Sonny Berman: among the titans

Gordon Jack studies the outstanding Herman trumpeter, inadvertent victim of a drug overdose in 1947

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After President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service act in 1940, big band leaders began recruiting very young replacements for sidemen drafted into the armed forces. Stan Getz joined Jack Teagarden in 1943 when he was just 16. Allen Eager toured with Bobby Sherwood at the same age and Conte Candoli became a member of Woody Herman’s First Herd while on a summer holiday from high school. Trumpeter Sonny Berman was even younger when he became a professional musician. His first recording session with Louis Prima and his Gleeby Rhythm Orchestra took place on the 2 January 1940 when he was three months short of his 15th birthday. He was probably the youngest sidemen with a name band during the swing era.

Saul Robert Berman was born on 21 April 1925 in New Haven, Connecticut – the hometown of Les Elgart and Buddy Morrow. In 1956 The Association of Jazz Record Collectors published a copy of his birth certificate No. 81687 as a correction to the inaccurate birth-date quoted in various reference books. He took up the instrument when his older brother Louis – a talented trumpeter – was killed in a diving accident, prompting Sonny to say at the time “He was supposed to be one of the greatest. Everybody around New Haven, all the old-time musicians said so. He didn’t live so I had to play”. He played both trumpet and trombone with Prima’s show band at a long residency in New York City with Lilly Ann Carol handling the vocals. She stayed with the band until 1946 and can be heard with Berman in the trumpet section on novelty numbers like Dance With A Dolly With A Hole In Her Stocking and Percy Have Mercy.

Billy Bauer’s Tune (aka Pam), recorded in January 1945 at the Vanderbilt Theatre in New York, was one of Berman’s first solos with the band. His ravishing tone and delicate vibrato, especially in the lower register is a delight

He joined Tommy Dorsey in 1943 for five months of engagements in San Francisco followed by a series of radio broadcast in Hollywood sponsored by Raleigh and Kool cigarettes. The band at that time included Pete Candoli, Heine Beau, Al Klink, Ernie Caceres and Dick Haymes. Later that year he returned to New York and joined a Sonny Dunham band that included Earl Swope, Fred Otis, Marky Markowitz and Don Lamond who later became members of Woody Herman’s First Herd. The leader played the more popular ballrooms and clubs and in a Metronome band feature that year Berman named Ziggy Elman and Charlie Spivak as his favourite trumpeters. When Dunham wanted the musicians to sign long-term contracts Berman and several others left to join Boyd Raeburn who was forming a band for an engagement at New York’s Lincoln Hotel. George Handy, Johnny Mandel and Dizzy Gillespie were writing for Raeburn, who recorded the first big band arrangement of Night In Tunisia in April 1944 with a trumpet section of Roy Eldridge, Berman, Markowitz and Louis Cles.

Soon after the Tunisia date Sonny decided to join Georgia Auld who had recently left the army. The tenor-man gave him his first recorded solo on Taps Miller (arranged by Budd Johnson) on 22 May 1944 and his Eldridge-inspired playing reflects a remarkably mature performance for a trumpeter who had only just turned 19. He worked briefly with Harry James during a 12-day engagement at Frank Dailey’s legendary Meadowbrook ballroom in New Jersey. Around that time James had a big hit with I’m Beginning To See The Light, featuring vocalist Kitty Kallen. Sonny also had a temporary stay with Benny Goodman which was long enough for the great man to feature him on Ev’ry Time.

Woody Herman’s wildly exciting First Herd was his next port-of-call where he joined a powerhouse section that included Charles Frankhauser, Ray Wetzel, Pete Candoli (aka Superman) and Carl Warwick. As a soloist he more than held his own with the plethora of stars that Woody had assembled like Pete Candoli, Flip Phillips, Marjorie Hyams, Red Norvo and Bill Harris, the latter the leader’s favourite trombonist along with Jack Jenney. Woody said “(That) band used to reach heights on some nights that were unbelievable … we all played above our heads many times”.

In a 1984 interview Herman told Loren Schoenberg “I had two great years in my musical career – 1945 and ’46 financially were fantastic … ever since it’s been all down-hill”. The band grossed $750,000 in 1946 (approximately $10,000,000 today) and that was the year it won the Downbeat, Metronome, Billboard and Esquire polls.

Billy Bauer’s Tune (aka Pam), recorded in January 1945 at the Vanderbilt Theatre in New York, was one of Berman’s first solos with the band. His ravishing tone and delicate vibrato, especially in the lower register is a delight – Herman’s alto and Bill Harris’s trombone are pretty special too. In February the band recorded Laura which eventually sold a million copies thanks to the leader’s engaging vocal. There is also some Bill Harris at his most sensitive backed by Marjorie Hyams’ vibes. The following month Berman is heard cleverly quoting What Is There To Say? on another of Woody’s catchy vocals, A Kiss Goodnight. In July the band was booked into the Café Rouge of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York for a month-long engagement. While there the Armed Forces Radio Service recorded a lively Katusha with solos by Flip Phillips, Ralph Burns, Bill Harris and Sonny Berman.

A particularly notable Berman solo took place on Your Father’s Mustache a few months later. It has elements of bitonality which probably surprised Buddy Rich who was deputising for an ailing Dave Tough at the time

A particularly notable Berman solo took place on Your Father’s Mustache a few months later. It has elements of bitonality which probably surprised Buddy Rich who was deputising for an ailing Dave Tough at the time. Don’t Worry ’Bout That Mule is a humorous vocal feature for Woody with an extended Berman solo featuring some more arresting bitonality. Titles that became staples in the Herman book, such as Caldonia, Apple Honey and Northwest Passage were established around this time. Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe was released on the other side of the Caldonia 78 rpm disc and became closely associated with Frances Wayne thanks to her sensitive reading. It is performances like this that probably encouraged Esquire magazine to vote the 20-year-old vocalist as the winner in their New Star award. She married Neal Hefti at her hometown in Somerville, Massachusetts on 3 November 1945 with Woody and the whole band in attendance.

