Bunny Berigan was arguably the top jazz trumpeter of the 1930s (not counting Louis Armstrong), with his main competition being Henry “Red” Allen, Roy Eldridge, and (later in the decade) Harry James. He had a beautiful tone in all registers, was never shy about taking death-defying chances in his solos, and had the technique to usually pull off all of his adventurous ideas. A dramatic player, Berigan was also a lovable alcoholic whose life and career were cut short just a little more than 12 years after he began recording.
Rowland Bernart “Bunny” Berigan was born November 2, 1908, in Hilbert, Wisconsin. He took violin lessons for a brief period as a child but soon switched permanently to trumpet. Berigan started his career playing with local bands as a teenager including the University of Wisconsin’s jazz ensemble although he never actually went to college.
In 1928, the 19-year old tried out for the Hal Kemp Orchestra but failed the audition because it was felt that his tone was too weak. Berigan took the hint, woodshedded a great deal for the next year (often playing along to Louis Armstrong records), learned to “tell a story” in his solos, and in late 1929 was hired by Kemp for his popular dance band.
Berigan spent a year with Kemp, touring Europe including England and appearing on his first recordings. While his solos are generally brief with Kemp’s band (an ensemble most notable for including pianist John Scott Trotter, future arranger Paul Weston on tuba, and drummer-singer Skinnay Ennis), one can already hear his potential.
In the Studio
After the Kemp Orchestra returned to the U.S. from Europe, Berigan became a very busy studio musician. His tone and sight-reading abilities were considered major assets in addition to his talent at constructing concise but memorable jazz solos. The Depression may have been raging, but Berigan was able to maintain a relatively lucrative lifestyle. Before leaving Kemp, he had already made some sessions next to trombonist Tommy and clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey in Fred Rich’s orchestra. 1931 would be a breakthrough year for Berigan in the studios, recording with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, the Boswell Sisters, and the three most prolific commercial dance bandleaders: Sam Lanin, Ben Selvin, and Fred Rich. He also appeared for the first time with Benny Goodman, helping uplift a little-known four-song session led by the clarinetist that featured singer Smith Ballew. Berigan recorded his first vocal, “At Your Command,” with Rich and although never much of a singer, in Eddie Condon’s famous phrase, “he never hurt anyone.”
1932 found Bunny Berigan recording further sides with the Boswell Sisters (including some heated playing on “Put That Sun Back In The Sky” and a classic solo on “Everybody Loves My Baby”), Connie Boswell, Chick Bullock, Victor Young, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra (“Someone Stole Gabriel’s Horn” was a highlight), and a variety of anonymous radio and recording orchestras as a member on the staff of CBS radio.
With The Paul Whiteman Orchestra
Surprisingly, Berigan temporarily left the studios to become a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in November 1932. Maybe he thought of Bix Beiderbecke’s period with Whiteman and the possible prestige that the association would bring to him. However Whiteman underutilized Berigan (who only had the chance to take a handful of solos and appear on a few sessions with pianist-singer Ramona) and largely blew the opportunity to feature the hot trumpeter. Berigan still freelanced on some jazz dates during this period with a Bing Crosby session that included “My Honey’s Loving Arms” giving the trumpeter the chance to interact with his two future employees Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. He was also on sessions by Connie Boswell, Gene Kardos, the Dorsey Brothers, his former bandleader Hal Kemp, Art Kahn, Victor Young, Mildred Bailey, Freddy Martin, Chick Bullock, Adrian Rollini, and, for the first time, Lee Wiley. Berigan was also listed as the leader on six sessions that resulted in 17 titles. However his name rather than his musical talents was used on those dates and he was probably not even present.
By 1934, Bunny Berigan was widely respected by his fellow musicians but was unknown to the general public. Since the Whiteman connection was leading nowhere, he left the orchestra and resumed the life of a full-time studio musician. He is well featured on sessions headed by Chick Bullock, Frankie Trumbauer, and the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, also participating on dates with the Boswell Sisters, Connie Boswell, Adrian Rollini, and Ethel Waters, That year Berigan made the first of his two film appearances, taking a solo on “China Boy” (as does clarinetist Jimmy Dorsey) with Fred Rich’s orchestra in the short Mirrors. And in December, Berigan began appearing on some of the radio broadcasts by the new Benny Goodman Orchestra.
With Benny Goodman
1935 found Berigan starring on sessions with the Red Norvo Swing Octet (which included Chu Berry, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa), Red McKenzie and the Mound City Blue Blowers, and an early Glenn Miller date. In June, Benny Goodman persuaded the trumpeter not only to record with his up-and-coming big band but to leave the studios and go on the road with his struggling band. Berigan, who had probably tired of all of the commercial work, was with Goodman for three months and made musical history. Berigan solos on several of Goodman’s Victor recordings (including “Blue Skies,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Madhouse”) while his choruses on “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” made those records into the clarinetist’s first two hits. Berigan traveled cross country with Goodman, climaxing in the dramatic engagement at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom which was so successful that it launched the swing era.
Back in the Studio
By then, Berigan realized that he made much more money in the studios than he would as Goodman’s sideman even with the band becoming a sensation, so he returned to New York. Since swing and jazz were now much more popular than they had been a year or two earlier, and Berigan had gained his first fame with Goodman, he appeared much more frequently in jazz settings including on the weekly Saturday Night Swing Club radio series for CBS.
