“Blue Lou” (1936) Fletcher Henderson with Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry/(1939) Metronome All-Stars with Bunny Berigan, Eddie Miller, Jack Teagarden, Sonny Dunham and Benny Goodman

“Blue Lou”

Composed by Edgar Sampson; arranged by Horace Henderson.

Recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra for Vocalion on March 27, 1936 in Chicago.

Fletcher Henderson, directing: Joe Thomas, first trumpet; Dick Vance and Roy Eldridge, trumpets; Fernando Arbello and Ed Cuffee, trombones; “Scoops Carry” (George Dorman), first alto saxophone; Buster Bailey, alto saxophone; Elmer “Tone” Williams and Leon “Chu” Berry, tenor saxophones; Horace Henderson, piano; Bob Lessey, guitar; John Kirby, bass; Sid Catlett, drums.

The story – musical cross-pollenation:

“Blue Lou” began life as a composition by Edgar Sampson (1907-1973). Sampson was one of a number of versatile musicians (he played alto saxophone, clarinet and violin) who worked in the better Afro-American bands in the late 1920s and through the 1930s. He worked from late 1926 into 1927 with Duke Ellington, and then with Charlie Johnson in 1928 and 1929. By 1931, he was a member of Fletcher Henderson’s band. That lasted about a year, into early 1932. Fletcher may well have helped Sampson get started as an arranger. Then he landed with Chick Webb, where he began actively experimenting with composing and arranging. Webb, knowing how important good arrangements were for his band, was very supportive of Sampson’s efforts in this direction. (Sampson and alto saxophonist and arranger extrordinnaire Benny Carter played in many of these same bands in these years, though rarely together.) By early 1934, it was apparent that Sampson was on his way as a composer and arranger of original tunes, which Webb began to record. These included: “When Dreams Come True,” and “Let’s Get Together,” (1-15-34); “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” (5-18-34); “Blue Minor” and “Lonesome Moments,” (7-6-34); “Lona” (9-10-34); “Don’t Be That Way,” “What a Shuffle” and “Blue Lou,” (11-19-34). Sampson had by 1935 become a key member of Chick Webb’s band.  (Edgar Sampson is shown above right in the mid-1930s.)

It appears that Edgar Sampson composed “Blue Lou” in 1933. The first recording of it was by Benny Carter on October 16, 1933. (A link to that recording appears at endnote 1.) Evidence in the Carter bio-discography (2) indicates that Carter arranged “Blue Lou” for this recording session. My informed speculation is that Edgar Sampson used Carter’s arrangement of his original tune as something of a primer in his ongoing studies and experiments of how to arrange for a swing band.

By November 19, 1934, Chick Webb was ready to record Sampson’s arrangement of “Blue Lou.” (A link to that recording appears at endnote 3.) It is clear that Carter’s basic arrangement was used by Sampson for his charting of the tune for Webb. The major differences between the two performances are that Webb takes the tune at a faster tempo, and that Sampson made a few minor additions and deletions, undoubtedly in consultation with Webb, who constantly monitored what worked (and didn’t work) with the dancers at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where his band frequently played.

Chick kept Sampson busy through 1936, when he left the Webb band to work as a free-lance. By then, his composition/arrangement on “Stompin’ at the Savoy” had been recorded by Benny Goodman, became a hit, and was on its way to enduring status as a BG essential and part of the musical canon of the swing era.

The swing era was a time when musicians who worked in swing bands were a part of an ecosystem that included bandleaders, singers, composers, arrangers, booking agents, road managers, music publishers, ballroom, hotel and theater operators, radio executives and recording executives. Due to Jim Crow racial segregation, this ecosystem had two parts: a white one and a black one. Black musicians tended to know a lot of other black musicians who worked in black bands. The same for the whites. These segregated groups often made contact with each other, sometimes by chance meetings, and often by playing in the same bands together.

There was however almost no racial crossover between black and white musicians in the 1930s in public performance. That is why Benny Goodman’s hiring of pianist Teddy Wilson in 1936, and then of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton a bit later was so remarkable. Even though Teddy and Lionel were not regular members of the Goodman band, and were presented separately, as a part of the BG trio and quartet, they were always presented playing with Benny, and his drummers, including Gene Krupa at first, later with Dave Tough, Buddy Schutz and Nick Fatool, all of whom were white. (Above left: Teddy Wilson in 1935. His piano style was smooth and swinging. His demeanor, cool. Lionel Hampton was the opposite of this. His exuberance as a performer was immense.)

Benny Goodman was not someone whose objective was to crusade for social justice. He was a musician whose main concern, first, last and always, was the quality of the music he presented to the public. His never-ending quest for better music in the swing idiom led him perforce to Teddy and Lionel. They in turn provided him with music that was of high quality, and not incidentally, that the public liked. So Benny did what he always did: he worked with Teddy and Lionel in high-visibility situations until each of them became so well-known to the public that they started their careers as bandleaders/soloists away from Benny. But a very important by-product of Benny’s actions with Teddy and Lionel was that black and white musicians could work together productively in public. In the Jim Crow America of the 1930s, that was a major step forward.

