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“As always, there is Berigan’s incomparable – and irrepressible – swing. … Berigan’s sense of swing was an innate talent, a given talent, a feeling beyond study and calculation, one that Berigan heard in the playing of both Beiderbecke and Armstrong, but which he synthesized into his own personal rhythmic idiom.”
“Berigan’s other great asset was the extraordinary beauty of his tone. Though technically based on perfect breath support, the purity—and amplitude—of his tone was controlled at the moment of emission by his inner ear, as with any great artist renowned for his tone. Berigan could project in his mind and ear a certain sound, and then the physical muscles (embouchure, breathing, fingers) would, in coordination, produce the desired result.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era
The Boston Globe stated: “Balliett’s genius for pictorial description (which helps make him a gifted writer of profiles) extends to the music itself. No one writes about what they listen to anywhere near as well.”
Although he played drums during his college days and was a member of a band, Whitney was not a studied musician. He had no formal training in theory and harmony so during the 40+ years he wrote Jazz profiles for The New Yorker magazine he had to fall back on his other gifts when describing the music - his gift for “pictorial description.”
In many ways, this made Whitney’s Jazz writings more accessible to the majority of Jazz fans since they, too, for the most part, lacked procedural training in melody, harmony and rhythm - the building blocks of music.
As a result, "Balliett comes as close as any writer on jazz—perhaps on any musical style — to George Bernard Shaw's intention to write so that a deaf person could understand and appreciate his comments. This volume approaches indispensability." Choice reviewing Balliett’s American Musicians.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to share some briefer pieces from the pen of our ideal - Whitney Balliet - to give you an appreciation for his “ … genius for pictorial description.” This is the second in a series of six continuously running featuring Whitney’s sui generis pictorially descriptive approach to writing about Jazz which is marked by what Gary Giddins has labeled “writerly attributes: insight, candor, observation, discernment, delineation, style, diligence and purpose.”
These are all drawn from Goodbyes and Other Messages: A Journal of Jazz 1981-1990 . This number 2 in a series.
Incidentally used copies of the Time-Life Giants of Jazz Bunny Berigan LPs referenced in this piece can still be found on Amazon, eBay and other online record sellers.
“Louis Armstrong was the first sunburst in jazz — the light a thousand young trumpeters reflected. But two other trumpeters, both less imitable than Armstrong and both suffering from short, damaged careers, were also closely attended. One was Jabbo Smith, and the other was Bix Beiderbecke. These two had an equally evanescent admirer — Bunny Berigan. Out of fashion most of the forty years since his death, Berigan was once revered as a kind of Beiderbecke replacement. But he successfully absorbed both players (along with Armstrong, of course) and constructed his own passionate style.
Born in 1908 in Hilbert, Wisconsin, of a musical Irish-German family, Berigan took up the violin at six, switched to the trumpet at eleven, and had his first professional job when he was thirteen. He never finished high school, and was a full-time musician at eighteen. He moved to New York in 1928, got to know Rex Stewart and the Dorsey brothers, and in 1930 was hired by Hal Kemp. During the next four years, he did studio work, made a great many recordings, and worked for Paul Whiteman. He got married and had children and became a disastrous drinker.
In 1935, he joined Benny Goodman. Jess Stacy was on piano, and he spoke recently of Berigan: "I worked with Berigan in the Goodman band in 1935 — in fact, travelled across the country with him in Goodman's old Pontiac. He dressed conservatively, and, with his little mustache and his widow's peak and his glasses, he looked like a college professor. He was a wonderful man and an electrifying trumpet player, and he didn't have a conceited bone in his body. He was always kind of not satisfied with his playing. After he took a solo, he'd say, 'I started out great but I ended up in a cloud of shit.' His drinking was awful. We'd stop every hundred miles to get him another bottle of Old Quaker, or some such. Of course, business was so bad until we got to the Coast that it was a panic band, and that didn't help him. We played a dance in Michigan and thirty-five people came — all of them musicians. In Denver, we had to play dime-a-dance music, with a waltz every third number. Berigan used to complain about Goodman all the time. Berigan was playing lead trumpet and hot solos, and, finally, every night about eleven, after those difficult Fletcher Henderson arrangements and all the solos, he'd say, 'This is impossible,' and take the last drink — the law-of-diminishing-returns drink — and wipe himself out. We roomed together in Denver, and, what with his drinking and the altitude, he'd wake up at night, his throat dry, thinking he couldn't breathe. He'd tell me, 'I'm dying, I'm dying,' so I'd soak some towels in cold water and wrap them around his head, and that would ease him and he'd go back to sleep saying, 'You saved my life, Jess.'
