Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra

Berigan orchesttra

At first, I was thinking of making this article one of my “forgotten orchestras” series, but upon reflection that’s not quite true. Berigan himself is clearly not forgotten since he was one of the four greatest jazz trumpeters of the 1930s along with Louis Armstrong, Henry “Red” Allen and Roy Eldridge, and a select few of his band’s records—The Prisoner’s Song, Mahogany Hall Stomp, The Wearin’ of the Green and particularly his theme song, I Can’t Get Started—are well known and admired. But for the most part, his band was perceived in its day as simply a Benny Goodman clone without Goodman’s clarinet and, worse yet, except for I Can’t Get Started it generated no big-selling hit records.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of the Berigan band, we need to look into this. No hot jazz band of the swing era, not even Goodman’s, Basie’s or Duke Ellington’s, could survive in the marketplace without its quota of ballads and a search for “hit tunes.” Berigan certainly recorded his share of ballads, among them You Can’t Run Away From Love Tonight, The First Time I Saw You, The Image of You, Let’s Have Another Cigarette, Roses in December, Why Talk About Love?, I’d Love to Play a Love Scene, I Want a New Romance, A Strange Loneliness, The Piano Tuner Man, Outside of Paradise, Lovelight in the Starlight and An Old Straw Hat, all of them bombs, with a revolving door of singers of whom the best were Gail Reese and Kathleen Lane. He just didn’t have a feel for what would be a hit tune, as Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller did, and although his band’s arrangers were good they weren’t good enough to breathe life into these DOA musical corpses. Worse yet he, like Muggsy Spanier, had a proclivity towards older jazz tunes of the 1910s and ‘20s. The Prisoner’s Song is just one such. Run through a list of instrumentals recorded by Berigan for Victor and you’ll find a laundry list of old tunes: That’s A-Plenty, Frankie and Johnny, Jelly Roll Blues, Black Bottom, Runnin’ Wild, Walkin’ the Dog, Shanghai Shuffle, Dardanella, etc., some associated with his idols Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. Yes, the Dorsey, Goodman and Glenn Miller bands played a few such tunes, too, but only a few. Berigan loved early jazz with its solid song construction and was wary of riff tunes, which he felt were dumb—but that was where the money was in the late ‘30s.

Yet it would be wrong to say that all of the Berigan band’s arrangements were so generic as to be indistinguishable from those of other bands. Aside from Larry Clinton, who wrote a few scores for Bunny in 1937 and Ray Conniff, who joined the band as trombonist and arranger in 1938, their principal arranger was pianist Joe Lippman, and Lippman has a pretty good ear. He never came up with a “styling trick” to make the band sound very different from anyone else’s, but he clearly know how to write for a jazz orchestra and turned out some marvelous scores. It’s just that, as I said, the jitterbugging public were tired of hearing older songs or, when newer, songs borrowed from other bands such as Clinton’s A Study in Brown (which he had written and arranged for Glen Gray), the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington Caravan, or such fairly common standards as I Cried for You.

BeriganIt would also be wrong to say, as several have claimed, that Bunny started his own band solely to show himself off. Even a cursory listen to any Berigan band record other than I Can’t Get Started will show that he was extremely generous in allotting solo space to his favorite players, tenor saxist Georgie Auld and clarinetist Joe Dixon, and not hogging the spotlight for himself the way Goodman often did on his records. The sad truth is that the previous two bands he worked for, Goodman and Dorsey, became so jealous of his talents that within a very short time after he recorded what are now considered classic solos for them, they choked him off in future outings. With Goodman, he made his biggest impression on King Porter Stomp, Jingle Bells, Madhouse and Sometimes I’m Happy, but only the first of these was a smash hit and by November 1935 Bunny, feeling frustrated, left and returned to studio work which paid better and gave him more freedom. Dorsey gave him back-to-back blowing room on the two-sided hit record Marie and Song of India, but thereafter locked his prize horse in the stable. Berigan knew his worth, but no one was going to let him outshine the leader. Marie finally made his name known to the general public, and he became a star. It was time for him to move on.

The recordings I have uploaded at the Internet Archive as examples of the Berigan band at its best, and described below, are not all sterling arrangements, but the few that aren’t are certainly sterling showcases for him. Although it is certainly possible to transcribe Berigan solos, as the late Gunther Schuller did in his Swing Era book, I resisted the temptation because they don’t do his playing justice. Yes, it’s easy to transcribe the notes he played, but it’s difficult to indicate the way he could hold back very slightly on the beat or, at times, push the beat forward, and almost impossible to indicate the tone he played the notes with. Berigan could vary his sound from thin to rich, soft to loud, and add growls, rasps and “terminal vibrato,” i.e. suddenly producing a lip vibrato at the ends of phrases, and almost none of this comes across in written music.

