Full name, Bernard Roland Berigan; born November 2, 1908, in Hilbert, Wis.; died of complications resulting from chronic alcoholism, June 2, 1942; son of William (a candy and tobacco route salesman) and Mary "Mayme" (a musician and housewife; maiden name, Schlitzberg) Berigan; married Donna McArthur (a dancer and housewife), May 25, 1931; children: Patricia (born July 23, 1932), Joyce (born April 22, 1936). Education: Attended public schools (to approximately 10th grade) in Fox Lake and Madison, Wis.

Bunny Berigan was the trumpet phenomenon as he blazed his way across New York's Depression-wracked 1936 music scene. He was the inspiration for three of CBS Radio's popular small groups; the nucleus of innumerable jazz record sessions; the heart and soul of the combo that captivated patrons at the Famous Door and other 52nd Street (Swing Street) night spots. Often playing his trumpet for seventy hours a week, Berigan literally rushed from studio to studio, fawned upon by listeners, coveted by producers, respected by musicians, and revered by fellow-trumpeters. Sturdily built and matinee-idol handsome, Berigan had the unique combination of skills that made him welcome at virtually any musical session, from a Victor Young-led classical program to the most challenging of the "cutting sessions" that attracted jazz players. Those who heard and played with Berigan are virtually unanimous in listing the qualities that endeared him to musicians and listeners alike: a gorgeous, full tone throughout the range of the horn; fluent technique; a compositional approach that flows naturally while making each phrase a logical part of a whole; a sense of time and drama; and a gut-level communication of searing emotion.

Illustrative of the assessment of Berigan's peers, Jack Teagarden, the legendary trombonist, told this story: "I thought Bunny was one of the finest trumpet players in the world. And I'll tell you another wonderful compliment, and it really means a lot because it comes from a guy who does a little bit of braggin'--let's say he's his own best publicity agent--Wingy Mannone. He used to say, 'Now me and Louis' [Armstrong]--he even put himself before Louis--'me and Louis is the best trumpet players.' About that time Bunny came to town and was playing at one of the hotels with Hal Kemp. I said, 'Wingy, why don't you go down and hear this new fellow, Bunny Berigan, and see what you think?' I saw Wingy on the street the next day and asked him if he'd gone to see the new boy. He said, 'Yup. Now there's three of us: me, and Louis Armstrong, and Bunny Berigan.'"

Several of Berigan's sidemen from his own band recalled trumpeter Harry James standing in the audience frequently, drinking in Berigan's ideas and sound. Guitarist Tom Morgan recalled that James was reluctant to follow Berigan in soloing at some of the frequent jam sessions that ensued when more than one big band appeared in the same town. Drummer Zutty Singleton liked to tell of one such trumpets-only session in Philadelphia that ended early: when Bunny finished working his way through several explosive choruses, none of the other trumpeters would play. Trumpeter Pee Wee Irwin often expressed his amazement at Berigan's massive tone: "like a cannon shot ... sheer body of sound." In 1941, Louis Armstrong wrote a letter to down beat, in which he responded to their request to name his favorite trumpeter: "First I'll name my boy Bunny Berigan.... To me Bunny can't do no wrong in music."

Berigan arrived at this lofty position in the esteem of his fellow-musicians and in the hearts of an adoring public at a relatively early age. He was not yet twenty-one when he moved to New York from Madison, Wisconsin, in September, 1929, to play with Frank Cornwell's band at Janssen's original Hofbrau at Broadway and 52nd Street, where he soon established himself as the new voice to be heard. He also met his wife-to-be, Donna McArthur, who was an adagio dancer in the show. Before long, he joined the popular Hal Kemp band. Shortly thereafter, with the Depression entering its second half-year, the band departed for a tour of England, Belgium, and France.

Berigan left the Kemp band in early 1931 in favor of one of the most coveted of jobs, one proffered without benefit of a formal audition. He joined the house band at CBS, principally on the strength of his playing in local jam sessions with "Radio Row" standouts of the day. From that point, Berigan recorded hundreds of tunes with the Dorsey brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Bing Crosby, and an array of other, frequently bad singers, rendering the usually insipid songs of the day under the leadership of a variety of names, many of which were pseudonyms. Not only was Berigan playing some of the most innovative jazz of the day, he was a producer's dream: a lead and solo trumpter who could sight-read parts, eliminating the need for costly second and third takes. On much of this recording Berigan remains buried in anonymity, but the discerning listener can hear his strong, driving lead playing, which sometimes breaks out into an eight- or sixteen-bar solo that transforms the whole performance with its fresh and daring jazz voice.

