Bunny Berigan

Superb early jazz trumpeter, who took improvisational ideas from Satch and Bix. He died young. Bunny Berigan had a brief time of fame. He was a rising star in the music industry for the first half of the eight years, while the second half saw him as a prominent figure in the band he played in, and then he led his own group. From 1935 to 1939, he was considered the best jazz trumpeter (with Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge being his main competitors). Despite his short life and the fact that he was only a few years old, Berigan is still regarded as one of the most captivating trumpet players in jazz history. His work was still being collected in high-end box sets, six decades after his passing. It all comes down to the quality of his work. Blessed with a beautiful tone, a wide range (Berigan’s low notes can be just as memorable as his high-register shouts), Berigan added excitement to every session that he performed on. Although he was not afraid of taking risks during solos, he could also be reckless. However, Berigan’s success stories and failures were always interesting to hear. Roland Bernard Berigan was born in Hilbert in WI in 1908. He was a natural musician when he was a child. At the age of 12, he began playing the trumpet in a youth group that his grandfather had organized. He tried out different bands, college orchestras and auditioned for Hal Kemp in 1928 at 19 years old. His tone was so thin that he was not accepted. However, by 1930, he was in Kemp’s band on their European tour and was able to record the first solos of his career. After his return to America that fall, Berigan joined Fred Rich’s CBS studio band. This was one of the most popular “house bands” in radio’s burgeoning field, with such stars as Artie Shaw. When he wasn’t playing under CBS’s auspices, Berigan was performing freelance sessions for many artists in various New York City studios, as well as playing the pit orchestras at Broadway. Richard M. Sudhalter cites one such engagement as Berigan performing alongside Jack Teagarden and the Dorsey brothers in Everybody’s Welcome. This musical is a small footnote in the history and culture of the Great White Way. It was the stage performance that introduced “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, which was later rescued by Warner Bros., and revived in Casablanca. He was a prolific performer, gaining a reputation as a musician, and finding time to marry and have his two daughters. Berigan also accompanied many pop singers and vocalists, and distinguished many of the records that resulted with his solos. Fred Rich was a member of Fred Rich’s orchestra from 1935 to 1934, with the exception of a brief stint with Abe Lyman and a brief hiatus in 1932 and 1933, when he sat in with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. Berigan quickly gained a reputation for being a hot jazz soloist. He appeared on many records with the Boswell Sisters and the Dorsey brothers. It didn’t matter what songs were covered or who the frontmen were, Berigan was a hot jazz soloist. Producers and bandleaders recognized this and booked him accordingly. He made his first film appearance in 1934 with Fred Rich in Mirrors. He was still working as a session musician with contract frontmen like Red McKenzie, the comb player/vocalist (with whom Berigan later played at The Famous Door), and contract singers such as Chick Bullock. But his most prominent role in 1935 came during the few months that he spent with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. It was enough to kickstart the swing era. Berigan performed classic solos on Goodman’s two first hit records (“King Porter Stomp”) and “Sometimes I’m Happy”), and was also with B.G. As the former embarked on his 1935 West tour, which culminated in a near riot at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom. Glenn Miller was his first year as a leader, and he was also there. Berigan quickly returned to the lucrative studio scene. This included more work with McKenzie and sessions with Billie Holiday, both under John Hammond’s auspices in 1936. He joined Tommy Dorsey’s group the following year and was again responsible for two of his biggest hits, “Marie” (Song of India). They were two of Dorsey’s most loved records. They featured remarkable ensemble work even for the highly polished and virtuoso Dorsey bands (vocally and instrumentally in “Marie”), but Berigan’s solos on these tunes are what everyone remembers. These songs were so well-known that Dorsey wrote them out and had them orchestrated for his full trumpet section in the future. Bunny Berigan formed his own orchestra after leaving Dorsey. His biggest hit, “I Can’t Get Started,” was his first success. It has been reissued many times on CD and record. The band was strong with Georgie Auld as tenor and Buddy Rich as drums. He was an alcoholic, a reluctant businessman and already a alcoholic. The headaches of managing a band, even one that had the benefit of Joe Bushkin, Ray Conniff and Hank Wayland’s presence, drove Berigan deeper into the pit of addiction. Not even regular TV appearances on CBS’ Saturday Night Swing Club could have ensured the group’s success. The surviving photos show the extent of his illness. In his late twenties, at the end of 1930s, he looks like a man twice his age. One is almost thankful that Hollywood didn’t make a biopic of him like they did with Bix Beiderbecke. However, one can see Sean Penn trying to play the role if they get the music right. Brunswick, Parlophone, and Vocalion Bunny Berigan Session By 1939 there were many missed opportunities, and Berigan, who was bankrupt, was forced to disband his band the next year. For a short time, he reconnected with Tommy Dorsey but he never stopped drinking and wasn’t happy being a sideman. These external events were indicators of deeper, more serious conditions on the inside. It didn’t take long for them to manifest. Berigan started a new orchestra but his health declined. Despite the warnings from doctors, he didn’t slow down in his work or quit drinking despite being warned by them. On May 30, 1942, Berigan fell ill and died on June 2. He was only 33 years old. It was just as the swing era was beginning to end, that he died. This raises the inevitable question: What would the brilliant swing trumpeter have done during the bop era. His work has been reissued many times and is well-known among jazz and big band aficionados, as well as those who are interested in pop music from that era. In 2004, Mosaic Records released a seven-CD set, The Complete Brunswick, Parlophone, and Vocalion Bunny Bernigan Sessions. It contained over 150 recordings by Berigan between 1931-1935. It is a testament to the quality of his work, and the respect Berigan has earned 60 years later, that the set received rave reviews from jazz critics, who are often unable to take the time to review the pop sides of their heroes. Allmusic

Leave a Comment