  1. Mama, I Wanna Make Rhythm (9/1/1937). This is indeed a fairly generic chart, but it’s a good opening gambit for the band because of Bunny’s solo and, more interestingly, the only scat singing he ever did on record. He wasn’t quite Armstrong, but he was very interesting.
  2. the-lady-from-fifth-avenue-BunnyBerigan-spanishThe Lady From Fifth Avenue (6/18/1937). This wasn’t really a bad little tune, and the lyrics are somewhat humorous, but the vocal chorus goes on too long (often a complaint with Berigan records). Bunny plays the Latin-styled opening solo muted, then returns after the vocal to kick the doors in and drive it down to the finish line.
  3. Frankie and Johnny (6/25/1937). One of the Berigan band’s better hot arrangements of an old tune except for the somewhat corny intro. You will note a few things about the orchestra that are normally overlooked: 1) for a band that didn’t rehearse very much, their playing is actually more accurate than that of the Charlie Barnet orchestra; 2) although the sections are tight, they are not perfectly blended, but allow one to hear the trumpets, for instance, playing with the saxes; and 3) Berigan’s rhythm section, which at that time consisted of pianist Lippman, guitarist Tom Morgan, bassist Arnold Fishkin and drummer George Wettling, provided a very solid and highly swinging beat while playing as a unit—something the Goodman rhythm section didn’t always do.
  4. Caravan (8/18/1937). ThisCaravan is actually a very interesting and sensitive arrangement by Lippman of a song that had just recently become a hit played by a small unit from the Ellington orchestra. What I find interesting about this one is that Berigan never really improvises—he just plays the melody mostly straight—yet somehow manages to give the impression of improvising. It is a performance that coasts along on fluid drive.
  5. Mahogany Hall Stomp (6/25/1937). The third straight record made on the exact same day; this was clearly a good date on the calendar for Bunny. He manages to sound somewhat like Armstrong without copying anything that Louis actually played on his version. Armstrong really appreciated this and often said that Bunny was the best of those trumpeters who followed in his footsteps.
  6. Old Man Mose (exact date unknown). This is a broadcast of one of Armstrong’s own compositions in a blistering-hot arrangement that unfortunately was never recorded commercially…and Berigan expert Mike Zirpolo has just recently informed me that it’s not by Berigan, but by a band that appeared on the radio whose trumpet player was told to sound like Berigan. Oh well…I still love it!
  7. Turn On That Red Hot Heat (8/7/1937). I’m actually surprised that this song didn’t become a hit for Berigan; the arrangement is excellent as are the solos, especially his. But then you hear Gail Reese plod her way through the pedestrian lyrics and you realize that although the melody and arrangement were good, the words were awful. You almost feel sorry for her.
  8. A Study in Brown (8/18/1937). Larry Clinton’s early,. pre-Dipsy Doodle hit, and although I love the Glen Gray Casa Loma Band version, I can’t listen to this song very often without hearing Berigan’s solo in my mind’s ear.
  9. II Can't Get Started Can’t Get Started (8/7/1937). Berigan’s theme song and a classic performance. There’s nothing much to say about this track; it’s magical from start to finish.
  10. Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (12/23/1937). A tune from Show Boat that was quit popular with swing bands of the late ‘30s, but it didn’t become a hit for Berigan any more than it did for Glenn Miller. Even so, I love this arrangement: it has a nice intro, bounces from the very start, and Bunny improvises on the theme right out of the gate. Sonny Lee gets a terrific trombone solo, and there’s NO vocal!!
  11. San Francisco (7/20/1936). This isn’t technically by the “real” Berigan big band, but by His Studio Orchestra, though Bunny liked the song and the arrangement so well that he played it in person and on the radio with his real band. The vocalist stinks, but who cares when Bunny takes us soaring across the Golden Gate Bridge like this?

In a Mist12 & 13. In a Mist & Candlelights (11/30/1938). These were part of a four-song suite dedicated to Bix Beiderbecke, the other two tunes being Flashes and Davenport Blues. Lippmann wrote the wonderfully sensitive arrangements and a young Buddy Rich is on drums.

