Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bunny Berigan: Boy With A Horn

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“As always, there is Berigan’s incomparable – and irrepressible – swing. … Berigan’s sense of swing was an innate talent, a given talent, a feeling beyond study and calculation, one that Berigan heard in the playing of both Beiderbecke and Armstrong, but which he synthesized into his own personal rhythmic idiom.”

“Berigan’s other great asset was the extraordinary beauty of his tone. Though technically based on perfect breath support, the purity—and amplitude—of his tone was controlled at the moment of emission by his inner ear, as with any great artist renowned for his tone. Berigan could project in his mind and ear a certain sound, and then the physical muscles (embouchure, breathing, fingers) would, in coordination, produce the desired result.”
- Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era

“If you could have seen him out on that stage in a white suit, with that shiny gold trumpet, blond hair and gray penetrating eyes – well, if it didn’t knock you over when he started to play, ain’t nothin’ gonna knock you down.”
- Joe Bushkin, Jazz pianist

For the first half century or so of its existence, trumpet players were the Rock guitarists of Jazz.

It seemed that every aspiring young musician wanted to play a shiny, brass trumpet much like today’s youngsters want an electric guitar hanging from their hip.

Of course, it was all Louis Armstrong’s fault.  Pops started the craze in the mid-1920s when as a member of King Oliver’s Band [another trumpeter] he stood up to take his memorable solos at Lincoln Gardens in downtown Chicago.

Pops was the first Jazz soloist and he took them on a gleaming, glittery and glossy horn that formed the center of attraction for many Jazz groups, big and small, that span Jazz styles as diverse as Dixieland, Swing, Bop, Modern, Free and Fusion.

The list is endless: Jimmy McPartland, Red Nichols, Henry “Red” Allen, Harry James, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Ray Nance, Buck Clayton, Harry James, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee, Harry “Sweets” Edison and Miles Davis, all continued “the boy with a horn” tradition that Pops started with his clarion calls to Jazz.

There seems to be something ill-fated with Jazz trumpet players whose first or last  name begins or ends with the letter “B.” Bix Beiderbecke, Booker Little, Sonny Berman, Clifford Brown, Bunny Berigan – none made it to thirty years of age. Heck, Berigan just barely made it beyond as he died in 1942 at the age of thirty-three. In some respects, these marvelous trumpet players scarcely made it out of boyhood making the phrase – “Boy with a Horn – an apt one, indeed.

I didn’t know much about Bunny Berigan other than that his version of I Can’t Get Started was immensely popular and became a kind of “acid test” for trumpeters after it was recorded in 1936 in much the same way that Pops’ West End Blues had dazzled them about ten years earlier.

So I turned, as I so often do when I’m looking for information about The Swing Era, to George T. Simon’s The Big Bands, Gunther Schuller’s The Swing Era and Richard Sudhalter, Lost Chords, White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915-1945.

© -George T. Simon, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"I Can’t Get Started was Bunny Berigan's theme song. It was also a pretty apt description of his career as a bandleader.

Bunny could have and should have succeeded handsomely in front of his own band. He was a dynamic trumpeter who had already established himself publicly with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey via brilliant trumpet choruses that many of the swing fans must have known by heart — like those for Benny on "King Porter Stomp," "Jingle Bells" and "Blue Skies" and for Tommy on "Marie" and "Song of India." So great were Berigan's fame and popularity that he won the 1936 Metronome poll for jazz trumpeters with five times as many votes as his nearest competitor!

It wasn't just the fans who appreciated him, either. His fellow musicians did too. One of them — I think it was either Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey —  once told me that few people realized how great a trumpeter Bunny was, because when he played his high notes he made them sound so full that hardly anyone realized how high he actually was blowing! Red McKenzie, referring to the notes that Bunny did and didn't make, once said, ‘If that man wasn't such a gambler, everybody would say he was the greatest that ever blew. But the man's got such nerve and likes his horn so much that he'll go ahead and try stuff that nobody else'd ever think of trying.’

All of these men, Miller, Dorsey, McKenzie, plus many others, including Hal Kemp, featured Bunny on their recordings. How come Kemp? Because his was the first big name band Bunny ever played with. Hal had heard him when he was traveling through Wisconsin in 1928, was attracted by his style, but, according to his arranger-pianist, John Scott Trotter, ‘didn't hire him because Bunny had the tinniest, most awful, ear-splitting tone you ever heard.’ Berigan broadened his sound considerably (it eventually became one of the "fattest" of all jazz trumpet tones), came to New York, joined Frank Cornwall's band, was rediscovered by Kemp (‘Bunny had discovered Louis Armstrong by then,’ Trotter points out), joined the band, then went off into the radio and recording studios (he cut some great sides with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra) and was at CBS doing numerous shows, including one of his own, which featured Bunny's Blue Boys, when Goodman talked him into joining his band. He stayed six months, returned to the studios and then joined Dorsey (or a few weeks—long enough to make several brilliant records.

