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Bing Crosby was the first multi-media superstar, supremely triumphant on radio, records, stage, and screen. If its development hadn't been delayed by WWII, he undoubtedly would have excelled in television as well.
In a world where this man, one of the most popular and influential artists of the preceding century, is now barely remembered, what are the chances for the likes of Bunny Berigan, a trumpet player who died almost 70 years ago? Better than one might think, thanks in no small measure to a masterful new biography that should pique interest and open ears. Published by Scarecrow Press, Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan, is the work of Michael P. Zirpolo, a practicing attorney and jazz and swing connoisseur and scribe par excellence from Canton, Ohio.
Berigan was one of Crosby's contemporaries, colleagues (they recorded together on several occasions) and equals, at least in the realm of talent. Very few, of course, know the name now. But many would recognize his incomparable version of a particular song that I could mention (and will), one that pops up regularly in film and television as an evocation of the late 1930s and a certain sort of bittersweet yearning or loss.
Bunny deserves to be in the pantheon, a member of any hall of fame that would celebrate the Great American Songbook, its composers and practitioners, especially the jazz contingent. He was a magnificent, one-of-a-kind trumpet player, possessed of prodigious technique, almost reckless daring and imagination, and deep, sincere soul. He was a bandleader of considerable skill, despite reports to the contrary, and also sang on occasion, in an unpretentious and charming manner.
He played with the cream of jazz musicians of the 1930s and early '40s, including on record and in live performances, with Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, et al. He also enlivened countless commercial recordings with his fearless, emotional and exciting trumpeting, sides that would otherwise have been consigned to the nostalgia scrap heap long ago. No less an authority than Louis Armstrong named Bunny as a particular favorite.
Bunny Berigan died, at a very young age, in 1942.
Most people at this writing know Bunny Berigan, his music if not his name, as a result of his passionate, definitive rendition of a song titled "I Can't Get Started,." A sort of trumpet concerto with a movingly vulnerable vocal, it transformed a moderately successful song written by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin for the show the Zeigfeld Follies of 1936 (introduced by Bob Hope of all people), into a perennial favorite. Once heard, it is not easily forgotten.
The performance encapsulates the wonder and majesty of Bunny Berigan's playing, a demonstration of both his mastery of the entire range of his horn and his (and our own) emotions, ranging from despondency to exultation, all in the space of 5 minutes. A piece of music for the ages, Berigan's 1937 Victor recording of "I Can't Get Started" is as good as anything Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Bix, Lester Young or Charlie Parker ever played.
But there was a lot more to Bunny Berigan's music, life and times than this one memorable recording. At long last, it is explored in depth, from all angles, in Zirpolo's massive new biography. The book is a must for the vintage jazz aficionado, but it is not just for the cognoscenti. Anyone who is concerned with the human condition, a fascinating and long-vanished era of music and entertainment, the battle of commerce vs. creativity during the fabled Big Band Era, careless love and downhearted blues will be interested in reading Mr. Trumpet.
But I have yet to mention the 800 lb. gorilla in the room of Bunny Berigan's life. He drank. A lot.
He was dubbed the Miracle Man of Swing by a press agent. It is facile but true to state that it was often a miracle he could play at all in the condition he was usually in, suffering from the effects of alcoholism, other debilitating ailments (related and not) and exhaustion. Berigan himself, when asked how he did it, supposedly replied that he "practiced when he was loaded." This, of course, was an era when alcoholism was scarcely recognized as a disease or an affliction, when it was regarded as more of a loveable, tolerable weakness or even a joke (see W.C. Fields, of whom Bunny reportedly did a spot on impression).
Berigan's battles with the bottle are not skirted or glossed over in Zirpolo's book. In fact, they are more thoroughly covered here than in previous examinations of Bunny's life, with accuracy and compassion. But it is also very clearly revealed that there was much more to his premature demise than alcoholism.
There is a lot of information in Mr. Trumpet that is new or previously unrevealed. In addition, from where, when and whom all the details in the book were obtained is clearly attributed. The usual assumptions, myths and legends are not repeated in Zirpolo's book. If it's not substantiated, it's not reported. Seldom have I encountered such attention to sourcing, verification and detail in general. And Zirpolo's notes, addendum, and marginalia are illuminating and fascinating, invaluable: Berigan's milieu comes into crystal clarity as never before.
