939 had no effect on his debts. This dismissal probably occurred as a part of the second round of legal and managerial maneuvering that resulted in him disbanding his own group and joining Tommy Dorsey’s band in early March of 1940 (see below).

Another photo of Berigan at Loew’s-State Theater.

And as we know, through all of this, Bunny Berigan very much wanted to continue to lead his own band. But without the assistance of a personal manager (or apparently his own attorney) to protect his interests, Bunny allowed MCA to devise what turned out to be a stopgap plan that allowed him to continue with his band in September of 1939. The plan they contrived then undoubtedly would have secured to MCA full repayment of all money advanced by MCA for Berigan’s benefit, plus interest. As subsequent events seem to indicate, Bunny, at that time, jumped from the financial frying pan into the fire in order to continue to lead a big band. That stopgap plan allowed Berigan to continue leading his band from September of 1939 through February of 1940.

The thinking processes of alcoholics are often muddled, and it is therefore sometimes difficult for non-alcoholics to understand their motivations. But in this case it seems very clear that Bunny Berigan would have done almost anything to continue to lead his band. It is likely that he looked at whatever deal he made with in September of 1939 with MCA in this way: Yes, I owe them money. But they have to continue to book my band in order to be paid back. Therefore, I will continue to get bookings from MCA if for no other reason than so they can be repaid what I owe them. This is almost too absurd to believe, and I would not believe it myself if it weren’t for one fact: that Bunny Berigan worked for MCA continuously in some fashion from the time of his bankruptcy filing in late August or early September 1939, until his death on June 2, 1942. In fact, he continued working for them after his death by proxy, because his band continued on for a time as what was probably (after Chick Webb’s) one of the first ghost bands. From MCA’s standpoint, it is clear that whatever financial troubles Bunny had gotten himself into by the summer of 1939, MCA had invested in building and promoting the name Bunny Berigan, and that name would bring MCA commissions in the future as it had in the past. So long as Berigan was able to stand up in front of any group of musicians and play one-night stands, they made sure he could continue to do that. So, Bunny went about reorganizing his band so that he could do precisely that, and MCA continued to book the Berigan band and receive commissions for each gig the band played.  MCA also began to repay itself the money it had advanced Berigan, plus interest.

But this plan continued to work only until early 1940. By then, the first major crisis with Berigan’s health had occurred. That resulted in Bunny being hospitalized for two weeks at the end or 1939 and into 1940. Consequently, since Bunny had not been able to continue leading his band through the time he was hospitalized, his cash-flow stopped, and the MCA repayment plan collapsed. But in early September of 1939, all of this was in the future.

The magical spell that Bunny was able to cast, especially on young musicians who were eager to gain some experience in his band, was still very much intact as the summer of 1939 modulated into autumn. The veteran tenor saxophonist Stuart Anderson was three years older than Bunny. Nevertheless, he did what was necessary to position himself to join the Berigan band: “I’d been at the State Theater nearly every night to catch the show and at the end of the week, I got a call to join the band on 4th tenor, so that Larry Walsh could move up to 2nd. Charlie DiMaggio moved into the lead alto chair and brought his brother, Joe DiMaggio, to play 3rd alto and jazz clarinet. Carl ‘Bama’ Warwick took Joe Bauer’s 3rd trumpet chair. He was a very light-skinned Negro and most of us didn’t realize he was colored.”(1)

Others already in the Berigan band were looking for opportunities to continue to improve their résumés. Tenor and baritone saxophonist Larry Walsh had not had many jazz solos while Don Lodice was in the band. Now that Lodice had left, he was given the opportunity to move up to the jazz chair. Here are Walsh’s recollections: “I took over the 2nd (jazz) tenor chair vacated by Don Lodice. Some of the ballad arrangements had used Clyde Rounds on baritone sax, but with many of them now being replaced by jump numbers, I asked Bunny if I could drop it (the baritone) and he agreed. Besides the few days of rehearsals after band reorganized, we played the Palisades Park job soon after, and some other one-nighters in the New York area.”(2)

