Tag Archives: Bozy White

THE TEACHINGS OF CHARLES ELLSWORTH RUSSELL (PRICE 50 CENTS)

Thanks to my sharp-eyed friend Andrew Jon Sammut*, I am now in possession of this Ancient Writ, the inexpensive pages a beguiling yellow. Its owner loved, used, and admired it: as the creases and fingermarks on the back show.

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 056

It allows us another way to experience — perhaps at a distance — the legerdemain of Pee Wee Russell.

Those of us who revere certain musicians know enough to be mildly suspicious of these folios.  The more idiosyncratic a musician’s style, the less likely it could be reproduced as a series of notes on paper.  Also, the  “method books” that propose to be presenting solos performed by our heroes are often untrustworthy.  Did Dave Tough or Cliff Edwards ever sit down to create the books that bear their imprimatur?

Apparently many famous “name” musicians were paid to come to a  studio to record one-chorus solos on songs owned / published by Feist.  The recorded solos were then transcribed and clarinet players (for instance) could have something they could read, study, copy, emulate. Some of this information is hypothesis; some of it is supported by the issuing, years ago (on one of Bozy White’s SHOESTRING vinyl records) of choruses recorded by Bunny Berigan for just this purpose.  The pioneers in such endeavors were Red Nichols and Louis Armstrong.

This folio is not dated, but the one-page introduction refers to Pee Wee’s work with Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, and Bud Freeman, so I would place it no earlier than 1938 and perhaps more into the very early Forties. Whether it was connected to Charles Peterson’s famous photograph of Russell in LIFE I cannot say, but he surely was enjoying sufficient fame — as the antidote to Goodman and Shaw, perhaps? — to be awarded such an honor.

I am struck by how very uncomfortable Russell looks in his photograph: needing a haircut (or is it the shadow of the bright flashbulb?) and without a mustache. Perhaps the recordings were done in the morning, which might make any jazz musician look haunted, despairing:

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 058

And the main event:

CHAUTAUQUA, LAURA SMITH, SAN DIEGO, PWR 057

I haven’t had the time even to try that on the piano, but it strikes me as quite simple — for the student clarinetist — one of those muttering-around-the-melody first choruses Russell loved so.  How would the transcriber have notated the growls and surreal arching sounds that Pee Wee made?  (Think of SERENADE TO A SHYLOCK, for example.) I don’t know, and perhaps it is best that the attempt was not made.

Here’s something that would elude all but the most subtle transcriber, Pee Wee’s solo (beginning at 1:30) on the 1936 Louis Prima CROSS PATCH, a marvel of sound:

To return to the All-Star Series of Modern Rhythm Choruses (ask for that at your local music shop in one breath!) I think it plausible that after Charles Ellsworth Russell recorded ten one-chorus solos, and was given (let us hope) fifty dollars at least in cash, he never thought of his morning in the studios again. But we, now, have another little sliver of Russell to consider into the twenty-first century.

I plan to pack this book with my clarinet — which I used to play quite amateurishly and now perhaps will sound even worse — to take to California. Whether my squeaks and moans will be my own or Russellian, I can’t say. But perhaps I can be inspired by his courage.

*Andrew wrote his own marvelous post on the Feist folio created by Buster Bailey here. As you’ll see, my effort above is what jazz critics would call “derivative” and “imitative”; I call it homage to an inspiring friend who is on the same path. And this post is for Stan Zenkov, another inspirer!

May your happiness increase!

BUNNY BERIGAN IN HIS ELEMENT: “SWINGIN’ AND JUMPIN’ 1937-39”

Any documentation of an artist’s work may be distant from the day-to-day reality of the work.  In the case of the noble trumpeter Bunny Berigan, many of his admirers understandably focus on those record sessions where he is most out in the open — aside from the Victor I CAN’T GET STARTED, the small-group recordings with Holiday, Norvo, Bailey, the Boswell Sisters, Bud Freeman, Fats Waller, and so on.  Some, rather like those who listen to Whiteman for Bix, delve into hot dance / swing band sides for Bunny’s solos: I know the delightful shock of hearing a Fred Rich side and finding a Berigan explosion when the side is nearly over.

But the Berigan chronology — on display in Michael Zirpolo’s superb book, MR. TRUMPET — as well as the discography shows that Bunny spent much of his life as a player and (too infrequently) a singer with large ensembles: studio groups, Whiteman, Hal Kemp, Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, before forming his own big band for the last six years of his very short life.