One reaches for superlatives when attempting to portray Bunny's playing and its emotional impact. Like all art, it is better experienced than described. But Zirpolo does better than most. One also struggles when it comes to Michael Zirpolo's new book about Bunny.
As good as Robert Dupuis's Berigan bio of a decade or so ago was (and it was very good indeed), Mr. Trumpet: The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan by Michael P. Zirpolo is nothing short of definitive. A scholarly work that was meticulously researched, it is also immensely entertaining.
I could not be more enthusiastic or recommend more heartily this heartbreaking but ultimately inspirational recounting of Berigan's star-crossed life. His music still moves and swings and inspires. That it is still enjoyed and cherished is the triumph.
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The only reason I'm not giving the book five stars is because it really could have been edited down. And, alas, it needs an index of the tunes mentioned in the text.
Having said that, I really must take my hat off to Zirpolo. I've been listening to Bunny since I was a kid in the 1950s. Like a lot of aspiring trumpet players, I listened to Can't Get Started and wondered why I couldn't do that. Heh. No one (well, maybe Shorty Sherock, who is credited with the recreation on Themes of the Great Brands (the studio version of Casa Loma in the 1950s and 1960s) could, but Shorty had the misfortune of getting fired so that Roy Eldridge could take his chair with Krupa. No shame there, either way). I've read Dupuis' biography of Bunny and found it interesting. But, really, this is got to be the definitive life of Berigan, if not for good, then for the next 25 years. It's all here, or, at least, probably as much as you can reasonably expect to find out about a guy from rural Wisconsin who Harry James said was the greatest trumpet player in the world when he was new on the scene. Or about whom Armstrong raved.
I talked to a certain number of people who heard Berigan play--many years ago, of course. It's amazing how many had the reaction to him that Zirpolo's father did, which is recounted in the biography. Simply unbelievable, or words to that effect. Top studio musicians in LA did indeed talk about that breathtaking leap Bunny made in Wearin' of the Green--because I knew a guy who made his livelihood playing swing who, in fact, told me just that. And Zirpolo has the good sense to defer to Dick Sudhalter, whose taste in trumpet players is that of the literate, trained variety on many of Bunny's solos. I never realized that Bunny played so much of his own lead when he had his orchestra, but as soon as Zirpolo pointed this out, I listened, and sure enough, I could hear him come in over his own capable lead, Steve Lipkins. Oh, boy.
If you want a musicologist's take on Berrigan, go look at Gunther Schuller: Bunny's big solos are notated and analyzed there. But with a lone reference to Berigan's catastrophic alcoholism and emotional turmoil, there is no Bunny the person. He comes through here, or at least, far more of him than you thought you could know. All the David Copperfield stuff, to paraphrase Salinger, but an awful lot more--probably too much detail on gigs, recording sessions, one nighters and the rest. But the overall picture is compelling. A picture of the band business and its finances I never really understood. A picture of the commercial pressures that playing junk to make a living had on the aesthetic sensibilities of a great artist. A picture of how a less-than-disciplined sideman put together an under-appreciated orchestra that, if not quite Shaw or Goodman or the Dorseys', was more than passable. And just enough of Bunny's tangled personal life to explain some of his obvious conflict--which came out in the ballad playing. This is important because the lurid and lewd tales about Bunny, or Bunny and Lee Wiley, are out there if you want to find them. But, thankfully, Zirpolo mostly leaves them alone: and even without them, you know, the Bunny, ex-altarboy, was no choirboy. Eventually, you get caught up in the grip of Bunny's descent--the tragedy, Zirpolo suggests--into n-stage alcoholism. If it leaves you unmoved, well, you're tougher than I am.
I'd have like to have known more about Bunny's chops, his technique, the horns he played (it sounds as if he was remarkably casual in his choice of equipment), you know, trumpet player, stuff. But that may be gone for good, and the book is awfully long at over 500 pages anyway. I guess I'll never know what the Trump mouthpiece he endorsed was, which is probably a good thing. I almost ruined myself trying to play the Parduba that James used. Most readers won't care about that stuff.
I've been going back to relearn Bunny oeuvre, now widely available, with Zirpolo's book in my hand. He does a great job and I'm learning a lot. This is really a reference book on Bunny Berigan I and II. Believe me, if you're a serious student of swing music, trumpet playing, or just the cultural life of the 1930s, you have to read this book. You won't be sorry, even if it isn't perfect. It's subject wasn't either, and look what he left us.