Of equal importance was Benny Goodman’s use of music composed and/or arranged by black musicians, which started before the arrival of Teddy and Lionel on the Goodman scene. Goodman’s use of music composed and/or arranged by Fletcher Henderson, who had been a successful bandleader for a decade before Benny, was the catalyst in many ways for his band to make the transition from being a good dance band to being a first-rate swing band. Indeed, Benny’s effective use of Fletcher’s (and his brother Horace’s) music, and its success with white audiences, enabled Fletcher, with a much higher public profile, to resume leading his own band in 1936, after a hiatus of over a year. (At right: Roy Eldridge and Bunny Berigan at a jam session in June of 1940. The two trumpeters formed a mutual admiration society: I know this because Roy told me so on several occasions in the late 1970s. Issues of race were irrelevant between the two men. They were only interested in what was coming out of each other’s horn.)

Even before Fletcher, with much assistance from Horace, began organizing a new band, Benny was casting about looking for music composed and/or arranged by other arrangers who knew how to write music that would swing. Very few white arrangers were able, in 1935, to accomplish this feat. (Spud Murphy came very close.) This search eventually led him to Jimmy Mundy, who had written many fine arrangements for Earl Hines, and slightly later, to Edgar Sampson. But again, it was not the color of their skin that resulted in their music being played by the Goodman band: It was that they knew how to write music that Benny’s band could swing.

Fletcher Henderson and his band in 1936: L-R: Chu Berry, Joe Thomas, Horace Henderson, Sid Catlett, Fletcher Henderson, Dick Vance, Teddy Lewis, Buster Bailey, Ed Cuffee, Elmer Williams, Roy Eldridge, Israel Crosby, Fernando Arbello, Bob Lessey, Don Pasquall.

The music:

There is a clear evolution from Benny Carter’s 1933 arrangement/performance of Edgar Sampson’s melody “Blue Lou” to Chick Webb’s performance of Sampson’s revision of Carter’s arrangement recorded a year later. This evolution can best be summarized in the word “swing.” Simply put, Webb’s performance swings more that Carter’s. That is certainly not Carter’s fault. Things were happening in the world of swing, especially in the world of black swing in 1933 and 1934, that indicate that what we have come to know as “swing” was progressing during that time. When we hear Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 recording of “Blue Lou,” which presents the basic Carter/Sampson arrangement with further modifications by Horace Henderson to accommodate the talents of two of the great exponents of swing then, the young tenor saxophonist Chu Berry and the young trumpeter Roy Eldridge, we hear 1936 cutting-edge swing. (Above right: Roy Eldridge and Chu Berry shown together in 1935.) 

The Henderson performance of “Blue Lou” gets right down to business: there is no introduction. The saxophones state the minimalist melody with bright accents provided by the open brass. This continues through the first chorus. One should also note the smoothly functioning rhythm section. Key members included bassist John Kirby, drummer Sid Catlett and pianist Horace Henderson. Horace was a much better pianist that his brother, as both a soloist and as an accompanist. His playing here is a good example of very effective, light and swinging mid-1930s jazz comping. Shortly after this, Count Basie appeared on the national jazz scene, and with his streamlined piano work changed jazz comping.

The second chorus belongs largely to one of the young lions of jazz trumpet in the 1930s, Roy Eldridge. Roy’s playing, which utilized a broad range, especially in the upper register, included a bright open trumpet sound and extreme agility, especially by 1930s standards. He also had good ideas, and we hear some of them in this exciting solo which covers the three main melody sections of this chorus. He is spelled by trombonist Ed Cuffee, who mutes his horn for an effective contrast to Eldridge’s open trumpet, on the bridge. Cuffee alludes to the mid-1930s hit “Organ Grinder’s Swing” as he begins his solo.

The third chorus belongs entirely to tenor saxophonist Chu Berry. Berry came to the fore as a major jazz saxophonist in the middle 1930s after Coleman Hawkins began what eventually became a five-year residency in Europe in 1934. Berry’s reputation grew throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. Tragically, he was killed in 1941 in an auto collision at age 33, and jazz lost one of its most exciting and creative soloists. Here we have prime early Chu: burly tenor saxophone tone without the hard edge of Hawkins, and flowing phrases, following each other with logic and sovereign ease, and irresistible swing.

The next chorus belongs to the band with the ensemble sound being topped by Joe Thomas’s solid lead trumpet. Berry returns for some additional thoughts on the bridge.

