“Caravan” Bunny Berigan (1937)

“Caravan”

Composed by Juan Tizol; arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra on August 18, 1937 for Victor in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Sonny Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone and bass clarinet; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones and clarinets; (Rounds also plays baritone saxophone in one sequence.); Joe Lippman, piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The Story: On August 18, 1937, Bunny Berigan and his band checked in at Victor’s 24th Street recording studio in New York City to make some records. The recording session ran from 1:30 to 6:45 p.m., after which they rushed from Manhattan to the Pavilion Royal, a ballroom at Valley Stream, Long Island that featured an inside/outside dance floor, and a radio wire for remote band broadcasts.They were in the middle of a long engagement there which would last through most of the rest of August. In September, the band began touring, but only on a limited basis. They had to stay near enough to Manhattan to return there on Sundays for their Mutual network radio show Fun in Swingtime. After their commitment to that show ended in mid-October, they began touring in earnest. Berigan would spend most of the succeeding two years on the road with his various bands.

Pianist-arranger Joe Lippman.

The Berigan band recorded three tunes for Victor that day: the then current pop “Why Talk about Love?” with a Gail Reese vocal; and two good instrumentals, “Caravan” and “A Study in Brown.” “Caravan” was a new tune then, composed by Duke Ellington’s valve trombonist Juan Tizol. The Berigan version, in a great arrangement by Joe Lippman, showcases Bunny using a pixie straight mute in his trumpet, and a plunger over its bell to achieve an insinuating growling effect.

Berigan’s recording of “Caravan” was well received at the time of its issue by the more cultivated swing commentators, albeit with some rather overheated adjectives: “‘Caravan’ is an eerie, satanic interpretation in slow tempo of Juan Tizol’s noteworthy melody. It testifies to the steady improvement in Berigan’s group, and is far and away the finest of its recordings (to-date).

L-R rear: Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Berigan; seated Clyde Rounds and Mike Doty.

The significance of the disc lies in the fact that it presents an exceptional and imaginative arrangement, which never for a moment hesitates to utilize the most colorful harmonies and techniques at the command of the modern jazz orchestra. Against a coherent and deftly articulated background of clarinet choir, strongly accented percussion led by bass saxophone (sic, see below), and subtone clarinet and delicate pianissimo brass figures, Berigan introduces the theme on solo trumpet. It’s sensuous and feverish and played with tremendous feeling; its phrasing and intonation complete the bizarre atmosphere conjured up by the background counter-themes. Except in the finale, which returns to the opening motif, the source is ensemble. Unity of design, however, is so well maintained that the concerted unison chorus with the crescendos, diminuendos and modulations creates a powerful climax in keeping with the original mood. Wettling’s drumming considerably strengthens the driving rhythmic background. All in all, this is a fit companion piece for the Ellington and Ambrose versions.” (1)

Berigan and George Wettling stroll along the sidewalks of New York – summer 1937.

(Note: There is no bass saxophone on Bunny Berigan’s recording of “Caravan.” There is, however, a bass clarinet, which was played expertly by Mike Doty. Likewise, there is no subtone (quiet, low-register) clarinet playing in this performance. This commentator was obviously not familiar with the tonal characteristics of a bass clarinet.)

The music:

This performance of “Caravan,” wherein Berigan and the band bring Joe Lippman’s brilliant kaleidoscopic chart vividly to life, executing the many crescendos, diminuendos, and brass oo-ahs perfectly, is one of many bits of recorded evidence that refute the hoary canard that the Berigan band was little more that a ragtag group of undisciplined musicians.

Here are some specifics: In addition to playing trumpet superbly, Berigan set an absolutely perfect tempo for this performance. Drummer George Wettling provides a sonic cushion for the band by playing his drums and cymbals with both imagination and taste. Mike Doty’s bass clarinet work is an outstanding feature throughout this performance. Lead trombonist Sonny Lee emerges briefly from the ensemble for a melodic solo. Also, catch Berigan’s last trumpet phrase just before the finale. It is executed in one long breath, with a marvelous, soulful downward glissando along the way.

The story continues:

I am a great believer that in order to have a more complete understanding of music, it is helpful to know as much about the circumstances under which the music was made as possible. In the case of the music Bunny Berigan was making in 1936-1940, there is a very strong subtext. And that subtext involved the singer Lee Wiley.

L-R: Berigan, Joe Whelan (a Berigan friend), Lee Wiley, Pearl Wiley (Lee’s younger sister); at the Pennsylvania Roof – June 1937.

On October 13, 1932, Lee Wiley appeared as a guest on Rudy Vallee’s radio program. Bunny was in Vallee’s orchestra that night. This evidently was the first time they worked together. It is unlikely that anything more than a casual meeting between Berigan and Wiley, if that, occurred then. But soon they would meet and be drawn to each other, and an intense but spasmodic relationship would develop between them. Beginning possibly in the summer of 1935 (definitely by early 1936) and for the next several years, Bunny Berigan’s relationship with Lee Wiley would deeply affect him personally as well as professionally.