Even while he was with Tommy's band, Bunny began organizing his own, with a great deal of help from Dorsey and his associates. First he assembled an eleven-piece outfit, which recorded several sides for Brunswick and which really wasn't very good, and then in the spring of 1937 he debuted with a larger group at the Pennsylvania Roof in New York.

The band showed a great deal of promise, and it continued to show a great deal of promise for the close to three years of its existence. It never fulfilled that promise, and the reason was pretty obvious: Bunny Berigan was just not cut out to be a bandleader.

As a sideman, as a featured trumpeter, as a friend, as a drinking companion, be was terrific. The guys in his band loved him, and for good reason. He was kind and considerate. Unlike Goodman, Dorsey and Miller, he was not a disciplinarian—neither toward his men nor, unfortunately, toward himself. Playing for Bunny Berigan was fun. And it was exciting too — like the night a hurricane blew the roof off Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where the band had just begun to establish itself, or the time it showed up for a Sunday-night date in Bristol, Connecticut, only to find Gene Krupa's band already on the stand (Berigan had gotten his towns slightly mixed—he was supposed to have been in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that night.)

The band projected its share of musical kicks too. On that opening Penn­sylvania Roof engagement, it unveiled a new tenor sax find from Toronto, Georgie Auld, who perhaps didn't blend too well with the other saxes but who delivered an exciting, booting solo style. It had a good arranger and pianist in Joe Lipman and several other impressive soloists, including a girl singer, Ruth Bradley, who was also a clarinet player.

Berigan was good at discovering musicians. Ray Conniff started with him, and so did two brilliant New York lads, a swinging pianist named Joe Bushkin and a rehabilitated tap-dancer-turned-drummer named Buddy Rich.

The band recorded a batch of sides for Victor; some were good, some were pretty awful. Naturally his "I Can't Get Started" was his most important. (He had recorded the number earlier with a pickup band for Vocalion, and to many musicians this was a more inspired version.) Also impressive were "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Frankie and Johnny," "The Prisoner's Song," "Russian Lullaby," several Bix Beiderbecke numbers and a few pop tunes, especially if Kitty Lane happened to be the singer. He featured other girl singers, such as Ruth Gaylor, Gail Reese and Jayne Dover, and sang occa­sionally himself, but not very well.

As Berigan's self-discipline grew even more lax, his band became less successful. By late 1939 it was obvious that as a leader, Bunny was not going anywhere. Early in 1940 he gave up.

Almost immediately his friend Tommy Dorsey offered him a job. Bunny accepted and sparked the Dorsey band to brilliant heights, blowing great solos and infusing new life into a band that had begun to falter. (For a sample of how Bunny was playing then, try Tommy's record of "I'm Nobody's Baby.")

Bunny's stay lasted only six months, however. There was marked disagree­ment about why he suddenly left the band on August 20, 1940, after a radio broadcast at the NBC studios. Dorsey said, "I just couldn't bring him around, so I had to let him go. I hated to do it." Berigan, on the other hand, complained about not "enough chance to play. Most of the time I was just sitting there waiting for choruses, or else I was just a stooge, leading the band, while Tommy sat at somebody else's table."

So he reorganized and for a while the new band, composed entirely of unknown musicians, showed promise, according to writer Amy Lee, who reviewed a May, 1941, air shot from Palisades Park in New Jersey: "That fifteen minutes was enough to tell the listener that Bunny is playing more magnificently than ever, that he has a band with a beat which fairly lifts dancers or listeners right off their seat or feet ... his range, his conception, his lip, and his soul are without compare, and to hear him again is the kick of all listening kicks."

But again Bunny couldn't get started quite enough to last. The combination of too many one-nighters and unhealthy living began to catch up with him again. The last time I heard the band was in a Connecticut ballroom during the summer of 1941, and for one who admired Bunny's playing so tremen­dously and who liked him so much personally, it was quite a shattering experience. I reported in Metronome:

"The band was nothing. And compared with Berigan standards, Bunny's blowing was just pitiful. He sounded like a man trying to imi­tate himself, a man with none of the inspiration and none of the technique of the real Berigan.