I don't know why, but Berigan left the Goodman band while we were at the Palomar in Los Angeles, just after we caught on, and came back to New York, where he had his own little group at the Famous Door, on Fifty-second Street. On the way back from the Coast, Goodman had a long, successful run in Chicago, and when we hit New York we were the top — the biggest thing in American music. I've always wondered if Berigan regretted leaving the band when he did. But he never let on."
Berigan was at his peak during the next couple of years. He recorded with Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, and with Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Johnny Hodges, Fats Waller, and Teddy Wilson. He sat in on a Louis Armstrong date, and one Sunday afternoon he backed Bessie Smith at the Famous Door. In 1937, he put together his own big band. It was spirited and swinging. (The likes of George Auld, George Wettling, Sonny Lee, Dave Tough, Buddy Rich, Joe Bushkin, and Allan Reuss passed through.) But Berigan was a poor businessman, and in 1939 he went bankrupt. His health had deteriorated. He worked briefly for Tommy Dorsey, and put a couple of temporary bands together. He died at the age of thirty-three, in 1942.
One side of Berigan's style was romantic, melodramatic, and garrulous. It had a kind of Irish cast. The other side was blue, emotional, down, funky. He would fool around in his lowest register, playing heavy, resonant notes — gravestone notes. He would play blue note after blue note. Both sides of his style would appear in a single solo. He might start two choruses of the
blues in his down style. He would stay in his low register, growling and circling like a bear. (Only Ruby Braff and Charlie Shavers got the same sound down there.) He would use four or five notes, shaping them into short, reiterated phrases. At the start of his second chorus, he would suddenly jump to a high C or D, go into a flashy descending run, and wing through a couple of large intervals. His vibrato would become noticeable, and his tone would open up. He might dip into his low register at the end of the solo, but he'd finish with a ringing Irish high C. Berigan's execution was almost flawless.
He was a daring and advanced improviser, who fooled with offbeat and behind-the-beat rhythms and with all sorts of tonal effects. Yet his melodic lines were logical and graceful. There was an outsize quality to all Berigan's playing; he was a three-man trumpet section pressed into one. He dominated every group he was in: on Benny Goodman's recordings of "Sometimes I'm Happy" and "King Porter Stomp" and on Tommy Dorsey's of "Marie'' and "Song of India" his famous solos stand like oaks on a plain. Only Red Allen and Roy Eldridge achieved a similar majesty in their big-band work. (Louis Armstrong's big-band majesty was ready-made; he was often the only soloist.)
Berigan has been brought forward again by a Time-Life "Giants of Jazz" album and by Volume I of the RCA "The Complete Bunny Berigan," which will collect all eighty-nine of the recordings he made with his big band. The Time-Life album contains forty numbers made between 1930 and 1939. The first, a Hal Kemp "Them There Eyes," reveals Berigan as Louis Armstrong, and the last, an all-star "Blue Lou," as himself. Many of the finest numbers in the album were recorded in the mid-thirties with small pickup groups. (Omitted, though, are "Bughouse" and "Blues in E-Flat," done with Red Norvo and Chu Berry, and "Honeysuckle Rose'' and "Blues," done with Fats Waller and Tommy Dorsey.)
Of particular note are Berigan's long melodic lines on the two Gene Gifford numbers; the three Bud Freeman selections, especially "Keep Smiling at Trouble," where he moves readily back and forth between the two parts of his style,-the growls and low, fat sorrowing notes on "Blues," made with his own group; and the rocking, irresistible way he plays the melody in the first chorus of Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go," backed by organ chords and a strong Dave Tough afterbeat. Tough and Berigan galvanized each other. In the Time-Life album, Tough also appears on Dorsey's "Marie'' and "Song of India," set down on one January day in 1937. Berigan's solos in both those numbers possess the eternal resilience that all improvisation aims at but rarely reaches. This quality shines through Berigan's celebrated miniature trumpet concerto "I Can't Get Started." The number, lasting roughly five minutes, begins with a bravura twelve-bar trumpet cadenza played over sustained band chords. Berigan sings a chorus in his pleasant, piping voice. A second, nine-bar cadenza follows, and he launches triumphantly into the melody, ending with a celestial E-flat.
The RCA reissue has thirty-one numbers. The best are "I Can't Get Started," "The Prisoner's Song," "Caravan," "Study in Brown," "Frankie and Johnny," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," and "Swanee River." The rest of the album is given over to songs like "The Lady from Fifth Avenue" and "All Dark People Are Light on Their Feet." Whatever the material, Berigan is everywhere, playing lead trumpet, soloing, filling the air with his serene and muscular poetry.”