When in New York Woody Herman usually worked at venues such as the Capitol and Paramount Theatres, the Pennsylvania Hotel and the Blue Note Café. These bookings would be supplemented by one night stands at nearby ballrooms. While staying in the city Berman roomed with his friend Neal Hefti at the Hotel Paris. Years later Hefti told Ira Gitler “He was a major. He really was going to be very good. Had good chops, easy to be with, easy to get along with. Fans liked him, people liked him. He was one of the tragedies of this world”.

While visiting Oklahoma City Wayne and Berman recorded a Wayne original titled Sonny on an unissued 10” acetate disc. It was later appropriated by Miles Davis who changed the title and recorded it as Solar

The Herd was in Chicago in May 1946 and Columbia asked Woody to do a Woodchoppers small-group album with material by Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Chubby Jackson, Flip Phillips and Billy Bauer. They revisit Fan It which he had recorded in 1941 as a Dixieland feature for Cappy Lewis and Neal Read. It was now transformed into a hard swinging uptempo chart for the principal soloists including Sonny, who has two delicate choruses in a cup mute. There are a couple of relaxed strolls down memory lane though with the old Bing Crosby favourite I Surrender Dear and later that year the group recorded a delightful version of the 1919 vintage Someday Sweetheart in Los Angeles. In between the two Woodchopper dates Billy Bauer decided to leave and was replaced by Chuck Wayne. While visiting Oklahoma City he and Berman recorded a Wayne original titled Sonny on an unissued 10” acetate disc. It was later appropriated by Miles Davis who changed the title and recorded it as Solar in 1954 with Dave Schildkraut and Horace Silver. In September Berman performed probably his most well-known solo with the band on The Sidewalks Of Cuba. Opening with a blistering quote from Flight Of The Bumblebee, he launches into an exuberant statement full of the infectious joie de vivre that had become a trade-mark.

Sonny Berman: Woodchopper’s Holiday 1946, issued on Fresh Sound/Cool N’ Blue Records C & B 111

One of his last solos with the First Herd took place on 20 September 1946 on Uncle Remus Said, a vocal feature for the leader aided by the Blue Flames vocal group who later became the Blue Moods. The next day a contingent from the band, together with Serge Chaloff who was with Jimmy Dorsey at the time, recorded for Ross Russell’s Dial label. Sonny has a notable ballad feature on Nocturne by Ralph Burns which also benefits from a sensitive contribution from Chaloff. Towards the end of the year the band appeared in the film New Orleans along with Billie Holiday who played the part of a maid and sang Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? In November that year the trumpeter decided to leave Herman and at his suggestion, Al Porcino took his place. Woody said at the time “Sonny was one of the warmest soloists I ever had in the band”. On the Mosaic box set of Herman’s Complete Columbia Recordings there are several previously unissued alternate takes which include solos by Berman on Panacea, Your Father’s Mustache, Fan It, Sidewalks Of Cuba and Someday Sweetheart. These additional examples of his work are an important addition to Sonny Berman’s sadly slim discography.

His last recording date took place on 15 October 1946 in Los Angeles with George Handy where The Bloos was recorded but Sonny did not solo. During the Christmas holidays he went home to New Haven and became engaged to his long-time girlfriend Sylvie Fisher. Meanwhile the First Herd played its last engagement at Castle Farm, a popular dance pavilion near Cincinnati, on 24 December. Coincidentally several other big band leaders also decided to call it a day around this time including Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter and Les Brown. As Barry Ulanov said in Metronome, “(with) post-war inflation, bands became too expensive for their leaders”.

After the holidays Sonny prepared for an upcoming tour with Bill Harris, Chubby Jackson, Ralph Burns and other members of the disbanded Herman Herd. On 16 January he visited John Carisi’s apartment at 65 East 76th Street in Manhattan where a group of musicians including Serge Chaloff had gathered for an informal blowing session. He died later that evening in circumstances that have always been somewhat mysterious. According to Vladimir Simosko’s 1998 Chaloff biography both Serge and Sonny had a heroin fix that evening – “the unevenness of the drugs caused Berman to inadvertently overdose and he died officially of a heart attack”. Years later Richard Chaloff (Serge’s brother) said “I remember (him) coming home right after that night. He was white as a sheet. His friend Sonny Berman had died literally in his arms from an overdose. Serge was really shaken”. Barry Ulanov said “Dead long before his time, this boy was well on his way in jazz to a place beside the handful of titans of his instrument until the ways of the world caught up with him”.

Sonny Berman was buried on 19 January 1947 in the Independent New Haven Lodge Cemetery, East Haven, Connecticut.

Selected discography
As leader
Sonny Berman: Woodchoppers Holiday 1946 (Fresh Sound/Cool N’ Blue Records C & B 111)
Sonny Berman/Bill Harris Big 8 (Proper Intro CD 2071)
As sideman
Woody Herman And His Orchestra – The V-Disc Years Vols 1 & 2. 1944-46 (Hep CD 2/3435)
The Complete Columbia Recordings Of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947). (Mosaic MD7-223)
I would like to acknowledge the help of John Bell who provided me with some difficult to find Sonny Berman recordings.