The final tract has the brass riffing away effectively with Roy returning, this time with an acrid-sounding straight mute to wrap up a great performance. Drummer Sid Catlett has a lot of fun with his high-hat cymbals as he swings the rhythm in this sequence.

This is a recording that all serious performers in the swing idiom have studied carefully.


“Blue Lou”

Composed by Edgar Sampson; arranged by Horace Henderson.

Recorded by the Metronome All-Star Band on January 12, 1939 in New York.

Metronome All-Star Band:  Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Charlie Spivak, Sonny Dunham, trumpets; Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, lead alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Eddie Miller, tenor saxophones; Benny Goodman, alto saxophone and clarinet; Bob Zurke, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Bob Haggart, bass; Ray Bauduc, drums.

(*) The basic blueprint of this arrangement was written by Edgar Sampson for Chick Webb’s band in 1934. That arrangement was revised somewhat by Horace Henderson in 1936, and then further revised in the rehearsal that preceded the making of this recording largely to accommodate the numerous jazz solos that are in this performance (see below).

The music:

This recording of Edgar Sampson’s tune “Blue Lou” is certainly among the best. The solos, in order, are by Berigan, Teagarden, Miller, Dunham, Goodman (who also played third alto in the sax section on a borrowed horn), Zurke, Bauduc, and then some parting thoughts by Berigan. These solos reveal that all of the featured musicians were excellent soloists, and when compared with the solos on the alternate takes, show that they were all very comfortable improvising. The drumming of Ray Bauduc throughout this performance is great, and is an excellent example of his very personal style. (At right: Metronome All-Star recording session – January 12, 1939: L-R: Tommy Dorsey, Victor A and R Man Leonard Joy, Bunny Berigan, George T. Simon of Metronome magazine and Benny Goodman.)

On the issued take, the most fascinating comparison to be made however is in the jazz solos of the trumpeters Berigan and Dunham. Berigan’s sixteen swaggering bars are quintessential: he covers much of the range of his instrument, his sound is fat and round, even in the highest register; his jazz ideas are cogent; and his solo is suffused, bar by bar, with the feeling that anything might happen. There is nevertheless a very keen musical intelligence informing this solo.

Here are trumpeter/writer Richard Sudhalter’s thoughts about Berigan’s and Dunham’s playing: “Berigan charges in with a typically long-lined, shapely four-bar phrase. An aggressive edge adds intensity to his tone, and when he shouts out his high D to open the second extended phrase, the sheer size of the sound seems about to overload the microphone. He rounds out his half-chorus solo with another pair of phrases. The first one dwells for a while on some almost growled blue minor thirds, accentuating the rather tough-minded mood of the solo. Then, in another leap to his high register, he concludes with a descending phrase of considerable eloquence. Dunham, taking it from the bridge, tries to equal Berigan, opening with a long middle-register exposition before leaping to his high register for a climax. His spectacular high-note playing on trumpet and trombone with the Casa Loma orchestra had made him something of a celebrity, but here he cannot compete: he lacks the full, compelling Berigan tone and overriding sense of purpose and form.” (4) (Above left: Bunny Berigan and Sonny Dunham chat at the Metronome All-Star recording session.)

The progress of the development of the solos shown by the alternate takes reveals that Bunny was listening carefully to the way Dunham was organizing his solo, and then, when it came time to make the master, used all of that information to completely upstage Dunham. He in no way copied what Dunham had played. He simply distilled Dunham’s approach, which was to challenge Berigan, and turned it around and used it to cut Sonny. As Richard Sudhalter correctly observed, Bunny was definitely in the mood for combat that night: “It’s an affirmation, like a prizefighter who’s been on the ropes a time or two bringing his gloves together over his head to proclaim, ‘See, I’m still the champ.’” (5) I have often wondered what Sonny Dunham was thinking immediately after he heard Berigan play the solo that is on the issued record. Most likely, it was: What am I going to play after that?

Post script: 

It is not coincidence that all of the musicians who made this recording, great though they were, were all white. That is a reflection of how George T, Simon, then the writer at Metronome magazine whose beat was swing, ran the magazine’s content and set the rules for the contest that determined who would be invited to play on this recording. Simon was not a racist. He simply behaved before this contest is a way that accepted the racist mores of the time, even though he did not agree with them. Soon after this however, Simon had an epiphany of sorts, and realized that one could not run a magazine’s content about swing and jazz without making a determined effort to include in that content an amount of information, stories, images etc. that was more accurately and fully reflective of the contributions of Afro-American musicians to swing and jazz, which was enormous. Future Metronome All-Star recording sessions were racially integrated.

The recordings that are presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(1) Here is a link to Benny Carter’s October 16, 1933 recording of “Blue Lou”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0KUYLvwLLI

(2) Benny Carter …A Life in American Music (1982) by Edward Berger, Morroe Berger and James Patrick, 51-52.

