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Harry James: In a Mist

Trumpeter Harry James recorded Bix Beiderbecke's In a Mist just twice--once in 1949 and again in mid-1950. One was a studio date, the other a live radio remote. What's interesting here, of course, is that Bix never recorded his own composition on cornet. For Bix, In a Mist was a piano solo recorded in September 1927. What prompted James to apply his trumpet to the piano piece? In 1949, James was fresh off recording the music for the ersatz Beiderbecke biopic Man With a Horn and was feeling nostalgic. So he asked arranger Neal Hefti to write a chart of the song. But was James paying tribute only to Bix--or did he have another trumpeter in mind?

The Hefti chart is fascinating for what it does and doesn't do. Naturally, Hefti made strong use of band pianist Bruce McDonald, having him perform as Bix's ghost, with James and the band swirling around his notes. The score also employs a complex choreography of shifting sections--with the trumpets, trombones and saxes sliding in and out, narrowly missing each other in the process.

But what's most odd about Hefti's arrangement is that it never really breaks modern. Which is strange for 1949, considering the breakneck bop writing he had been doing for James at the time. To be sure, there are subtle contemporary touches here and there. But for the most part, the arrangement is rather restrained and formal--even dated.

Also surprising is that James doesn't sound much like Bix, which you'd expect considering the song. In fact, James doesn't even sound much like James here. Instead, what you hear is part Bix, part James and part someone else. Which made me wonder whether James had a hidden message in his halting phrasing and use of Hefti's hamstrung chart.

So I did a little digging--and a little listening. Turns out Hefti's chart, as brilliant as it is, sounds all-too close to another great trumpeter's recording of the same Beiderbecke song. In November 1938, Bunny Berigan recorded In a Mist for RCA with an arrangement by pianist Joe Lipman. Interestingly, the Hefti and Lipman charts have several distinct similarities, including how the sections are voiced. There's also a quirky “ticking clock" bridge theme. There are enough other similarities that make me think James had Hefti rework the Berigan recording so James could pay tribute to two deceased trumpet legends simultaneously--Bix and Bunny.

James adored Berigan, even though the two were paired only once in a studio setting--a live New York radio broadcast in June 1940 led by Coleman Hawkins. Coming up in the 1930s, James also was heavily influenced by Berigan. Writes Peter J. Levinson in Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James:

“The radio announcer and former big band musician Jerry Roy believes Harry's style of playing during the [Benny] Goodman years owed something to Bunny Berigan. 'When you get to the low notes, a low C and D, you're hearing the way Bunny played with Benny in the '35 and '36 days,' he contends. No wonder then that in the midst of filming Springtime in the Rockies, Harry [James] felt a great indebtedness to Bunny, who had died suddenly [in June 1942] of pneumonia brought on by alcoholism. [Harry] arranged a benefit dance date at the Palladium on June 20, and the proceeds went to Berigan's widow, Donna."

James also may have had something to do with getting the ailing Berigan hired to work on his previous film, Syncopation (1942), which traces the history of jazz from World War I to World War II. James appears in the film during a jam session toward the end with other greats of the day. Each of the musicians in the movie was chosen by fans through a contest held by the Saturday Evening Post.

In the movie, Jackie Cooper plays the lead role, a trumpet player. Since Cooper didn't play trumpet, his parts were ghosted. Some believe they were played by Berigan, who, according to Russ Connor's BG on the Record, also overdubbed Rex Stewart's playing parts in the film:

“To complicate matters still further, trumpeter Rex Stewart, ex-Ellingtonian, has a speaking and playing role in the film--but Bunny Berigan recorded all of Rex's trumpet solos."

And then there's this bit of information posted by Anton Crouch in an online chat room this past January:

“According to materials contained in the RKO Archives Production Information Files at the UCLA Arts Library, Special Collections, legendary trumpet player Bunny Berigan [pictured] was hired, early in January 1942, to dub the cornet passages, which had been filmed earlier using guide tracks. However, that was not an easy task to perform and a modern source suggests that Berigan, who was battling alcoholism and would die six months later, may have had part or all of his work redone by George Thow."

In 1949, James was moved by his off-screen participation in Man with a Horn and felt compelled to pay extra homage to Beiderbecke. But since he had no personal connection to Beiderbecke other than the cornetist's influential recordings, my guess is that James decided to eulogize Berigan and Beiderbecke in one arrangement.

What's fascinating is that you're hearing James pay tribute to Bunny by retooling an arrangement Bunny used to pay tribute to Bix, thereby completing the circle.

JazzWax tracks: Bunny Berigan's recording of In a Mist can be found on Bunny Berigan: Gangbusters, which you can download at iTunes. It features many of Berigan's recordings in the fall of 1938.

Harry James' In a Mist was recorded in June 1950 at the Marine Ballroom on Atlantic City's Steel Pier. It's on Harry James and His Music Makers: Eight Bar Riff '43-'50 (Hep). You'll find it on CD here. The entire album is a fascinating look at four different James bands during this seven-year period. For reasons that escape me, James remains a lesser big band light today--despite the fact that he had one of the most consistently excellent orchestras of the 1940s and was by far the most popular.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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