He looked awful, too. He must have lost at least thirty pounds. His clothes were loose-fitting; even his collar looked as if it were a couple of sizes too large for him.

Apparently, though, he was in good spirits. He joked with friends and talked about the great future he thought his band had. But you had a feeling it would never be. And when, after intermission, Bunny left the bandstand, not to return for a long time, and some trumpeter you'd never heard of before came down to front the band, play Bunny's parts, and spark the outfit more than its leader had, you realized this was enough, and you left the place at once, feeling simply awful."

Shortly thereafter he gave up the band,  and Peewee Erwin, who had replaced him in both Goodman's and Dorsey's outfit, took it over. Berigan declared bankruptcy. He was obviously quite ill, but he carried on doggedly, fronting yet another band. He broke down several times. He was hospitalized in Pennsylvania with a severe case of pneumonia. More than anything and almost anyone else, Bunny needed a rest and help. But probably out of sheer loyalty to his men, and faced with the responsibilities of supporting a wife and two young children, he refused to give up.

On June 1, 1942, he was scheduled to play a job at Manhattan Center in New York. The band showed up. Bunny didn't. He was seriously ill in Polyclinic Hospital with cirrhosis of the liver. Benny Goodman, playing at the Paramount Theater, brought over his sextet and filled in as a gesture of friendship toward his first star trumpeter.

On June 2, 1942, Bunny Berigan died, a financially and physically broken man. like another wonderful trumpeter with the same initials, Bix Beiderbecke, whose horn had also been stilled a decade earlier by too much booze, Bunny lived much too short a life. He was only thirty-three when he died. And yet during that brief span, he grew to be a giant on the jazz scene — per­haps not as a big bandleader but certainly as one of the best-liked musician-leaders of his day and one of the most inspiring jazz soloists of all time.”

Gunther Schuller offers this view of Bunny, his music and his significance in the Jazz World.

© -Gunther Schuller, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Jazz loves its legends, especially its alcoholic martyrs. To qualify for such can­onization you had to die early, preferably from too much drinking; and it is best that you were white — and played the trumpet. The two BB's—Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan—were ideal candidates, and they are idolized and romanti­cized to this day, while Jabbo Smith, Frankie Newton, Tommy Ladnier, and John Nesbitt, who either died prematurely or were forced into early retirement, are allowed to languish in quiet oblivion.

On the other hand it doesn't pay to live a long and active healthy life: that will get you very few points in the legend business. Berigan was unquestionably one of the trumpet giants of the thirties. But as one reads much of the jazz literature, especially in its more anecdotal manifestations, one could easily gain the impression that, after Armstrong, there was only Berigan, and that such pre-Gillespie trumpeters as Roy Eldridge, Henry "Red" Allen, Rex Stewart, Cootie Williams, Buck Clayton, Harry Edison, Harry James, Charlie Spivak, Ziggy Elman, Sy Oliver, "Hot Lips" Page, Taft Jordan, Eddie Tomkins, Bobby Hackett, Charlie Teagarden, Mannie Klein, and a host of others simply never existed or were inconsequential peripheral figures.

Such biased writing takes much encouragement from Armstrong's oft-quoted response to a question about his successors: "The best of them? That's easy, It was Bunny." (That must have made Roy Eldridge happy!) Whatever Armstrong's reasons for making that comment might have been—if indeed it is authentic and not taken out of context—the fact is that Berigan, as good as he was, was by no means as unique as his most ardent admirers would have us believe.

That he was a superbly talented and in his early years a technically assured trumpet player is beyond argument; but so were all the above-listed trumpet players, some even more consistent or technically spectacular than Berigan. That he was a superior musician with superb musical instincts and a relentlessly creative mind is also unarguable; but so were Eldridge, Allen, Stewart, and Cootie. That he was always a moving lyric player is equally true; but so were a number of others, particularly Cootie and Ladnier, Clayton and Hackett.

And while a lyric, singing approach to the trumpet was Berigan's forte, players like Stewart, Newton, and Eldridge could create eloquent lyric statements, as required, in addition to other kinds of personal expressions. That Berigan used the full range of the trumpet, exploiting especially the low register, is undisputable; but so did Eldridge and Jabbo Smith, and they indeed expanded the top range much more vigorously. That Berigan took chances in his flights of imagination is also undeniable; but it would be impossible to deny that Eldridge did, and that, in fact, he did so within a more venturesome and complex style, and — it must be said — with greater technical consistency.

