Brass for Bunny: The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions

Who would be on a jazz Mount Rushmore? It makes for good conversations as it gives one insight into other fellow aficionado’s subjective logic as to who should have their visage immortalized in stone. Personal tastes aside, were an opportunity ever to arise to create such a monument, who was to appear in regards to contribution to the art form would require that it more resemble a musical Easter Island; as to ensure credit given where credit is due. Jazz from any era and genre has always had composers and musicians who possessed the dichotomy of building off of what had come before them to create new paths.

The further forward we move in time the more the earlier eras which occurred pre-Bop become submerged in the overall consciousness of the more casual jazz fan. It is a surprising phenomenon as an easier ability to travel and things like digital downloads have made older music more readily available than ever before. Exploring earlier jazz allows for not just  the intellectual exercise of hearing the embers from which more modern day musical heroes caught fire but offering up enjoyment in itself.

One important figure whose reputation has steadily been on the wane is Bunny Berigan (1908-1942).

Initially Buddy played both violin and trumpet up until 1927. He spent early adolescence as an actual working musician, playing mostly with local bands and occasionally, national acts passing through town. A 1928 audition for Hal Kemp (1904-1940) where his tone was criticized as “too thin” served as impetus to woodshed and concentrate solely on his horn. A scant two years later his playing had drastically improved to the point of allowing him to find work in New York with Frank Cornwall. Hearing him in New York Hal Kemp now hired him. Aside from some recordings with Kemp, Bunny also participated on an European tour joining the well known and more steady paying CBS studio band of Fred Rich upon his return.

Buddy would become a sought after studio musician and the list of bands where Buddy’s horn put in an appearance reads like a who’s who of what would become the Swing genre. Often there was a symbiosis between ensemble leader and Bunny in regards to popular reputation. 1935 had Benny Goodman recording two of his earliest hits “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I am Happy” both featuring solos by Bunny. This year is often also cited as the lynch pin moment of swing’s birth when Benny Goodman’s band, with Bunny leading the soloists, took up a residency at The Palomar Ballroom (L.A).

Garnering more and more of a musical reputation, Bunny would bounce between groups; the logic of why he left often only being known to himself. He would rejoin Fred Rich ensemble appearing in a movie alongside his bande and after a few other brief stopovers in other groups (Red Norvo, Ray Noble, Red McKenzie) he would join Tommy Dorsey (1905-1956) where he would appear on two more hit singles considered “his” “Marie” and “Song of India” (1937).

Bunny would form his own band which made records including one which featured both his singing and playing “I Can’t Get Started”. His band would have several incarnations happening rapidly over the span of three years. Most of the records made under Bunny’s name proved popular but the money, due to practices of the labels at the time and his own ineptness at business created the need to break up his band. Tommy Dorsey rehired him, yet despite a star reputation or perhaps because of it, Bunny chafed at being “merely” a sideman again. He would strike out on his own again, this time touring with a far smaller ensemble which in theory would have been easier to mange both in regards to discipline and business. Physically and despite his young age, the scaled down touring proved too much as years of hard drinking and living finally took their toll. Being hospitalized mid tour for pneumonia the doctors discovered Bunny also had cirrhosis of the liver. Bad business deals and an inner wanderlust prevented him from taking it easy and living a calmer, more scaled back lifestyle. Back in NYC to play, Bunny’s self neglect and overindulgence would finally catch up with him, a massive hemorrhage taking him at only 33.

His Icarus like rise and fall has some surface similarities to his peer Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931). Both where mid-westerners of German descent who felt the need to more Americanize their names (Bix was originally Leon-Bismark, Bunny was Rowland-Bernard). Although at different times, both found themselves in the Paul Whiteman band. And of course both died tragically young due to drink. In many ways though, they were less twins and more bookends overlapping where the music was in flux, Bix from the end of the “hot” jazz tradition and Bunny at the start of the swing era.

