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.