Berigan's idolization by certain authors has even led to the deification of his mistakes. A fluff by Berigan is cherished in those circles as some glorious creative moment, which no one else could have dared to imagine. The fact is that, from a brass-playing point of view, many of Berigan's missed notes—discounting the final years when his deteriorating health really affected his coordination—occur not in his technically most daring passages but in relatively ordinary ones. Some of his more spectacular trumpet feats are the result of his most daring concep­tions, whereas the more conservative musical ideas are often those which are technically blemished.

All of this is not to denigrate Berigan's talent and achievements but merely to put them in perspective and to demythologize somewhat his position in jazz history. He does occupy an important role in the jazz trumpet's development in that he, more than anyone else, fused elements of both Armstrong and Beiderbecke into a new, distinctive, personal voice.

By all accounts Berigan, like Eldridge, seems to have discovered Armstrong relatively late; and when he did, it was primarily the Armstrong already em­barked on a career as a lyric balladeer and bravura soloist. But it would be wrong to assume that Berigan was, even in the early stages of his career, a mere Armstrong imitator … Berigan not only had his own sound and melodic identity but also had the ability to create fluent, well-structured explorative solos….

“Hallmarks of Berigan mature style are remarkable fluency in the lowest range of the trumpet, an area that Armstrong had begun to explore, but which Roy Eldridge and Berigan were to make an integral and consistent part of the trumpet’s technical/expressive vocabulary,  Berigan’s inventiveness of imagination in his ability to adroitly combine the expected with the unexpected and a glorious rich golden singing tone.” [paraphrase]…

One of the many musicians who was strongly impressed by Berigan's talent was Benny Goodman. Benny and Bunny had often worked together in the stu­dios in the early thirties in pickup bands (sometimes led by Goodman) and, as mentioned, on the Let's Dance broadcast series. When Goodman took his band on its first transcontinental road trip in the summer of 1935, he hired Berigan as his leading soloist.

The recordings made by the Goodman band with Berigan are some of the best representations of both artists. Certainly Berigan's two solos on King Porter Stomp (recorded July 1, 1935) must count as among his very finest creative achievements. His performance here represents the mature Beri­gan in full opulent flowering.

Berigan's solo work on King Porter exemplifies his unerring sense of form, a virtually infallible clarity of statement. His two solos, one muted, the other open horn, are miniature compositions which many a writing-down composer would be envious of having created, even after days of work. This structural logic trans­mits itself even to the lay listener in the absolute authoritativeness of his playing.

The ingredients in both solos are really quite simple: great melodic beauty combined with logic and structural balance. Every note, every motivic cell, every phrase leads logically to the next with a Mozartean classic inevitability. And each phrase, whether heard in 2-bar or 8-bar segments, has its own balanced structur­ing and symmetry. Take, for example, the last eight bars of his first solo (Ex. 18). Starting on the syncopated high Cs, the phrase falls to its midpoint, rests there a moment (in bar 20) and then rises again to the final tonic note. And whereas the first four bars use syncopation as an element of surprise, of swing and of tension, the last four bars lie squarely on the beat, providing a wonderful sense of resolution not only to the phrase but to the whole solo….

…symmetrical balancing gives the solo a wonderful equilibrium, seemingly a natural gift with Berigan.

But this is not all. As always, there is Berigan’s incomparable – and irrepressible – swing. … Berigan’s sense of swing was an innate talent, a given talent, a feeling beyond study and calculation, one that Berigan heard in the playing of both Beiderbecke and Armstrong, but which he synthesized into his own personal rhythmic idiom.

Berigan’s other great asset was the extraordinary beauty of his tone. Though technically based on perfect breath support, the purity—and amplitude—of his tone was controlled at the moment of emission by his inner ear, as with any great artist renowned for his tone. Berigan could project in his mind and ear a certain sound, and then the physical muscles (embouchure, breathing, fingers) would, in coordination, produce the desired result.”

© -Richard Sudhalter, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“In the half-century since his death, Bunny Berigan still inspires ecstasy in those who knew him, worked with him, and admired him from afar. It's in the Joe Bushkin utterance that begins this chapter, rapt acknowledgment of a reality quite beyond the events of an ill-starred trumpeter's life.