Although this relationship damaged Berigan’s marriage, it was only one of many factors that undermined that relationship. Bunny’s wife Donna, was an extremely immature young (nineteen years old) woman when she and Bunny married in 1931. For his part, Bunny was most unrealistic in his approach to marriage. Coming as he did from a loving, stable family in the rural Midwest, he thought all he had to do to replicate that family situation was to get married and have kids. As his career moved into high-gear in the mid-1930s, Bunny became almost simultaneously, a workaholic and an alcoholic. From being a very busy New York freelance musician who was at home sometimes, to being a constantly traveling bandleader who had essentially no home life, Bunny found it almost impossible to build much of a relationship with his two daughters, Patricia (born 1932), and Joyce (born 1936). This caused him great emotional pain.

Bunny and his beloved girls – Fox Lake, Wisconsin, summer 1939. Patricia (L) is almost seven; Joyce is three.

Also, his relationship with Donna declined throughout the late 1930s not only because of his almost constant absences, but because her immaturity made her a very substandard mother, and a very poor manager of the family finances. No matter how much money Bunny made, and until probably 1939, he made a lot of money, Donna never had enough money to pay the family’s bills. Moreover, she seemed to be almost totally oblivious to what was going on in Bunny’s life. Bottom line: although Bunny Berigan’s marriage with Donna was never very successful, his liaison with Lee Wiley definitely damaged their marriage further.

We know that there was no relationship between Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley in the years 1932 to mid-1935 because during that time, Ms. Wiley was involved in a romantic relationship with conductor/composer Victor Young. Young, who was a very well-trained and successful musician, urged Wiley to study singing seriously, which she did. Young also cultivated her in many other ways, with an eye, perhaps, to getting her into Hollywood movies.

Wiley followed Young to Hollywood in 1935, when he moved there to work in a number of high-profile musical situations, which led ultimately to his association with Bing Crosby at Paramount Pictures.This in turn led to a fruitful career for Young as a composer for Hollywood films, which extended over the next two decades. When Young arrived in Hollywood in 1935 however, his Polish-emigre’ fiancee’, Rita, was already there, waiting for him. They soon married, and the Young-Wiley romance was over. Wiley was crushed.

Lee Wiley – 1936.

Lee Wiley was often present at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August and September of 1935, when Bunny Berigan was a member of Benny Goodman’s band, which played there for six or seven weeks. It is likely that they renewed their acquaintanceship and possibly started their romantic liaison then. Both Berigan and Wiley had returned to New York (separately and at different times) by early 1936, the time when Bunny’s career as a trumpet star was beginning to take off. By then, their relationship was in full bloom. From then until mid-1940, Wiley pursued Berigan relentlessly. The guitarist with Bunny’s band in the summer of 1937 was Tommy Morgan(elli). He recalled Wiley’s constant presence at a lengthy mid-summer gig the Berigan band had at Pavilion Royal in Valley Stream, Long Island: “She was a character. She used to follow us around a lot. When we played at Valley Stream, Long Island, she was there every night—every night! Bunny’d go out in the car with her between sets, and when he’d come back he’d be…spent.” (2) When Bunny auditioned singer Gail Reese in July of 1937, Ms. Reese later recalled that Lee Wiley was present at that audition.(3) She appeared in Ohio in the spring of 1939, following Bunny as he and his band worked their way through a string of one night stands. She then angrily returned to New York, and Bunny went on a bender that lasted a couple of days. (He still appeared and played every night.)

Bunny had fallen in love with Lee Wiley. And as important as any factor in that was Wiley’s musical (and other) sophistication. In this respect, she was quite different from Donna. In the terminology of today, it could be said that the relationship between Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley was toxic. Nevertheless and paradoxically, much of the inspiration for the music Berigan made in those years came from Lee Wiley.

(1) This review was by Paul Eduard Miller, and it appeared in the November 1937 issue of Down Beat, and is cited in the Bozy White Berigan bio-discography at August 18, 1937.

(2) Bunny Berigan …Elusive Legend of Jazz, by Robert Dupuis (1993), 159.

(3) Bozy White Berigan bio-discography at August 8, 1937.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

5 comments on ““Caravan” Bunny Berigan (1937)”

  1. David Fletcher says:

    Excellent post, Mike….as always. Bunny’s “Caravan” has long been a favorite side of his–for me–since I first heard it on an old RCA LP way back when. I’d go so far as to call it one of the best non-Duke renditions of the tune–period.

    You’re the man when it comes to BB!

  2. Lawrence Glickman says:

    I always look forward to being “taught” by Mike. Having managed many groups in the rock era (now dead), and trying to promote standards and jazz in those final moments of the original Big Band era, I now see that human nature and band politics was the same then as I experienced. I erroneously thought that the 1940’s bands must have been more civilized and stable. The only difference is that the 1930s and 40s, the bands were much more talented. I’m keeping every Mike Z post and hope its in book form one day.

  3. John Greiner says:

    Mike, I have an mp3 (I probably snatched it off YouTube) of Bunny’s band from a live broadcast on 26 Sep ’39 in NYC that they play Caravan on. It’s taken at a much more brisk tempo and Bunny omits the pixie/plunger combo, which I actually prefer! I’m sure you’re familiar with this recording, but wanted to mention it in case others want to seek it out an have a listen!
    As always, a great post!
    John

  4. Julie Flemming says:

    Lovely Mike as we are set to Honor Bunny Berigan in Fox Lake, WI. May 18-20.
    Julie Flemming

  5. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Julie, best of luck with the Wisconsin weather. No matter what the weather, I am sure that the music and hospitality at this year’s Bunny-fest will be terrific. Thanks for staging this weekend celebration dedicated to Bunny Berigan.

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