“In a Mist”
Composed by Bix Beiderbecke.
Recorded by Bix Beiderbecke on piano for Okeh on September 9, 1927 in New York.
Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) is unquestionably one of the great early figures in jazz. Almost his entire reputation rests upon his superlatively expressive and creative playing of jazz on the cornet. But there is one notable exception: his solo piano recording of his own composition, “In a Mist.” Bix made that recording on September 9, 1927 in New York, and it was released on Okeh 40916.
I consider the cornetist and writer Richard M. Sudhalter (1938-2008), to have been one of the most knowledgeable, rigorous and perceptive scholars of Bix Beiderbecke’s life and music. As a jazz cornetist himself, he had insights into Beiderbecke’s work as a musician that were and remain particularly illuminating. I have long regarded the book Bix …Man and Legend, which Sudhalter wrote with Philip R. Evans and William Dean Myatt, published in 1974, to be an excellent source of authoritative information about Bix.
In order to provide as full a context as practicable here for Beiderbecke’s solo piano recording of “In a Mist,” I am quoting most of the notes Sudhalter included in the booklet (at pages 38-39) that accompanied the 1979 collection of Bix’s recordings called Giants of Jazz … Bix Beiderbecke that discuss that recording: “Bix had to be coaxed into recording his own most celebrated composition. As (saxophonist) Frank Trumbauer recalled in later years, the cornetist thought of himself as little more than a ‘noodler’ at the keyboard, and was astonished that Tom Rockwell of Okeh (Records) should want to record him at all. He had done ‘For No Reason at All in C’ with (Trumbauer) and (guitarist Eddie) Lang – but that was a trio: a solo record was another matter. Nevertheless, he agreed, and on September 9, 1927 recorded his as yet untitled little cameo. Because what became ‘In a Mist’ was less a formal composition than a series of episodes strung together improvisationally, Bix ruined one take by simply running overtime. For the second take, Trumbauer was next to him, ready to tap him on the shoulder exactly thirty seconds before wrap-up time.
The record – and a sheet music version transcribed with much patience by (arranger) Bill Challis – created a sensation among musicians. By the time Bix had joined Paul Whiteman (at the end of October 1927), ‘In a Mist’ – the title was inspired, he said, by his state of mind at a subsequent recording session – had acquired a celebrity of its own. In a (Whiteman) Carnegie Hall concert on October 7, 1928, the King of Jazz presented his star hot cornetist at the piano playing the piece, being supported by Roy Bargy and Lennie Hayton at two other Steinways. It was an auspicious occasion; among those present was composer and piano virtuoso Sergei Rachmaninoff, then on a tour of the United States. When the performance was over, Roy Bargy recalled, ‘Whiteman called Bix forward to take a bow. He came forth with a nervous, yet polite ‘thank you,’ a real quick dip toward the audience, and hurried offstage, embarrassed by the whole thing.'”
“‘In a Mist’ is hardly great music. (See comment of jazz trombonist/cornetist Dan Barrett below for a dissenting opinion, and my reply.) It is, however, remarkable – the work of a highly precocious instinctive musician in his early twenties. It shows a sensibility in transition, responding most directly to the pastel tone colors of the French Impressionists in growing beyond the chordal and melodic simplicities of jazz (at that time). It does not reflect Bix’s avowed fondness for more modern composers like Stravinsky, whose music spoke in a language still presumably beyond his grasp as a player. Yet this small piece is of immense significance for its time. It offers the first real prospect of a fusion of European and American idioms toward which others, George Gershwin included, were working with varying degrees of success. But Gershwin and his colleagues, for all their gifts, were not jazz musicians, and were not working within the jazz medium. Bix was. That the promise he held out should have been cut short by early death is part of the real tragedy of Bix Beiderbecke.”(1)
“In a Mist” mixes elements of late European impressionism with early American jazz. While written in the key of C-major, the piece is heavily chromatic. Bix plays mostly on the fourth and fifth, often inserting sharp or flat accidentals, while avoiding the tonic to increase tension. Harmonically, the piece features melancholic, rich chords; the swing tempo gives the piece a zippy, joyful quality. These tensions drive the piece, finally settling on a hopeful C-major.(2)
Earl Hines, one of the founding fathers of jazz piano, made this comment about Bix Beiderbecke’s recording of “In a Mist”: “He played good piano. He was way ahead of his time.”(3)
Although there has been periodic hand-wringing by Beiderbecke purists that in essence criticizes subsequent recordings of “In a Mist” as being un-Bix-like for whatever reasons, the fact is that Beiderbecke himself never played this piece the same way twice. He undoubtedly would have been delighted to know that his composition has by now, almost a century later, been recorded at least a hundred times by artists whose musical sensibilities are often different from his, sometimes radically different. One of Bix’s unspoken mantras, in life and in music, was “live and let live.”