  1. The Prisoner’s Song (8/7/1937). As noted earlier, a terrific arrangement of Vernon Dalhart’s “hillbilly” hit record of the 1920s. The whole band seems to get in on this; Bunny doesn’t hog the spotlight, but he’s just so good that you salivate over his solo.
  2. Jelly Roll BluesJelly Roll Blues (11/22/1938). A surprisingly sensitive and non-flashy arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s early hit tune. I don’t know if the composer heard this record, or if he did what he thought of it, but except for the more modern swing phrasing—listen to how those clarinets nudge the beat at the starts of phrases—it’s a very respectful reading. Lippman plays a four-bar into to Bunny’s solo, which I consider to be one of his very greatest. Go ahead, disagree with me.
  3. Walkin’ the Dog (12/1/1938). An outstanding, loose-limbed performance by the band with Rich playing surprisingly temperate drums, including a Dixieland-styled break behind Bunny’s playing of the theme. Auld is still on tenor sax here, but Gus Bivona plays the very bluesy alto solo and young Ray Conniff the trombone chorus. There’s also a surprise ending where the band repeats the penultimate riff more softly.
  4. Back in Your Own Back Yard (live: 4/24/1938). This was an interim band in which Johnny Blowers played drums, replacing Wettling and Al George was first trombonist. A surprisingly relaxed-yet-swinging arrangement; listen to how Blowers drives Auld’s tenor sax into an R&B frenzy in the second chorus of his solo before leader comes in to restore a pure jazz feel to things. After a bluesy solo by George, Berigan returns with Blowers banging the snare behind him to ride things out.
  5. Shanghai Shuffle (same date). Surprisingly this tune, which was played in a frenzied tempo during the 1920s, is given a medium-fast swing treatment here, and boy, does the band sound relaxed. Maybe Bunny was onto something by not rehearsing them too much! The sax section ensemble is particularly well written, and pulled off perfectly. Berigan follows Auld by coming in with his low register for four bars before building his solo upward.
  6. Little Gates Special (live, April 1939). The announcer describes this as “an original manuscript by the maestro himself,” but it was written by Ray Conniff, one of his earliest and most driving scores, bearing a resemblance to Mary Lou Williams’ Roll ‘Em. Bob Jenney is the trombone soloist here, one of the most original Berigan ever had. Auld was gone by this time, fled to the Jan Savitt band, but Gus Bivona plays a nice alto solo and the leader is just loose and relaxed, having a good old time. By this time, too, Rich had fled to join Artie Shaw, so Eddie Jenkins is the drummer.
  7. Thesaurus labelI’ll Always Be in Love With You (June 27, 1938). A rare studio recording made not for commercial release on Victor, but for Thesaurus Transcriptions, a radio service company that was a division of RCA. A wonderfully relaxed performance and a near-perfect arrangement, with all concerned in great shape. A shame it never came out on 78.
  8. Devil’s Holiday (June 27, 1938). This 1933 tune was written and recorded by Benny Carter and his Harlem Club Orchestra that year, which the Berigan band revived. It has that slightly stiff-but-snappy kind of beat that one associates with early-‘30s hot jazz; Lippmann’s arrangement provides a good launching pad for the soloists, with some nice fluttering and swooning saxes behind Bunny’s solo, followed by a nicely intricate four-bar sax ensemble.
  9. Dardanella (July 20, 1936). Yet another Thesaurus Transcription disc. Since this one comes from 1936 it is clearly not the “official” Berigan band, but also His Studio Orchestra, a really lovely arrangement that features “falling” harmony for the saxes at the end of each opening phrase, plus a nice modulation upward by the trumpet section to set up Bunny’s solo, which I feel is another of his real gems. The ensemble writing following the trumpet solo is also superb.
  10. ‘Tain’t So, Honey, ‘Tain’t So (live: April 1939). A real scorcher of an arrangement and performance; the band muscles its way through this piece like a freight train, again with some nice harmonic touches at the ends of phrases. Bunny gets two solos, each fiery and driving, though he tends to rely on repeated notes in a rhythmic pattern here and there.
  11. I Cried for You (11/22/1938). I have no idea why this record didn’t become a hit; even though the song was written in 1923, it was being played in the late 1930s once again. The arrangement here uses the clarinets as a choir, emulating the then-contemporary Tommy Dorsey sound, Kathleen Lane sings her one chorus perfectly, and Bunny’s solo is yet another of his gems. Even Auld forsakes his usual pumping, R&B style to play a very sensitive chorus, then after a trumpet section break Lane returns to finish the song out. In 1942, the year Bunny died, it was a monster hit for Harry James, playing his sobbing trumpet against a backdrop of mushy strings.
  12. Panama (live: 1938). A very cute arrangement that begins in a Dixieland vein but slowly but surely moves towards swing, all of it played at a brisk uptempo. You can hear the crowd whooping and cheering in the background as the band gets hotter. Dixon really wails on his clarinet, and Bunny takes the tune places it had never gone before. Auld is fast and bluesy, and the trombone (possibly Conniff) is excellent. As a bonus, we hear the band’s closing theme as the record ends: another version of I Can’t Get Started, here played with different improvisations than on the commercial recording. A nice close to our survey of the Berigan big band.

The only thing I can figure out is that Berigan didn’t have a John Hammond to push him; if he had, I think his band would have become much more popular than it did. I certainly liked it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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