Bix could play but it was often his tone most mentioned, referred to by Hoagy Carmichael as akin to a mallet hitting a bell. Bunny had a beautiful tone too but conveyed more and varied emotion within his playing. With emotion as his main impetus he would sometimes miss the mark but even hearing the attempts was exciting. A disconnect between modern listener’s expectations and the reality of the recordings keeps these two trumpet titans from becoming better rediscovered. In reading about Bix, the tone and logic of his solos is mentioned but due to the era he was recording in with the actual technical restrictions and the limit on how much art an entertainment seeking public would put up with, his solos are often behind a larger ensemble, a short statement coming usually at the beginning or middle of a piece. It does not have the same structure or even sound as what modern jazz listeners are used to with bands featuring a trumpet soloist. The effect is made worse perhaps by the writing devoted to Bix’s playing, the context in which his solos appear was contemporary for its time so no thought was given to that aspect, also many who wrote about jazz during his hey-day were also getting to see him live, when bands would stretch out a number from how it appeared on record, incorporating many of the star soloists’ hot jazz beginnings.

Bunny has a vastly larger oeuvre than Bix. To be sure, there are the novelty tunes, the songs where the solo is surrounded like the taffeta flounce of a ball gown dress by an orchestra/band but he did manage to do some small ensemble work both as leader and sideman. His small group work especially is rewarding and more readily palatable to contemporary listeners not well versed in the earlier eras.

Mosaic Records, who do beautiful and expensive comprehensive boxed sets had a Bunny Berigan set (the website currently does not seem to list it). One CD was removed form the set (disc v11) and is currently being sold as a “last chance” single CD. The CD is small group sessions some of which Bunny was not the leader on. People familiar in Bunny’s work sometimes feel that he did his best work as a sideman, without the pressures of holding the band’s discipline and the business worries that went with being the boss he had no distractions from his creative process. Really, there is no discernable difference in his playing from sideman to boss. He took risks in the service of obtaining an emotional delivery regardless of whose session it was.

Overall, I do enjoy his work more in small group sessions more no matter the ensemble’s leader. The first sessions on the CD are actually a Bud Freeman (1906-1991) sextet session. Bud Freeman was multi reediest (clarinet/tenor sax) who initially rose to fame with Eddie Condon’s (1905-1973) “Austin High School Gang” (1922) in Chicago. Nic-named “The Eel” because of the long lined solos on the self same titled song he cut with Condon, he showed a (for the time) progressive streak in execution of what and how he played as opposed to a lot of his direct peers who were rigid purists, sometimes referred to as “The Moldy Figs” and most typified by Eddie Condon. Like Bunny, Bud would have some hits too with Benny Good man and Tommy Dorsey.

On the first track “What is There to Say?” Bunny enters with a bright and percussive cadence which shows him to be the great grandfather of the later to come splatter school of playing. Bunny shows too what he always openly admitted, which was an admiration for the way Louis Armstrong then played. With a rhythm section that includes Eddie Condon on guitar, the front line of Bunny and Bud wrap their lines around each other throughout the song. The contrast between Bud’s mellow long lines and Bunny’s more bright snappy ones is very enjoyable. For a piece from 1935 it is somewhat surprising that, were the rhythm section stripped away, the song is two long solos merging to form a duet. Because of this aspect, it leans more towards music/art and less towards entertainment. An interesting thing of note, in the piano chair is Claude Thornhill (1908-1965). Here his playing is not the elegant blue tinged daydreams he would later let float out of the keys as leader of his own ensemble. Here his playing is beautiful but bluesy, of the earth, showing far stronger influence and admiration for stride and ragged time with its plink-chime cadence which he would later abandon.

Throughout the different sessions on this CD there are multiple takes of tracks. A pet peeve of mine is when they are put one after the other. I much prefer to have the album with its original tracking then the extra tracks at the end.  Here, once again is the grouping of multiple versions of each track. Often times too the extra versions of a track are important only to the completionists but here the extra tracks are full tracks, not false starts and they do differ from each other, which when one is in the mood for it, makes comparing the takes interesting.

“The Buzzard” contains a great stride solo which conjures up images of a crowd hidden by a silver blue veil of smoke, drowning ice cubes in-between dances. Again the song is of the same structure as “What is…” There is not a lot for the rhythm section to do but keep time but it never becomes monotonous on account of the inventive skill of the two soloists. Another interesting side note is that bassist  Grachan Moncur is the father of Blue Note Records progressive composer/musician (trombonist) Grachan Moncur III.

