Chasing the Elusive Bunny Berigan: Take Two1

In the Spring 1995 issue of our Journal, Las Vegas member and Bunny Berigan fan, Al Apfelberg2 wrote about Berigan and the 1928 Paramount 78s as "Wisconsin University Skyrockets". As far as I can find, Apfelberg's questions were never responded to in the Journal so let me very belatedly reply and perhaps lay to rest a couple of Berigan myths.

The session in question is shown in Rust3 as:

Wisconsin U Skyrockets

Jesse Cohen-p, dir/Bunny Berigan-t/Don Bonn-t-cl-ts/
as/bj/d Chicago, c May, 1928

20552-2 Slow Beef Pm 12641
20553-1 Dizzy Corners Pm 12642
20554-2 Postage Stomp Pm 12642
20555-1 It's a Sin Pm 12641

A bit more data is added in the late Max E Vreede's Paramount 12000/13000 Series4 where the records are correctly listed as "Wisconsin U Skyrockets, Jesse Choen, Director" and both are shown as advertised in the Chicago Defender of June 30, 1928.

Apfelberg points out that Gunter Schuller, in his book The Swing Era5 lists these among Berigan's first recordings and writes at some length, even to the extent of annotating the "Berigan solo" on "It's a Sin". Schuller also repeats the story about Berigan "playing professionally since the age of thirteen".

These records are not Berigan!!

They were recorded in Spring 1928, when Bunny was playing in Philadelphia, on his first trip East. The personnel was identified over twenty years ago and the trumpet heard sounds very little like Berigan to me, being in the Bix-Red Nichols style.

Bunny's "connection" with these records started in 1959 when Record Research6 published an article by jazz historian John Steiner. The latter wrote about interviewing Chicago piano tacher Jess Cowan (Cohen). Cowan recalled making at least three record sessions, mostly in Chicago, and he racalled that Bunny had been in his bands and suggested that he was on one session. Cowan did not cite the 1928 session above nor could he recall the titels or much anything else.

When Rust went to press with Jazz Records, he arbitrarily listed Berigan as on this session, which are the only known issued recordings under Cohen's name. Schuller, using the Rust information as fact, compounds and expands the myth.

Jesse Cohen (Bron: Waupaca, Wisconsin, December 23, 1900. Died Highland Park, Illinois, April 10, 1980) had graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the Spring of 1924. He stayed in Madison until ca. 1933-'34 and operated a booking office (second in size to Al Thompson), the Studio Ballroom (on State Street), a music store and music school, and helped start the first radio station (WIBA) in Madison. His units worked many school and local spots.7

Cohen's "Skyrockets" were a new band, formed in the Spring of 19288, and made up of U of Wisconsin student musicians and a couple of local Madison men. None, so far as is known, recordes againm or achieved any reputation in the music business.

Madison trumpeter Roland Endres reported: "I don't recall Bunny playing with Cohen. I worked around Madison for Al Thompson's booking office, but switched to Jesse Cohen when he organized a 7 piece group called "University of Wisconsin Skyrockets". It was a fine band, used Jesse's special arrangements, and was preferred by all the University student organizations. The band recorded for Paramount at their Loop studios in Chicago, but the only title I remember is "It's a Sin", an instrumental composed and arranged by Cohen. We were not paid for the records and never did get further recordings. It was a way of geting publicity, I guess."9

Cohen almost certainly did other record sessions. Five or 6 musicians interviewed recall such session(s). None recall Bunny as being present and none of the discs, if issued, have turned up.

It is quite possible that Berigan did record in Wisconsin in the 1926-'29 period, possibly even with Cohen. Any such records would probably have been issued under pseudonyms. Unless more company files or other hard evidence comes to light, any Berigan "connection" will never be made.

The myth about Bunny being a professional musician at age 13 is just - a myth! His first jobs away from the Berigan family groups were with Merrill Owen (1903-1988).

Owen told the story of Bunny joining and working with his band a number of times10 and it is unerstandable that, after the passage of forty plus years, some facts would be somewhat unclear. Owen claimed that he had his band in 1922 (another later interview claimed 1921) and that Bunny was age 13.

Musicians (and people in general) have notorious poor memories for dates as anyone has interviewed more than two can attest. It is therefore amazing to me that writers and historians, both major and minor, don't spend a few hours looking at the very best source for dating events - old newspaper files - before rushing into print. Perhaps due to the prolific output of writers such as Schuller, they can be forgiven. There is no excuse, though, for a "biographer" to perpetuate myths that could be easily refuted with just a few hours work.

Owen did not have a band until the Spring of 192311. By then, Bunny was age 14. Bunny didn't join the Owen band until the following year. The first mention of Bunny with the Owen unit was in May, 192412 and, even assuming that he had worked the winter prior to this (and this is far from certain), he was then age 15, not 13.

Does anyone know or release on long play or CD of the Jesse Cohen titles mentioned above? I do not, but assume it is only a matter of time before they will be on CD, as they should be, as examples of "white jazz" by a bunch of unknowns. I'll bet hat, when they finally do get reissued, they will be listed as featring Berigan and the age 13 story will be repeated. Myths die hard, particularly when they have been given the vitality of the printed page.


1. Bozy White, The Elusive Bunny Berigan, in Joslin's Jazz Journal v.13, no. 2, May, 1994, p. 2 ff

2. Al Apfelberg, letter to the editor, in: IARJC Journal, v. 28, no.2, Spring 1995, p.8.

3. Brian Rust, Jazz Records 1897-1942, 4th revised and enlarged edition. Arlington House, New Rochelle, NY, 1978, p. 1740.

4. Max E Vreede, Paramount 12000/13000 Series. Storyville Publications, London 1971.

5. Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era - The Development of Jazz 1930-1945. Oxford U press, NY, 1989, p. 465.

6. John Steiner, Beyond the Impression., in: Record Research, issue 22, may-June, 1959.

7. Information from Capitol Times, Madison, Wisconsin, december 31, 1925.

8. Ibid, April 15, 1928.

9. Letter to the author, September, 1981.

10. Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, May 18, 1974; Mississippi Rag, September 1977; Isthus, Madison, Wisconsin, July 25, 1980.

11. Raldolph Advance, Raldolph, Wisconsin, May 10, 1923.

12. Fox Lake Representative, Fox Lake, Wisconsin, May 8, 1924.

This article was published in the IAJRC Journal, Volume 31, No 1, April 1998. It is used with the permission of its author.