Among the other replacements were: Buddy Koss who had replaced Joe Bushkin on piano, and a new girl singer Kay Doyle. Once more, within a very short time, Berigan had effectively reorganized his band. The new personnel were as follows: Jake Koven (lead), Truman Quigley, Carl Warwick, trumpets; Mark Pasco (lead), Al Jennings, trombones; Charlie DiMaggio (lead alto), Joe DiMaggio (3rd alto and jazz clarinet), Larry Walsh (jazz/2nd) Stuart Anderson (4th) (tenors), saxophones; Edwin ‘Buddy’ Koss, piano; Tommy Moore, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums. Danny Richards remained on ballad vocals. Al Jennings, in addition to playing good trombone, sang novelties and jazz numbers. The Berigan band, shaken and diminished, with its ever-optimistic leader, carried on.

A number of Berigan sidemen stated that soon after Kay Doyle joined the band, she and Bunny were in the midst of a romance. Whatever was going on seemed to be good for Bunny’s playing because as aircheck recordings from this period demonstrate, he was playing brilliantly. Ms. Doyle remained with the band probably until the end of 1939.

As mentioned above, Berigan rehearsed his new band for several days, and then took them to a break-in job at Palisades Park in Fort Lee, New Jersey, on September 13. They then traveled northeast to start a one-week engagement at the Totem Pole, Norumbega Park, Route 30, just outside Boston in Auburndale, Massachusetts, on September 15. It was from this point that the band broadcast over WOR from 8:00–8:30 p.m. on September 20. While the band was in Boston, aircheck recordings were made. Although the band plays well, it is clear that soloists Bivona, Bushkin, and Lodice are missed. Berigan however, plays as well as ever.

While Bunny was breaking his new band in at the Totem Pole, some of his old colleagues were doing very well in New York: “Glenn Miller ork and the Ink Spots open at New York’s Paramount Theater on Wednesday, September 20, 1939, the first time there for Miller.”(3) “Artie Shaw will get $36,000 for three weeks at the Strand Theater, New York City. He will open there on September 21.”(4)

This one’s for you, Bunny!

After the Totem Pole gig, the Berigan band probably played one-nighters in New England until they returned to Manhattan for an engagement, with a broadcast, that held a pleasant surprise for Bunny. Paul Collins recalled: “That broadcast was Martin Block’s Swing Session program and Glen Gray’s Casa Loma orchestra played opposite us. They played ‘I Can’t Get Started’ as a tribute to Bunny, using his famous arrangement and featuring Murray McEachern on trombone. He played it extremely well, except for very last high note on the coda, when he stopped playing, turned and bowed towards Bunny.”(5) Berigan was not a man who was given to demonstrations of emotion. But on this occasion he was moved to tears.

Despite all of Bunny’s problems, the band on this broadcast is loose and swinging, and his own playing is magnificent throughout, especially on “I Poured My Heart into a Song” (hear his capacious, velvety low register before the vocal; then later the perfectly lip-trilled high C followed by the titanic high F at the end),(6) and the obscure but rewarding original “Night Song.”

He undoubtedly had received another lecture recently from the people at MCA that he needed to reduce his drinking if he wanted to remain a bandleader. His father, William P. “Cap” Berigan, who was acting as his personal manager and road manager, and the members of his band were trying to help him cut down too. It is truly amazing how quickly and dramatically his playing improved when he limited his intake of alcohol. Unfortunately, by this time, each ounce of alcohol he imbibed was adding to the severe damage that already had been done to his liver, and no regeneration or healing of that cirrhosis-ravaged organ was possible.

The music:

“Night Song” was composed by Duke Ellington’s valve trombonist Juan Tizol, and freelance arranger Jimmy Mundy. It was recorded for Vocalion by Cootie Williams and His Rug Cutters, a small group drawn from the Duke Ellington big band, on June 21, 1939. Previously, it had been recorded by Charlie Barnet for Bluebird on March 17, 1939, in an arrangement which most available evidence indicates was written by Jimmy Mundy, and which is almost identical to the one the Berigan band plays here. In exchange for getting this tune recorded by an Ellington small group, Ellington’s then manager Irving Mills got his name added as a co-composer.