"Bunny hit a note — and it had pulse," said clarinetist Joe Dixon, a member of Berigan's band in 1937-38. "You can talk about one thing and another — beautiful, clear, big tone, range, power — and sure, that's part of it. But only part of it."
He gropes for the one elusive, all-encapsulating thought. "It's hard to de­scribe, but his sound seemed to, well, soar. He'd play lead, and the whole band would soar with him, with or without the rhythm section. There was drama in what he did — he had that ability, like Louis [Armstrong], to make any tune his own. But in the end all that says nothing. You had to hear him, that's all."

You had to hear him. Hyperbole and magic, pressed into service yet again to explain the inexplicable.

But what is the reality of this trumpet player, dead, emptied of life-force, at age thirty-three? Is Bunny Berigan, as more than a few chroniclers would have us believe, merely a very good musician whose significance has been exaggerated by generations of votaries? Or is something else at work in the minds and mem­ories of those who heard him?

George "Pee Wee" Erwin, who followed Berigan into Tommy Dorsey's trum­pet section, insisted: "I don't think you could ever really appreciate [Bunny] unless you stood in front of that horn and heard it. I've never heard anyone who could match it. When he'd hit a note it would be like a cannon coming out of that horn. And I'm not speaking of sheer volume—I'm speaking of the body of the sound." …

Steve Lipkins, who played lead trumpet with Dorsey and with Berigan's own band, declared him "the first jazz player we'd heard at that time who really played the trumpet well, from bottom to top, evenly and strongly throughout. Besides that, he had something special in the magic department — and you had to hear that to understand it." [Emphasis, mine]

Many trumpeters had power, beauty, and density of tone. Manny (sometimes Mannie) Klein had near-perfect control in all registers, too; he could lip-trill the high notes just as adeptly as Berigan. Roy Eldridge was a more daring high-wire walker, leaping and swooping and racing around his horn like a clarinetist; Sonny Dunham, with the Casa Loma Orchestra, had a keen sense of drama; Harry James could whip audiences into a hysterical frenzy, and his Goodman band section-mate Ziggy Elman was a powerhouse in both solo and lead. Henry "Red" Allen was probably more creative, Rex Stewart more abandoned. Cootie Williams—in his open-horn moments, at least—equally majestic (hear his opening chorus to El­lington's 1934 "Troubled Waters").

But it's hard to imagine any of those men, however accomplished, inspiring talk of "something special in the magic department." Berigan, then, can't be understood as simply an amalgam of skills and attributes. There is another di­mension; even his less distinguished recorded work exudes a sense of something transcendental, unmatched by any other trumpet soloist of the 1930s.

The only comparison that comes to mind is the mighty, all-pervasive—and now increasingly mythic—figure of Louis Armstrong. And indeed, Armstrong was at pains to make clear that "my boy Bunny Berigan" was in a class by himself "Now there's a boy whom I've always admired for his tone, soul, technique, his sense of 'phrasing' and all. To me, Bunny can't do no wrong in music."

At the end of the 1920s, when Berigan arrived in New York, many white brassmen admired Louis Armstrong, but few attempted to emulate him. Jack Purvis had been the trailblazer with his recording of "Copyin' Louis," discussed in the previous chapter. Tommy Dorsey, who in those days doubled regularly on trumpet, brought to the horn an Armstrong-like intensity quite different from his trombone playing.

But most white trumpeters were under the spell of Bix Beiderbecke, whose introspective sensibility wedded romanticism with a classicist's sense of order and structure. Where Louis's solos were bold, emotionally dense statements, painted in bright primary colors, Bix's were more subdued, richly layered, nuanced.

That polarity created a dilemma for musicians who admired both men. Rex Stewart, one of Berigan's first friends in New York, confessed to being unable to make up his mind between Beiderbecke and Armstrong and embraced both in a most original manner. The solos of John Nesbitt, arranger and trumpeter with McKinney's Cotton Pickers, show the same sort of division.

But the duality found its most fully realized expression in Bunny Berigan….

In 1932, Bunny Berigan hit his stride….

Berigan was now one of the most polished and versatile trumpet men in the music business. His range was big, glowing, and secure all the way up to his high G. His control of high-note lip-trills was nonpareil. His flexibility was re­markable even by today's advanced standards of technique: he could vault from the lowest to the highest reaches of his horn with the same matter-of-factness displayed on his records with Kemp, but with ever greater confidence and polish, and no loss of tonal size or quality.

He used this technical equipment in shaping solos often stunning in their power to move a listener—something special, as Steve Lipkins put it, in the magic department; it is this quality, above all, that sets Berigan apart from even such supremely gifted contemporaries as Roy Eldridge.

