Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bunny Berigan, Jazz Pioneer

A highly skilled trumpeter and an engaging vocalist, Bunny Berigan was a successful recording artist in the 1930s, a representative of the era’s jazz movement. He was also popular on the concert circuit.

Having played with both Benny Goodman’s band and Tommy Dorsey’s band, Berigan moved on to do some solo and freelance work in 1935/1946, and to become the leader of his own band in 1937.

One of his most famous recordings was a song titled, “I Can’t Get Started,” written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke. The song was written in 1936, but received little attention until Berigan’s recording of it became wildly popular.

Berigan’s emergence into national prominence was facilitated by his personal acquaintance with the leading jazz artists of his era, as historian Richard Sudhalter writes:

In early 1928 Berigan landed a job at Janssen’s Hofbrau restaurant in Philadelphia, with a band led by singer-violinist Frank Cornwell; they rehearsed in New York, affording the young brassman his first contact with a circle of musicians he’d soon come to dominate. He met cornetist Rex Stewart, who in turn introduced him to others, including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

Jazz was already an established category of music by the time Berigan started his career, but has often been the case in the history of jazz, experimentation and development were common, and Berigan was no exception to this pattern. He was an innovator.

There were several trumpeters in the 1930s who displayed technical excellence. But Berigan was a master not only of technique, but rather also of artistic impression, as Sudhalter explains:

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.

Sadly, Berigan died at the age of 33 in 1942. Despite his premature death, his recordings remain popular almost a century after his performances.