(3) Here is a link to Chick Webb’s November 19, 1934 recording of “Blue Lou”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wr_WTlvx1xA

(4) Here is a link to Bunny Berigan’s January 27, 1937 recording of “Blue Lou”: https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/2020/04/30/blue-lou-1937/

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  1. The great Edgar Sampson ensured his place in the Swing Era pantheon with three tunes — “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” “Don’t Be That Way” and “Blue Lou.” If he had never done another thing besides compose those swing anthems — seemingly irresistible to improvisors, arrangers, and listeners — he would have been in. Of course, he did much more of merit than that, in all of his roles — composer, arranger and instrumentalist. In his work for the marvelous Webb band we may note the emergence of a favourite device of his — call and response; as we see, most conspicuously in “Stompin at The Savoy” and “When [later ‘If’] Dreams Come True,” Sampson often built the responses into the composition before moving on to the chart-writing process, where a number of arrangers of the day were incorporating the call and response feature. Though I feel that he wielded his greatest musical influence while he was with Chick’s orch, I believe he benefited most in commercial terms through his association with Goodman — yet another illustration of whites’ dominance in the selling of swing to the public. As we know, the BG recordings of “Stompin’ …” and “Don’t Be That Way” were enormously successful. Though I never see them receiving special praise, there are a couple of recordings of Sampson’s “Lucky” (alternately titled “You’re Right, I’m Wrong”) that I consider to be among the Goodman band’s most swinging performances of the ’40s. The band attempted the tune in September and December of ’45, but mysteriously, picky ol’ Benny wasn’t satisfied with the results, as the tracks didn’t see US release for decades. The first of the two takes features Bud Freeman’s last solo — a terrific one! — with the band and the second, a dashing appearance by eighteen-year-old Stan Getz, as well as Buddy Rich, soon to open with his own band, sitting in dynamically.

    I’ve always regarded the Henderson orch as the black equivalent of the Whiteman band in that, just as a good many of the white musicians who were prominent in the Swing Era played earlier under the King of Jazz’ baton, a host of the finest black jazz players worked at some point with Henderson’s aggregation, establishing themselves as improvisors to be reckoned with. It’s certainly true that Roy Eldridge (whom I regard, along with Bunny and Red Allen, as one of the three most important and amazing trumpeters of the ’30s) and the brilliant Chu Berry used their Henderson tenures as a launching pad for wider recognition and acclaim, well-deserved. In this rough and ready take of “Blue Lou,” the two pals and frequent musical cohorts show us that this new edition of the Smack’s gang boasted ace trumpet and tenor soloists, just as the well-known early ’30s unit had. I’ve had this side in my collection for decades now and know it well, but in listening now to Chu’s solo I find myself being reminded of his turn on the ’36 Krupa-led “Mutiny in the Parlor,” on which, incidentally, Little Jazz also appears. Here, Roy, displaying his familiar incendiary quality, sounds fully prepared to take on all comers in the jazz trumpet field. The band as a whole plays with supreme deftness and with what comes across as a real appreciation of the Sampson chart.

    That “Blue Lou” was chosen as a medium through which the chosen Metronone All-Stars could strut their stuff is clear proof of the status that Sampson had achieved by the close of the ’30s. The number, so representative of the composer-arranger’s pithy style, gave something for these masterful improvisors to dig into, and that they did! While it seems that in the Berigan orch sides, we often find Bunny essentially batting clean-up in the solo order, he’s the lead-off man here. We can only imagine the pressure he felt, despite — or perhaps because of — the high standards to which he had always held himself as a musician. Even with his characteristic optimism, he had to have been amply aware that his own band, now coming apart at the seams for a variety of reasons, had not fulfilled the abundant promise of its ’37 debut. “Blue Lou” had in fact been among the new outfit’s first recordings! Whatever was going on in the head beneath that dark blond mop, Bunny made the Miracle Man turn up on this date, for his peers and fans. He opens and closes the side (as he deserved to) with swagger, soul and his unerring sense of what fits the mood of the song and the performance as a whole. As to the soloists who follow, Teagarden and Goodman play both immaculately and with heart. Eddie Miller, one of my favourite tenors, is a delight, blowing in his joyful style –and I love how Ray Bauduc and Bob Haggart go full Crosby band behind him. The great Bob Zurke of course also strongly evokes the Crosby crew with his idiosyncratic spot. In my opinion, a masterful treatment of a jazz staple is marred only by Sonny Dunham’s tasteless grandstanding. It’s so obvious that he was intent on cutting Bunny and proclaiming himself the new champ rather than contributing something of real musical value to the proceedings. Just as his Casa Loma feature, “Memories of You,” is all upper-register gymnastics and no emotional content (listen to Goodman on his sextet version for contrast!), his sixteen bars on “Blue Lou” are just tacky. He didn’t belong in this company — while Little Jazz, an improvisational giant, did.

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