Comparison of Eldridge and Berigan is instructive. Each exploits the dramatic potential of his instrument, but to somewhat different ends. From his first ap­pearance on record, the 1935 "(Lookie, Lookie, Lookie) Here Comes Cookie," with Teddy Hill's orchestra, Eldridge is clearly an unprecedented force in jazz trumpet playing. His ability to get around the horn is awe-inspiring, combining Stewart's flexibility and Jabbo Smith's daredevil acrobatics—but with greater ac­curacy and sense of purpose.

Nothing in any trumpeter's work up to that time remotely approaches the mile-a-minute stunt flying of "Heckler's Hop," "After You've Gone," or "Swing Is Here." But Eldridge (in common with Dizzy Gillespie, whom he directly in­spired) did not form his approach out of the examples of either Armstrong's stateliness or Beiderbecke's introspection. He admired Red Nichols—but largely, he added, for the latter's fluency and command of his horn. It was in saxophon­ists, notably Coleman Hawkins, that Roy Eldridge found his role model. Though capable of eloquent moments at slow tempos ("Where the Lazy River Goes By," "Falling in Love Again," and, with Billie Holiday, "I Wished on the Moon"), the closest he gets to the brooding majesty of Berigan's utterances on the 1935 "Nothin' but the Blues" (under Gene Gifford's name) is his two sombre, grieving choruses on Teddy Wilson's 1936 "Blues in C-sharp Minor."

But these two trumpeters are singers of quite different songs. Berigan was, in one colleague's admiring phrase, "the ultimate romantic." His every solo flight, so expansive in the Armstrong manner, so reminiscent of the great tenors of Italian grand opera, also includes (and here he differs sharply from Eldridge) something of the sentimental. Never dominant, seldom even rising to the surface (quite unlike the saccharine excesses of Harry James, Ziggy Elman, or, at times, Charlie Shavers), it's nonetheless an ingredient.

Eldridge's sharply honed competitiveness seems quite at odds with Berigan's more bardic tendencies. Unlike Roy, Bunny seems never to think in terms of effect, display or spectacle. In all his recorded work it's hard to find a solo, even a single phrase, that seems calculated to impress. Berigan doesn't compete: he prefers to follow his instincts as a teller of stories.

If, as in his astonishing break toward the end of "That Foolish Feeling," he leaps from his horn's next-to-lowest note, a concert F below middle C, two and one-half octaves to a concert C above, he's not doing it to show that he can do it, or to intimidate potential challengers; he's doing it solely because his sense of phrase, balance, and dramatic narrative tells him that's where he must go.

Relevant here, if unlikely, is an observation by Edgar Allan Poe. Setting out guidelines for the successful short story, he declares, "In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the pre-established design."

Granted, most jazz improvisers work to far more generalized, less "pre-established" designs than do writers; but the jazz­man's art as a (short) storyteller conforms no less strictly to Poe's stated criterion. Each part serves the whole; each phrase moves the story forward, furthers the grand design. This is obvious in the work of Lester Young, of Bix Beiderbecke, of Pee Wee Russell—master storytellers all. And it is richly, gloriously true of Bunny Berigan….

[The April 13, 1936]… version of "I Can't Get Started" is the first of two performances recorded by Berigan sixteen months apart; many listeners prefer it to the latter, rather grander Victor version. It's quite unself-conscious, relaxed, almost carefree: let's just play the damn thing, Bunny seems to say here—if we get it, fine. If we miss, what the hell.

They don't miss. After a thoughtful opening tutti, Berigan sings a chorus in his high, light voice, his fast vibrato lending a sense of vulnerability. Crawford's tenor takes eight bars in a subdued ballad mood, and then it's all Bunny, playing at a bravura peak. Moving easily throughout the entire range of his horn, he climbs at the outset to a titanic high concert D-flat, and E-flat, only to plunge near the end to four broad-toned, sotto voce bars before a final climactic ascent.

There's no minimizing the importance of this three-minute tour de force. It's the apotheosis of Bunny Berigan's art as a soloist in the grand tradition established by Armstrong and illustrates graphically why Louis, while praising Eldridge for his "chops" and others for their various "ingredients," as he was fond of calling them, singled out Berigan as the one who "can't do no wrong in music." He knew what he was hearing.”

This video tribute to Bunny features the famous 1936 original version of I Can’t Get Started, a fitting and sad epithet for his all-too-brief Jazz career.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful, highly literate and considered, tribute: many thanks!


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