“Tillie’s Downtown Now” whose title could have been one thought up by Thelonious Monk has a lilting rhythmic figure at its center complete with a Storyville style drum pattern by Cozy Cole. Bud is on clarinet and Bunny switches from a fat drunken bee mid register to climbing staccato ringing bursts. The song has a catchy melody which through artistic cross pollination has been used by some of his direct peers with such success it is no longer clear who the originator of the initial melody is.

The next group of songs is from a session from 1935 under Mildred Bailey’s (1907-1951) name. Mildred had recorded with Bunny’s former employer Paul Whiteman as well as The Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman. Artistically, she moved in many of the same circles as Bunny. From the time of her marriage to vibest/ band leader Red Norvo (1908-1999) they would be known as “Mister and Misses Swing” performing and recording with each other even after divorcing.

This ensemble features one of Duke Ellington’s musical factotums, Johnny Hodges (1906-1970) on alto. Pianist Teddy Wilson (1912-1986) who would back many of jazz’s most famous female vocalists (Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald) was equally engaging in instrumental ensembles, participating in the famous small groups of Benny Goodman (trio/quartet). Here he is the ideal ivory tickler as the band is not emphasizing vocals above music or vice versa.

“Willow Tree” is a lament to all things blue. The dynamics between Johnny Hodges and Bunny differ from the previous tracks with Bud. Johnny still has that recognizable purr so much a part of his signature and it is interesting hearing him conduct himself on non-Ellingtonian faire. Bunny’s playing is all murmurings which showed that he could convey a soft melancholy effectively. The piano break is delicate but not overly fragile, an articulate nighthawk explaining why they are sad to the counterman, leads organically to the next solo of Bunny’s which then becomes a short series of trade offs with the alto. Mildred’s singing is engaging, like Bunny an emotional conveyance was of the highest priority for her. Unlike a lot of her female peers she need not shout to testify the blues nor did she resort to that sort of speak-sing also so prevalent at the time. The band retains Grachan on bass but has no drummer yet maintains a full sound devoid of empty spaces which can wreck the tension.

“Honeysuckle Rose” is a Fats Waller (1904-1943) tune. Here the alto jovially catches the come hither playfulness of the song. The piano and trumpet play together, a sort of bubbling mirth. Mildred’s delivery is quivered and conveys a laughter perfect for the innuendo.

The last sessions on the CD are with Bunny as leader of a septet (piano is un-credited). “Chicken and Waffles” one of Bunny’s originals nods at the not too (then) long gone “hot” past of jazz. It has a jam feel to it with bright toned trumpet solos, a strideish piano break and upper register clarinets. It manages to take a snap shot of some of the energy which was created at the many after hours a jam was like.

“Blues” has a fantastic mid registered legato horn line as an intro which gives way to a clarinet which is like a belt of good highlands whisky, rich and woody. Melodically, the song sounds like a slightly altered version of “Tillie…” The alto solo like the other solo voices before it captures and retains the same mood. The expressiveness of Bunny’s solos later in the piece keeps the song from what would in lesser hands feel formulaic.

The sound on the CD is very good as Mosaic always puts the greatest effort into their re-mastering. Although tracks and ensembles are listed on the inside cover, there are no liner notes as this had been part of a bigger set which came with a booklet.

This is the perfect album for someone who wants to delve into the early days of jazz yet wants to avoid the effects of emotional detachment which can occur when a piece of music feels too much like it is coming to us from another time.

Bunny Berigan: The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Session (disc vii Mosiac)

#1-6: BUD FREEMAN AND HIS WINDY CITY FIVE: Bunny Berigan (tp), Bud Freeman (cl, ts), Claude Thornhill (p), Eddie Condon (g), Grachan Moncur (b), Cozy Cole (d). #7-13: MILDRED BAILEY AND HER ALLEY CATS: Bunny Berigan (tp), Johnny Hodges (as), Teddy Wilson (p), Grachan Moncur (b), Mildred Bailey (vcl). #14-18: BUNNY BERIGAN AND HIS BLUE BOYS: Bunny Berigan (tp), Edgar Sampson (cl, as), Eddie Miller (cl, ts), Cliff Jackson (b), Grachan Moncur (b), Ray Bauduc (d).


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