Among his best recordings during this period were a memorable set with Bud Freeman’s Windy City Five, a Mildred Bailey date in which he sat next to Johnny Hodges, two sessions with Billie Holiday (including “Summertime” and “A Fine Romance”) and outings with Dick Robertson, the Mound City Blue Blowers, Chick Bullock, Bob Howard, Dick McDonough, and Frank Froeba. Especially meaningful to Bunny was getting to play in Louis Armstrong’s backup band on February 4, resulting in “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” and “Yes! Yes! My! My!” Berigan is only heard briefly but he was delighted to play in the ensembles. A few years later when asked what he brought with him on the road, he replied “A toothbrush and a picture of Louis Armstrong.”
Becomes a Leader
Bunny Berigan led his first real sessions during 1935-36, five combo dates that matched his trumpet with such sidemen as tenors Eddie Miller and Bud Freeman, pianists Cliff Jackson and Joe Bushkin, and clarinetist Artie Shaw. He also appeared on film for the second and last time, playing and singing “Until Today” with Fred Rich. And in 1936 he recorded “I Can’t Get Started” twice; as a sideman on a routine version by Red McKenzie and in a version ten days later (Apr. 13, 1936) in which he takes the vocal and plays a trumpet solo similar to the immortal one from a year later.
Still just 28 as 1937 began, Berigan began to think about leading his own big band. But first he was hired by Tommy Dorsey to make guest appearances with his orchestra on the radio and to play on some of his records. During the six week period, Berigan’s solos on “Marie” and “Song Of India” made those records into giant sellers for Dorsey. His trumpet chorus on “Marie” would soon be harmonized and played nightly by Dorsey’s trumpet section.
After leaving the trombonist, Berigan reunited with Dorsey on March 31 to record memorable versions of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Blues” in a quintet also featuring Fats Waller. The very next day, the Bunny Berigan Big Band debuted on record, having signed with Victor. It seemed logical that Berigan, having helped both Goodman and Dorsey to become hugely successful, would lead his own orchestra. On August 7, 1937, he had a big hit of his own in his third version of “I Can’t Get Started.” That classic performance features him playing the melody, taking a vocal, and climaxing the piece with a dramatic solo that is quite memorable. The Berigan Orchestra, which also featured tenor-saxophonist Georgie Auld, singer Gail Reese (later succeeded by Kathleen Lane) and, by September 1938, the phenomenal drummer Buddy Rich, was off to a strong start.
But it took more than just musical talent to lead a successful jazz orchestra during the swing era. Berigan, who had been drinking excessively since the early 1930s, wanted to be one of the boys rather than a taskmaster or disciplinarian. While his sidemen rarely took advantage of him, there would be many lost opportunities during the next two and a half years. Because it did not develop its own unique musical personality beyond Berigan’s playing, his band was considered a second-rate orchestra. His band was used as a dumping ground at recording sessions to record inferior material, fulfilling obligations for the label. There were no hits after “I Can’t Get Started,” the orchestra (which was never filmed) went on an endless schedule of grueling one-nighters, and Berigan, who was never a strong businessman, kept on drinking. In addition, the married trumpeter’s longtime stormy affair with singer Lee Wiley did not help either his band’s chances or his health.
While there some worthy recordings (including “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Sobbin’ Blues” and two sessions resulting in the recording of five Bix Beiderbecke songs), few bands could overcome having to play such songs as “An Old Straw Hat,” “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less,” “Moonshine Over Kentucky,” “’Round the Old Deserted Farm,” “When A Prince Of A Fella Meets A Cinderella,” and “Button Button.” Auld and Rich left Berigan in 1939 to join the much more successful Artie Shaw band. Berigan’s group, which only had two record dates that year, struggled and endured some memorable mishaps. A prestigious gig at the Ritz Carlton Hotel ended when the roof was blown off during a hurricane. On another occasion Berigan and his musicians showed up for a Sunday night date in Bristol, Connecticut but found Gene Krupa’s band onstage; they had actually been booked in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In early 1940 a despondent Berigan was forced to declare bankruptcy and break up his orchestra.
Berigan’s health was starting to decline and his playing, which could still be brilliant, was becoming unreliable. To save money, he rejoined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which was thriving. While Berigan had a few solos with Dorsey (including “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and “East Of The Sun”) there was no repeat of his “Marie” success. Once on the radio Berigan fell off the bandstand right when it was time for him to solo. After six unhappy months with Dorsey, he was fired.
In late 1940, Bunny Berigan formed a new young big band. While none of the musicians other than drummer Jack Sperling would become names, they were all very loyal to Berigan and willing to undergo some travel and financial hardships to stick with the leader. There were two recording sessions for small labels in September 1941 and January 1942 and while, mostly dominated by vocals, Berigan sounds fine in his playing, showing that he could still rise to the occasion. More difficult for him was ghosting the trumpet solos in the film Syncopation; Manny Klein had to fill in some of the time due to Berigan’s declining health.
Stricken with cirrhosis of the liver and unable to stop drinking, Bunny Berigan was hospitalized with pneumonia on April 20, 1942. His doctors told him to stop drinking and take a vacation from playing trumpet. Unwilling to abandon his band, he ignored the advice, went back on the road for a few weeks, suffered a massive hemorrhage, and passed away on June 2, 1942. He was just 33.
Two definitive biographies, Bunny Berigan – Elusive Legend Of Jazz, by Robert Dupuis (Louisiana State University Press, 1993) and Mr. Trumpet, by Michael P. Zirpolo (Scarecrow Press, 2011) are highly recommended to those wanting to know more about the great trumpeter’s story. Fortunately most of his recordings are readily available with a search, so Bunny Berigan has little chance of being forgotten despite his short life. He certainly made a strong impression in the little time that he had.
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