Berigan joined the orchestra of Paul Whiteman, the extremely popular so-called "King of Jazz," in early 1933, taking over the chair once held by another trumpet legend, Bix Beiderbecke. A year of touring with this quasi-jazz, quasi-symphonic group provided a good income, but little chance for jazz expression, a need Berigan met in the recording studios and at jam sessions. When he left Whiteman and returned to the CBS studios, Berigan quickly increased his public following as the mainstay of three separate jazz-oriented groups that were given daily exposure. Recording sessions found him playing with Benny Goodman, Mildred Bailey, Frankie Trumbauer, and other jazz stars, usually in small group settings.

When Goodman began to form a big band, he turned to Berigan to provide the necessary spark, by doubling as both lead trumpeter and jazz soloist. Goodman's fabled 1935 cross-country trip nearly proved disastrous for the band, but finally culminated in triumph at Los Angeles's Palomar Ballroom. There, wild throngs of fans, won over through hearing Goodman on the three-hour "Let's Dance" radio program from New York, catapulted Goodman from relative obscurity to royalty--the "King of Swing." Berigan was largely responsible for the excitement generated; by all accounts, Berigan's electric solos and crackling lead trumpet provided the perfect complement to the leader's own sparkling solo work and the arrangements of Fletcher Henderson and others. Pianist Jess Stacy summed up Berigan's contribution: "Bunny was the mainstay. With his reputation and ability he helped sell the band. He was something else!"

Berigan left the Goodman band while it was still playing in Los Angeles, returning to a rich recording and radio studio schedule in New York. His first sides as a band leader, recorded on December 13, 1935, featured a small group, Bunny Berigan and His Blue Boys; seven sessions under his own name followed in the next fourteen months, using groups of differing configurations. Concurrently with some of these latter sessions, Berigan played and recorded with the Tommy Dorsey big band, an alliance that was marked by brevity, bombast, and brilliance.

Within a month of joining Dorsey, Berigan recorded two of the calssic trumpet solos of all time, on "Song of India" and "Marie." Indeed, more than half a century later the Tommy Dorsey ghost band still plays "Marie," with the brass ensemble playing a transcribed note-for-note version of the Berigan solo. His three-month stint with Dorsey ended in an argument between Berigan and the temperamental leader, whereupon Berigan formed his own big band, one that would virtually occupy Berigan's full time for the remainder of his life. The new band began asupiciously with a Victor recording contract launched on April 1, 1937; a weekly radio program; and an engagement a the prestigious Pennsylvania Hotel. As part of its fifth recording session the band did "I Can't Get Started," still regarded as one of the true masterpieces of recorded jazz. It became Berigan's theme song, and the band's only hit record.

As fast-paced 1937 drew to a close for the band, rapid and regular turnover of personnel foreshadowed some of the pessimism that encroached. Berigan, never a business-oriented leader, became the dupe of unscrupulous management. Moreover, an old problem, alcoholism, dogged Berigan and he acquired a new label: unreliable. In spite of the leader's brilliance and the excitement generated by his band in person, choice bookings and the pick of the tunes to record increasingly went to rival leaders Dorsey, Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Gene Krupa.

From mid-1938 on, Berigan waged a battle against booze and bad business in which he never achieved the upper hand. Bankruptcy forced his return to the Tommy Dorsey band for a period from March to August, 1940, during which he sparked that group once again with his solo and lead work. Ten separate recording sessions, many featuring vocals by a young Frank Sinatra, have preserved some of Berigan's excellent playing in this second Dorsey stint. Re-forming a band almost immediately upon leaving Dorsey, Berigan spent the remainder of his life trying to earn his way out of debt, playing a schedule of punishing one-nighters almost exclusively, and making occasional attempts to beat the disease whose complications ultimately claimed his life on June 2, 1942, at age thirty-three. A few days prior to his death, his once-powerful body ravaged by illness, Berigan was still able to give a command performance of "I Can't Get Started" that thrilled listeners, critics, and, most of all, his band.

by Robert Dupuis

Bunny Berigan's Career

Trumpeter with Hal Kemp Orchestra, 1930-31; member of CBS studio house band, 1931-36; member of Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1933; featured soloist with various ad hoc recording groups, 1933-37; member of Benny Goodman Orchestra, 1935; regular performer at the Famous Door and other 52nd street nightclubs, 1935-36; featured performer on innovative jazz radio program, "Saturday Night Swing Club," 1936-39; member of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1937, and 1940; leader of the Bunny Berigan Orchestra, 1937-42.

Bunny Berigan's Awards

Voted best hot trumpet in Metronome poll, 1937; recorded with Metronome all-star band, 1939; Berigan's "I Can't Get Started" one of first ten recordings inducted into National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Hall of Fame in recognition of excellence in recordings made before its first Grammy Awards, 1975; dedication of Wisconsin State Historical Society marker in Fox Lake, Wis., 1976; inducted into the Wiscousin Performing Artists Hall of Fame, 1985.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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