“Night Song” took its place in the Berigan book of arrangements as a vehicle for Bunny’s melodic trumpet stylings, alongside “Caravan” and “Trees.” Bunny had received some negative criticism through the first eight months of 1939 for presenting too many swinging jump tunes to his audiences. Starting with this reorganized Berigan band, and continuing with the bands Bunny would lead in the 1940 – 1942 period, he would ply dancers with many more easy to dance to melodies where he allowed his trumpet tone and phrasing to be spotlighted, instead of swinging hot jazz. This performance is an example of that approach.

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

Notes and links:

(1) White materials: August 31, 1939.

(2) Ibid.

(3) New York Times: September 18, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(4) Down Beat: September 1939, cited in the White materials.

(5) White materials: September 26, 1939.

(6) Andy Phillips continued to grow as an arranger during the chaotic months of 1939 with the Berigan band just as his predecessor Joe Lippman had throughout 1937–1938. He began coaxing Bunny not to mute his trumpet on the first chorus melody exposition, and wrote modulations into vocals that were also played by Berigan on open trumpet. The result of this, which is typified by “I Poured My Heart into a Song,” is thrilling music. Danny Richards also continued to grow as a performer during this time. He not only pleased audiences, but his boss as well. Hear Bunny, toward the end of Richards’s vocal chorus on “I Poured My Heart into a Song,” register his appreciation as he says: “Yyyyess, Danny!” Here is a link to that performance:

One thought on ““Night Song”

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  1. The structure of “Night Song” has always reminded me of that of another among Tizol’s many intriguing and fine compositions, the more widely-known “Pyramid.” I very much admire both tunes, but I probably slightly prefer “Night Song.” Though I don’t doubt that Jimmy Mundy had input on the song, I do wonder exactly what it was. As to Irving Mills, I don’t know how that guy could face himself in the mirror, slapping his name, as he did, on numbers in whose construction he took no part. Wasn’t he getting enough out of the artists he represented as it was?

    Though I, as a big fan of the Barnet band, enjoy Charlie’s version of “Night Song” on its own terms, I believe it fails to capture the piece’s inherent atmospheric quality. It swings, and the Barnet trumpets, the “Lumberjacks,” are impressive both collectively and individually, but Charlie’s jumpin’ tenor and, at times, the reeds’ phrasing sound frivolous, entirely at odds with the quiet, reflective mood that the melody and harmonic structure suggest. Cootie’s Rug Cutters, one of the various and wonderful Ellington small groups, and Bunny’s band swing the tune (as was clearly Tizol and Mundy’s expectation), but in a manner that somehow evokes a late-night walk through rainswept city streets — well, to these ears, anyway.

    Bunny, as we know, loved a pretty melody — and in “Night Song” he heard one, we can determine from his soulful reading of the unadorned theme. I’m not surprised that this on-location take is spotlighted here, as it is superior to the band’s subsequent studio recording, for both the leader’s work and the orchestra’s support. We may imagine that the band was inspired by the audience’s audible appreciation as the performance progressed. A testament to Bunny’s strong musical leadership, the essentially new Berigan band of the 9/26/39 broadcast sounds assured and plays with a cohesion that belies its general inexperience and short history. Bunny knew how to get the sound he envisioned out of his musicians and, by all accounts, such was the instrumentalists’ admiration and fondness for their captain that they really wanted to give him their best. On “Night Song,” as always, Bunny makes the difficult sound easy — without appearing simply to toss off his musical phrases without feeling. There was heart and emotion in every note Bunny played — though, as we find, he was not effusive in his deportment. … I’ve always been a great admirer of Murray McEachern’s trombone playing — what a beautiful tribute he paid to Bunny on that Martin Block broadcast. I wish that Casa Loma treatment of the Berigan band theme had been preserved. It’s no wonder that Bunny was deeply touched by Murray’s salute.

    Finally, in utter incomprehension, I have to wonder about all those at MCA who dealt personally with Bunny. I know policy was policy and ultimately all who were a part of the agency had to have realised themselves to be merely replaceable cogs — but, geez, didn’t anyone feel like a rat in their business associations with him as things went downhill for Bunny? … Or did they really believe that they were doing him a big favour? He rated far better treatment and greater compassion and understanding.

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