“In a Mist”
Composed by Bix Beiderbecke; arranged by Joe Lippman.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Men for Victor on November 30, 1938 in New York.
Bunny Berigan, first trumpet, directing: Irving Goodman, trumpet; Ray Conniff, trombone; Murray “Jumbo” Williams, alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Joe Lippman, piano; Hank Wayland, bass; Buddy Rich, drums.
One artist whose musical sensibilities were remarkably congruent with Bix Beiderbecke’s was jazz trumpeter Bunny Berigan. Both men were first and foremost jazz soloists, and that colored most of the music they made. But Berigan was also a superlative technical musician who had reached a level of virtuosity on the trumpet that few ever reach, and in addition was a masterful reader of music. How Berigan came to record “In a Mist” in late 1938, seven years after Bix Beiderbecke’s death, can be explained at least partly by what was going on in the world of swing then.
We know that Benny Goodman, the celebrated “King of Swing,” was riding high in 1938. He and his band had appeared in a very successful concert at Carnegie Hall in January of that year. After that, they toured widely, played at venues of all sorts for top money, and made some excellent recordings for Victor Records. But the cornerstone of Goodman’s success in 1938 was his sponsored weekly CBS radio show, The Camel Caravan. That show reached millions of listeners each week. In order to keep it fresh, new musical ideas were constantly being suggested, discussed, rejected, adopted and modified. BG, who many people have underestimated insofar as his involvement in all of this, was in fact very deeply involved in this process. Although Benny himself carried much of the musical load each week by playing his clarinet brilliantly, he had come to rely on the young and fiery trumpeter Harry James to also provide musical excitement. Vocalist Martha Tilton was also an important asset to the band’s ongoing success with mainstream radio listeners. For variety, Benny also presented himself in a trio setting, with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Dave Tough, who had replaced Gene Krupa who had left Goodman to start his own band. Occasionally, the trio became a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone. While there were also other capable soloists in Benny’s band then, their roles in the music presented on the Camel Caravan shows were subsidiary.
One such soloist was the pianist Jess Stacy. Stacy was a first-class jazz musician that Benny seemingly had intimidated early in their association, which began when Stacy joined the Goodman band in the summer of 1935. Consequently, Stacy, very happy to be with the band that had gradually become the number one swing band in the country, did what he was told, played very well, and had minimal contact with his sometimes unpredictable boss. When at the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, Benny unexpectedly called upon Stacy to play a jazz solo on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” and Jess responded magnificently, Benny was astonished. Although Jess’s solo opportunities in the Goodman band did not increase greatly after that, they did increase. On the Camel Caravan show that aired on September 6, 1938, Benny featured Jess Stacy playing “In a Mist,” as a solo.(4) Millions of people were listening. One of them may have been Bunny Berigan.
Dan Morgenstern, the doyen of jazz historians, made this concise observation about Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan: “Aside from the same initials, a parallel gift for lyricism, similar midwestern backgrounds, and a shared fateful drinking (addiction) that brought early death, Bunny was not a direct (musical) descendent of Bix. But he brought great empathy to the fine small band scores (of music associated with Bix) written by Joe Lippman (and Abe Osser).”(4)
Based on available evidence, it appears that at some point in the early autumn of 1938, Berigan contacted arranger Joe Lippman, who had been his chief arranger from the time he started his band in early 1937 until mid-1938, and then only for special assignments, to discuss the idea of creating a suite of arrangements on tunes associated with Bix, but for a scaled-down version of the Berigan band. Bunny was insistent on this point because he wanted more of a chamber music feeling for the music than was possible with a full big band. “It was Bunny’s idea to do these things.” Lippman recalled more than 50 years later. “He got that book, the suite of piano pieces, (and I started writing).” (5) Eventually, six pieces came to comprise Berigan’s Beiderbecke Suite: “Davenport Blues,” “In a Mist,” “Flashes,” “Candlelights,” “In the Dark,” and “Walkin’ the Dog.” Lippman arranged all of them except “Flashes” and possibly “Candlelights,” which were the work of Abe Osser, and “Walkin’ the Dog,” which is a near head arrangement, organized loosely by Berigan’s trombonist, Ray Conniff.