Ignoring Berigan’s big band records would be unthinkable, even for someone not choosing to hear everything.  Goodman’s KING PORTER STOMP and SOMETIMES I’M HAPPY, the Dorsey MARIE and SONG OF INDIA; Berigan’s own Victors.  Of course, like other bandleaders of the time, he was required to record a fairly substantial assortment of thin material.  Almost always, Berigan bravely transcends what the song-pluggers insisted he record.

Even the bands that came through well on records sounded better in live performance.  There is something chilly about a recording studio, especially when there are more than a dozen people trying to play arrangements flawlessly, that occasionally holds back the explorer’s courage. So if one wants to hear what a band was capable of, one must rely on recordings of radio broadcasts (and the much rarer on-location recordings from a dance date, such as the Ellington band at Fargo, North Dakota — itself a miracle).  Radio was consoling in its apparent evanescence; if you made a mistake, it was there and gone.  Who knew, fluffling a note nationwide, that someone with a disc cutter in Minneapolis was recording it for posterity?

Up to this point, there has been a small but solid collection of Berigan “live” material on vinyl — a good deal of it issued by Jerry Valburn and Bozy White in their prime.  I cannot offer my experience as comprehensive, but I recall listening to many of those recordings and enjoying their rocking intensity, but often waiting until Bunny took the solo.  But there were worlds of music I and others were unaware of.

BUNNY HEP

A new CD release on the Hep label, “BUNNY BERIGAN: SWINGIN’ AND JUMPIN'” is a delight all through.  It collects seventy-one minutes of material from 1937-39, nicely varied between well-played pop tunes and jazz classics. An extensive booklet with notes by the Berigan expert Michael Zirpolo (and some unusual photographs) completes the panorama.  Eleven of the nineteen selections have never been issued before, and there is a snippet of Bunny speaking.  The sound (under the wise guidance of Doug Pomeroy) is splendid.

Listening to this music is an especially revealing experience.  Stories of Berigan’s alcoholism are so much a part of his mythic chronicle that many listeners — from a distance — tend to think of him as helplessly drunk much of the time, falling into the orchestra pit, a musician made barely competent by his dependence on alcohol.

No one can deny that Berigan shortened his life by his illness . . . but the man we hear on these sides is not only a glorious soloist but a spectacular leader of the trumpet section and a wonderful bandleader.  The band itself is a real pleasure, with memorable playing from George Auld (in his energetic pre-Ben Webster phase — often sounding like a wild version of Charlie Barnet), George Wettling, Johnny Blowers, and Buddy Rich, Ray Conniff and others.

One could play excerpts from these recordings — skipping Berigan’s solos — and an astute listener to the music of the late Thirties would be impressed by the fine section work and good overall sound of the band.  The “girl singers” are also charming: no one has to apologize for Gail Reese, for one.

Did I say that Berigan’s trumpet playing is consistently spectacular?  If it needs to be said, let that be sufficient.  A number of times in these recordings, he takes such dazzling chances — and succeeds — that I found myself replaying performances in amazement.  Only Louis and Roy, I think, were possessed of such masterful daring.

And we are spared RINKA TINKA MAN in favor of much better material: MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, THEY ALL LAUGHED, BACK IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, BIG JOHN SPECIAL, LOUISIANA, TREES, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, SHANGHAI  SHUFFLE, HOW’D YOU LIKE TO LOVE ME?, and some hot originals.

This disc doesn’t simply add more than an hour of music to most people’s Berigan collection: it corrects and sharpens the picture many have of him. Even if you care little for mythic portraiture, you will find much to like here. It is available here.  To learn more about the wonderful story of how this music came to be in our hands and, even better, to hear an excerpt from ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, click here.

May your happiness increase! 

“MR. TRUMPET: THE TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS, AND TRIUMPH OF BUNNY BERIGAN” by MICHAEL P. ZIRPOLO

Even people who know little of jazz or the Swing Era have probably heard trumpeter, singer, bandleader, and mythic figure Bunny Berigan (1908-42) in some context.

His Victor recording of I CAN’T GET STARTED is used in film soundtracks and elsewhere as a quick way of summoning up days gone by.  Other touchstones are Berigan’s solo on MARIE with Tommy Dorsey and on 1936 Billie Holiday sessions.

Those of us who know that music well have heard Berigan on his own, with Goodman, the Boswell Sisters, Mildred, in jam sessions and airshots.  Like Bix Beiderbecke, he became a mythic figure quickly, and people regard him with a mixture of love, admiration, and pity.

Here is a rare film clip of Bunny in summer 1936, singing and playing with the Fred Rich band:

In that performance, one hears Berigan’s astonishing adaptation of Louis — with his own sound and majesty, as well as his charming singing.  Bunny remains a monumental figure, someone who threw himself into every solo, leading the section when he wasn’t playing: someone who seems to have given his life to the music.

The other fact of Berigan’s short life is his alcoholism.  Other narratives have compressed his existence into two parallel assertions: he played splendidly and he drank himself to death.

But Michael Zirpolo’s new biography of Berigan goes beyond the formulaic.  It is a great accomplishment and an addictive pleasure.

And it’s not great merely because it contains new information on every one of its 500-plus pages.  Zirpolo had access to the lifework of Bozy White, who had been collecting information about Berigan for more than half a century.  MR. TRUMPET makes wise use of that mountain of information.  Often biographers are content to arrange their material in chronological order and unload it on the reader, who smothers under the avalanche.  This book moves judiciously through Berigan’s life — his personal entanglements, his economic mistakes, his glorious recordings — without getting bogged down in any one aspect.  Zirpolo’s book has a powerful predecessor, Robert Dupuis’ 1993 biography of Berigan, which gave us much more insight into Berigan the musician and the husband than we had had before (taking into account the subjectivity of an embittered spouse).  But with all respects to Dupuis, this is the Berigan book: I think no one will surpass it.

From the start, this book shows us someone who decided, early on, to broaden the scope of his investigations into Berigan’s life: Zirpolo is curious about not only Berigan but the musical, emotional, and financial world in which he lived.  Rather than simply lining facts up one by one, peanuts in a row, Zirpolo loves to ask HOW and WHY and (even better) IS THIS TRUE?  Many myths have attached to Berigan, and Zirpolo examines them closely.

Of course, the biography follows Berigan through his brief life as thoroughly as possible.  If a reader wants to know where Berigan was on August 8, 1938, (s)he will have a good chance of finding out not only where but what was happening: not only that, but how the events of that day stand in relation to the past and future.  One of the greatest assets of this book is the substantial number of first-hand narratives: Bozy White seems to have assiduously interviewed everyone who ever played once in a band where Bunny was present, and these recollections constantly bring human voices into the book.

Thus we have Bunny not only as the superb trumpet player, the bandleader concerned about how his band should sound, the terrible businessman, the man in thrall to alcohol, the playful, childlike individual — serious about very little except his music.

And what music!  Here is one of my favorite Berigan solos — fearless and impassioned — with Bud Freeman, Claude Thornhill, Eddie Condon, Grachan Moncur, and Cozy Cole:

Zirpolo’s book is a fine mixture of all the things I’ve mentioned, sustained by his own admiration for his subject.  The biography is never idolatrous — when Bunny does something disastrous, Zirpolo presents the facts and their consequences — but it’s always charming to see a biography where the writer, in the best old-fashioned way, loves his subject in particular, is passionate about history, and (as a useful sidelight) is thrilled by New York City, where Berigan spent so much of his life.

Even a reader who knows Berigan well will find surprises (not the least of them being rare photographs) but the novice might use this book as an introduction to the musical life of the United States in this period: endnotes give us brief biographical sketches of everyone whose path crossed Berigan’s.

As an interlude, here is a Disney song from 1938 — with a vocal by Gail Reese, two solos by Bunny (one muted, one open), and drumming by Dave Tough:

Zirpolo began this book through a childhood experience — watching his father in tears listen to Bunny’s music.  Later he learned that his father had seen the Berigan band and remembered it clearly.  One of the aspects of this book that I find most endearing is Zirpolo’s understanding that we all have deeply complicated inner lives.  So rather than decide early on to insert the facts into one conceptual framework — Berigan “the tortured soul,” the “doomed alcoholic,” a man who could never “get started,” he has watched Berigan from angles that change as the chronicle moves on.

Ultimately, the biography chronicles the triumph of Bunny Berigan: cirrhosis ended his life, but his music has its own lasting existence.  You can find out much more about Berigan and this remarkable book (including a photo gallery full of marvels) here.