Bunny Berigan

"As Benny Goodman, never one to waste compliments, once put it, "He was so exciting, and so inventive in his own way that he just lifted the whole thing." - Richard M. Sudhalter

Bunny Berigan

“Bunny hit a note – and it had pulse. It’s hard to describe, but his sound seemed to – well, soar…There was drama in what he did – he had that ability, like Louis, to make any tune his own.” – Joe Dixon, clarinetist with Berigan band

By Richard Sudhalter

Born November 2, 1908, in Hilbert, Wisconsin, and raised in nearby Fox Lake, Bunny Berigan was playing trumpet by age twelve in his grandfather’s fifteen-piece juvenile concert band. Inevitably, as his talent ripened, the young man gravitated to New York, where he joined the popular dance orchestra of Hal Kemp and set off with them for a European tour.

By Bunny Berigan’s return that autumn, talk about him had spread throughout the upper ranks of New York studio musicians. Most had established their careers in the 1920s, equally able to read music quickly and accurately at sight and dispense convincing “hot” solos on demand. They included, among others, the brothers Tommy (trombone) and Jimmy (reeds) Dorsey, violinist Joe Venuti and his guitar-playing pal Eddie Lang, versatile trumpeter Mannie Klein, and Adrian Rollini, equally adept on many instruments, including the formidable bass saxophone.

Generally speaking, news about a gifted arrival circulated by informal word of mouth. Hey, have you heard this guy? Reads like a flash. Plays lead and solos. Tone as big as a house. Range to spare. You gotta hear him.

Throughout the first half of the 1930s Bunny Berigan remained steadily employed, working for various leaders while freelancing in the radio and recording studios. When the Dorsey Brothers decided to try a few ballroom dates leading their own orchestra, he was one of those they selected. When Benny Goodman landed a regular slot on NBC’s Let’s Dance radio show, Berigan was his immediate pick for lead and solo trumpet. Such colleagues as Trumbauer, guitarist Dick McDonough, Rollini and Red Norvo began leading their own record dates – and invariably included Berigan among their sidemen.

What did fellow-musicians hear when they sat in front of or beside Bunny Berigan?

Gordon “Chris” Griffin, shortly to star with Goodman: “Berigan was almost completely abandoned…never imprisoned, never played the same chorus twice.”

Irving Goodman, trumpet-playing younger brother of Benny: “He encompassed the entire trumpet, top to bottom. The tone was massive, much bigger than it sounded on the records.”

Louis Armstrong himself provides, as he should, the last word. Asked by Down Beat to name his favorites among current trumpet players, he unhesitatingly chose “my boy Bunny Berigan…To me, Bunny can’t do no wrong in music.”

– Richard M. Sudhalter liner note excerpt from Mosaic Records: The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions

Bunny Berigan
I Can’t Get Started

April 13, 1936

Bunny Berigan and His Boys: Bunny Berigan (tp, vcl), Artie Shaw (cl), Forrest Crawford (ts), Joe Bushkin (p), Tommy Felline (g), Mort Stulmaker (b), Stan King (d), Chick Bullock (vcl).

By Richard Sudhalter

Artie Shaw, widely respected as a first call lead alto saxophone player in broadcast orchestras, had also been developing steadily on clarinet. He and Forrest Crawford were in place for Berigan’s next – and most auspicious – 1936 Vocalion record session. As Joe Bushkin recalled it, his friend Johnny DeVries – artist, advertising writer, sometime songwriter, and friend to this circle of jazzmen – dropped by the Famous Door one night after attending a new theatrical revue, The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In the lobby he’d bought the sheet music to a song that had caught his fancy, a new tune by Vernon Duke with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

“He laid it on the piano,” said Joe Bushkin, and we just read it down, playing it in the key it was in on the sheet. It was called I Can’t Get Started, and Bunny loved it from the first moment he heard it.” So did Red McKenzie, who recorded it for Decca at the beginning of April, along with Berigan and several others from the Famous Door band, playing things straight. By the time Bunny came to record the song for Vocalion, he and Eddie Condon (who was ill and missed the session) had shaped a feature routine involving a series of trumpet cadenzas modulating from C to Db, for a maestoso final chorus. Though Shaw and Crawford solo briefly, this is Berigan’s big moment, his light-textured singing voice rather more assured than on At Your Command.

But it’s the trumpet that commands attention here: confidently, tone ringing, he explores his instrument’s full range, dropping to its lowest notes before reclaiming the high range for a grand climax. There’s a carefree, almost heedless, quality to this perfor­mance that easily trumps Bunny’s later, more grandiose, record with his own big band. In every way it’s romantic, rhapsodic, emotion­ally expansive.

Helen Oakley
Down Beat 1935

“Bunny Berigan was a revelation to me. The man is a master. He plays so well I doubt if I ever heard a more forceful trumpet…Bunny is, I believe, the only trumpeter comparable to Louis Armstrong.”

Even in a magazine much given to music business superla-tives, her report on Benny Goodman’s 26-year-old jazz trumpet soloist stood out. Canadian-born and European-educated, Oakley had begun writing for Down Beat that June, and already impressed readers with her jazz knowledge and insight. As co-founder of the Chicago Rhythm Club, she’d heard, present-ed, and recorded some of the city’s top hot music talent in concerts and public jam sessions.

“Never having heard [Berigan] in person before, even though well acquainted with his work on recordings, I was unprepared for such a tremendous thrill,” Oakley wrote. She spoke for many: Berigan had been making records since the start of the decade. His solos, though often brief, were plentiful and easily recognized. But few had allowed him the expressive latitude he found – and Oakley heard – as jazz trumpet soloist in Goodman’s enthusiastic new band…

There seems no doubt that his playing was at its best, a thrilling blend of imagination, drama, and virtuosity, in the years covered by this collection. “If you met him,” an admiring Joe Bushkin has said, “and didn’t have any idea he was a musician, you’d still know he was an intensely talented, gifted guy. There was something about him – a kind of radiance.”

Best Jazz Albums:

Bunny Berigan

The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Sessions (7 CDs)

(Set is out-of-print)