Lippman continued: “Bunny had a devil of a time selling the idea of doing a batch of tunes associated with Bix Beiderbecke to the powers-that-be at Victor. So we introduced “In a Mist” on The Saturday Night Swing Club program to show what could be done. …We felt it was successful.”(6) (Above right: Bunny Berigan in discussion with Victor’s A and R director/producer Leonard Joy. Joy was fond of Bunny and was responsible for green-lighting Berigan’s Beiderbecke Suite recordings.)
The music: Joe Lippman’s adaptation of Bix Beiderbecke’s piano piece for nine instruments is most interesting. He did not do a literal expansion of every part of “In a Mist.” Instead, he focused on what he considered the main musical themes, and he presented them in contrast with each other. The instrumental textures Lippman employed were the warm brass (two trumpets and one trombone, with Berigan leading), and three reeds (clarinet, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone). He used these instruments in both discrete groupings, and together, to positive musical effect. In addition, Lippman himself played piano on these recordings (even though the great Joe Bushkin was Bunny’s band pianist then). He acquits himself well. (Above left: pianist/arranger Joe Lippman.)
As good as Lippman’s arrangement on “In a Mist” was, it was due to the skill of Bunny Berigan as a leader of his musicians that the Victor recording performance reached the high level of expressiveness we hear. We are able to understand the process of Bunny achieving this more clearly when we compare the broadcast recording of “In a Mist” that has survived, from the CBS broadcast of The Saturday Night Swing Club on November 19, 1938, with the Victor recording made eleven days later. It is clear from SNSC performance that Berigan and his men were still in the process of achieving the optimum tempo and instrumental blend we hear on the Victor recording. (At right: Leonard Joy and Bunny Berigan in Victor’s Manhattan recording studio.)
By the time Bunny made the Victor recording, his concept of how he wanted the music to sound was firmly in his mind, no doubt the result of careful rehearsal with his musicians. The tempo here is a bit faster than the SNSC performance, more reflective of the tempo Beiderbecke had set on his recording of “In a Mist.” In addition, Bunny’s playing throughout this performance is perfect from the standpoint of his role as first trumpet: he not only plays the notes as written, he imbues his performance with his unique phrasing, which is the essence of swing, and a bright, full trumpet sound. Trombonist Ray Conniff plays the solo written into the arrangement by Joe Lippman beautifully. Notice his glissando near the end of his solo. The perfectly executed and velvety ritardando Berigan plays at the end of the performance imparts a gentle wistfulness to the music.
Here, for the sake of comparison, is the version of “In a Mist” Berigan performed on the CBS Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast of November 18, 1938.
“In a Mist”
Composed by Bix Beiderbecke; arranged by Joe Lippman.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Men from a live broadcast over the CBS radio network on November 19, 1938 in New York.
Personnel is the same as for the Victor recording made 11 days later.
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Giants of Jazz … Bix Beiderbecke, (1979). Notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter. 38-39.
(2) This concise description of the musical substance of “In a Mist,” and Bix Beiderbecke’s playing of it on piano, comes from the Wikipedia post on it.
(3) Giants of Jazz …Bix Beiderbecke, ibid.
(4) On the September 6, 1938 Camel Caravan show, Jess Stacy performed “In a Mist” largely in the same manner Bix Beiderbecke had, although he took the tune at a slightly faster tempo. But then about halfway through the performance, he utilized a tempo change to slow things down considerably, before returning to the original brisk tempo. I find it curious that Stacy did not record his interpretation of “In a Mist,” arguably Bix Beiderbecke’s most celebrated composition, until 1950, despite recording his takes on Beiderbecke’s “Candlelights” for Commodore on January 18, 1939, and “In the Dark” and “Flashes” for Decca on November 13, 1935.
(4) Liner notes for Bunny Berigan ..His Trumpet and His Orchestra, Vol. 1, RCA-LPV 581, by Dan Morgenstern (1972).
(5) Liner notes for The Complete Bunny Berigan Vol. III, RCA-BMG 9953-1-RB, (1990), by Richard M. Sudhalter.
(6) The Miracle Man of Swing …Bunny Berigan, by Bozy White (2012), 981.
Here is a performance that included one of Bix Beiderbecke’s wonderful cornet solos: https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/22/louis-armstrong-and-west-end-blues-bix-beiderbecke-and-clementine-and-the-birth-of-swing/
Here are links to some of Bunny Berigan’s classic performances:
And here is a link to the most famous of all Berigan recordings: