The Appeal Of Bunny Berigan

Many people in the 1990s are looking back on early jazz and finding unique treasures. The attraction involves three main elements: well-written music, usually non-offensive lyrics, and especially true musicianship of the performers. (In that age, a recording was an actual performance, not a dubbed concoction.) This website focuses on one of the musicians less well-known today, Bunny Berigan. Berigan's story has been ably told by Robert Dupuis in his book, Bunny Berigan: Elusive Legend of Jazz, Louisiana State University Press, 1993; it will not be repeated here.

Instead, let us consider what makes Berigan so well-liked by his audience of 60 years beyond his career. First, of course, is his musicianship as a trumpeter. Many trumpeters with greater technical skill than his have come along since, but it would be difficult to find anyone who could convey more in a shorter time period than Berigan. Many writers have mentioned how his trumpet playing so directly and sincerely comes from his feelings. It is free from pretentiousness while simultaneously spectacular. Others have noted how his vulnerability to making musical (as well as personal) mistakes - and to his death at only age 33 - make us root for him to hit his notes correctly, as we listen. The view that he was a "good guy" who was too nice to survive in the music business seems to have been shared universally by his contemporaries.

These aspects of personality contribute to the favorable views of Berigan, but one always comes back to his "musical honesty" and pure trumpet tone in both high and low registers, and how in just a few measures of playing he could save an otherwise worthless Tin Pan Alley song from its triteness or banality. Other characteristics are the originality and usually musically soundness of his solos, and sometimes interesting tail-endings to his phrases/solos. When listening to a Berigan recording, we often put up with a few minutes of boring and/or corny renditions of a song until Berigan's fleeting solo begins. We imagine him raising his horn in preparation, with both exuberance/anticipation and fear that he will overreach and fail. And when he succeeds, in vain we wish we could congratulate him -and we imagine how much better it would have sounded were we able to hear the performance live, instead of through 60-year-old recordings. When he fails, we are reminded of his tragic alcohol addiction which became his demise, and wish that modern treatment programs had been available back then. We applaud his courage to keep risking solos that were at the limits of his ability; in our everyday lives, we invariably admire creativity that sometimes fails more than we admire flawless but rote activity. Moreover, a likely alternative occasionally applying reason for his 'missing' is his sheer excitement about the music. In, for example, the last chorus of his Victor recording of In a Little Spanish Town, it seems he is so emotionally overwhelmed that he does not quite achieve quite what he probably envisioned (though he makes no 'clinker'). (One is reminded of the musician who said that, when given the chance to play in Sousa's band, he was so overwhelmed with the experience that he was unable to play a single note.)

Finally, there is something very tantalizing about a soloist whose solos are wonderful but kept short. One places far greater value on these than on a those of a typical modern soloist who oes on and on for half an hour to no effect. Berigan's spirited but short solos mirror his life; both serve as examples of the admitedly trite phrase, "a candle burned at both ends."

Thomas Cavicchi, Grove City, Pennsylvania, USA.